In Need Of Sense And Responsibility



The situation is scary because the enemy is invisible, and although not everyone is sick, we are all affected. We must all take our responsibility.


I have studied enough biology at school and university to know what a virus is and how it acts. The PhD I obtained in 1999, although mainly focusing on oral microbiology, comprised enough immunology to give me a good understanding of how we defend ourselves against these bugs. And yet, there is something about the present pandemic that scares me or, at least, destabilizes me. It is the fact that, from now on – and I’m assuming that my dental practice will reopen – things will never be the same.

In fact, COVID-19 will affect us all, and there will be a life after the pandemic that will be radically different to that prior to the infection. The best outcome is, of course, that a vaccine is found that will protect us against the virus. But how long will it take to find a vaccine that works, and one that does not cause more harm than good? So many questions need to be answered, such as how long the immunity to reinfection lasts in people who have already encountered the virus, and in those who will be vaccinated. All this assumes, of course, that the virus does not mutate into something really nasty.

We must all be aware of our own weaknesses and shortcomings. We must all realize that each one of us may carry a hidden threat that is not only of danger to others but also to ourselves. The present situation is scary because the enemy is invisible, and although not everyone is sick, we are all affected. We must all take our responsibility.

I can see myself, for the foreseeable future, having to measure and record the body temperature of each patient as he/she comes through the door. Hands will have to be disinfected with hand gel and, according to the American Dental Association, the patients will have to rinse their mouth with a 1% solution of hydrogen peroxide, for thirty seconds. These may not be life changing adjustments, but they do reach far into our psychological well-being by casting, in each one of us, doubts about the other.

These doubts, over who is sick and who is not, who carries the virus and who doesn’t, form the core of what destabilizes me and, I suspect, others. The fear of a crowd is going to become a very real phobia. A single dry cough or sneeze will cause eyes to turn. The social distances that are now imposed, will become part and parcel of our societies. If you want an example, just take a look on how Chinese tourists continue to wear face masks when they visit Europe.

French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote about “le visage de l’autre,” – the face of the other. When you see a beggar on the street asking for money, you can either chose to ignore him, or you can give him loose change. But you cannot pretend to not having seen him. The expression on his face, in particular, has imposed on you a moral standpoint, and you will have to choose how you act.

The responsibility that you have towards the other goes beyond your actions, to encompass what happens to him/her.

I am responsible for the other’s own responsibility, even if I do not know how to assume it. – Emmanuel Levinas

Closeness of others is not only a physical attribute but also a moral one, in the sense that their closeness will subject you to taking responsibility for them. The notion of responsibility towards others forms the core of our societies and gains even more importance in the light of the coronavirus pandemic – a pandemic that has begun to structurally change the way we interact with each other.

For Levinas, the relation that we have with the “other” is not a symmetrical one. In other words, feeling responsible for someone else does not mean that he/she will return the philosophical favour.

I am responsible for the other, beyond my life. Whether it’s reciprocal, is his business.  – Emmanuel Levinas

Levinas emphasizes that such a responsibility is one-sided. The “I” has always an extra responsiblity.

We are all responsible of all of us and everything, and I am more [responsible] than everybody.  – Fyodor Dostoevsky (cited by Levinas)

Unfortunately, this lack of reciprocity is widespread today. A few years ago, I told someone who was allowing his dog to do his business on the grass of our local park, that it was disrespectful towards the children who played there, to which he replied, “but everyone does it…”

Taking Levina’s reasoning to its logical conclusion would mean that we are all responsible for what happens to us, including and being subjected to, the actions of others. We should accept the world as it is, because we are responsible for it.

Levina’s philosophy is utopic, and really does pose a problem in the real world, where the chain of responsibility that we all have towards each other, is at best broken, and worst completely absent. The fact that the chain is broken and that we still, as individuals, hang on to it, transforms us into hostages.

The coronavirus has found entry into our psyches through the human face, be it eyes, nose or mouth. It has probably understood more than most people, that the human face is by far the most exposed, most vulnerable and most expressive aspect of the presence of the “other.” And without the “other,” society as we know it, would not exist.



Totalité et Infini: essai sur l’extériorité (Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority) 1961

Éthique et infini (Ethics and Infinity: Dialogues of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo) 1982