Corona – Ethics, reason … and psychology

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

There is not only the pressure, mainly based on economic arguments, to relax the restrictions enacted due to the corona pandemic as quickly as possible. Numerous analysts and commentators are also already concerned about how society, economy and politics should continue to develop after the end of the pandemic. This is despite the fact that the pandemic has most likely not yet reached its peak and the full extent of the consequences cannot yet be foreseen. The aim here is not to reproduce these analyses and comments, let alone to judge them, but rather to make a few fundamental observations.

Nobody wants a long-term state of emergency

1. It is very understandable that the question is raised as to how long the restrictions should continue and what should happen after the end of the pandemic. It would be a fundamental break with the foundations of a free and democratic constitutional state, and people cannot otherwise be expected to prepare themselves for a permanent state of emergency. From war situations in the past and present we know: the longer an exceptional situation lasts, the greater the negative consequences. Man is not made for a permanent state of emergency. He needs the hope that such a state, if it seems necessary for a certain period of time, can be overcome as quickly as possible. Everything else has fatal consequences. A look at Europe during the Thirty Years’ War or today at countries in the Middle East or Afghanistan bears eloquent witness to this.
Now the corona pandemic does not mean war. Most people who now stay at home for most of the day, who are restricted in their freedom of movement and community life and who even have to give up their jobs, do not have to fear that bombs will fall on their roofs or that they will be hit by a bullet or grenade while shopping or walking. In countries such as Switzerland, Austria or Germany, no one needs to fear hunger or thirst due to the pandemic. However, the many restrictions on personal freedom are a major break in the lifestyle of many people.

What or who is deciding our future?

2. It is an open question who will decide, after the end of the current restrictions and then also after the end of the pandemic, how we will shape our social, economic and political coexistence in the future. Some things should change – and many also want to see some changes afterwards. After all, the corona pandemic is not just an act of god, but also the result of human error and omission – by all of us. But the ideas about what should change – and this can already be said on the basis of the analyses and comments available – are very different. This has to do with the different images of man, world views and lifestyles – but also with different political agendas.
In 1945, after the end of the Second World War, Germany, which had been destroyed in many respects, was facing many very valuable ideas as to how the country should be shaped in future. As part of the Quellen zum politischen Denken der Deutschen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Sources on the political thinking of Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries), edited by the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft in Darmstadt, the volume “Nachkriegsdeutschland 1945–1949” (Postwar Germany 1945–1949), a collection of original texts, was published in 1990 and then again in 2010. It is worth reading the volume again today, 75 years after the end of the war. Some of what can be read there has actually been implemented. Others hardly played a role later. Who today knows about Eberhard Welty?1 He was a Dominican priest and social ethicist, belonging to the “Walberberger Circle” – have you ever heard of that? – striving for Christian socialism based on the ideas of Christian natural law. After the war, Welty pleaded for a “community of states” that was “democratically oriented, securing the fundamental rights of the individual as the image of God within the visible order of creation.” The “basis of social life,” he continued, should be “the common good of the people”, “which was determined by justice and harmony. […] To regulate it was considered the task and duty of the state. In the economic sphere, this meant that the Christian socialists agreed to the personal property of individuals which, however, could not be accumulated in any quantity and used exclusively for personal purposes, but had to serve primarily to cover personal needs in life”.
Yes, some of this has found its way into the West German Grundgesetz (Basic Law) passed in 1949, for example in the public interest obligations of property in Article 14, but it was not only, or even only to a small extent, the quality of the ideas that decided on their realisation. The real power relations often played a greater role, and the assertiveness then (as now) was not always on the side of ethics and reason. Long before the end of the war, the victorious powers already had their plans for the future of Germany (and the world) and set their stakes. The framework was thus set; all the more so because the victorious powers, who had very different ideas on many points, ceased to look for an agreement at the beginning of the Cold War, but instead tried to implement their respective programmes in their sphere of influence in pure form.

A state of emergency does not have to lead to dictatorship

3. The current state of emergency with a strong emphasis on the executive power should not tempt anyone to seek a future solution to all social, economic and political problems in “strong leadership”. The solution of problems always remains a task for the community. This applies not only to the fight against the corona pandemic – fortunately, the representatives of the state power that is now in the foreground have also repeatedly emphasised this, and rightly so – but also to all future public tasks. This also fundamentally distinguishes the current situation from the dictatorship feared or conjured up by some: those responsible are now well aware that coercion and violence would lead to a dead end. Ethics and reason must take precedence, especially now.
Already more than 90 years ago, in 1928, the Viennese individual psychologist Alfred Adler characterised the fundamental error of the path of power:

“The result of individual and social psychological inquiry is therefore: The striving for personal power is a disastrous delusion and poisens man’s living together. Whoever desires the human community must renounce the striving for power over others. To prevail through violence appears to many as an obvious thought. And we admit: the simplest way to attain everything that is good and promises happiness, or even merely what is in the line of a continous evolution seems to be by means of power. But where in the life of men or in the history of mankind has such an attempt ever succeeded? As far as we can see, even the  use of mild violence awakens opposition everywhere, even where the welfare of the subjugated is obviously intended.”2

The fact that so far the overwhelming majority of citizens have approved the measures of their states from insight (see box) is a valuable community asset. It must be handled with care.

Hope for more scope for ethics and reason

4. The reactions of those responsible in the media, in business and politics show a multitude of statements, which nevertheless clearly deviate from what one would have expected from the times before. For example, who would have thought weeks ago that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel would take such an appropriate and even appealing stand on the pandemic threat? Perhaps there really is good reason to hope that ethics and reason will find more scope, also on the part of those with social, economic and political responsibility. But above all, we should not fool ourselves: It is a mistake to think that “the powers that be” in our view are so much different from us. It is very unlikely that only this group of people has done everything wrong over the past few years and that if we had had our way, everything would look much better. Things will only get better if every person is accepted as an equal partner in dialogue, and this argument works both ways. Citizens on their high horse, full of wrath against all “powers that be” will help just as little as politicians as wiseacres.

Let us not forget the victims of global power politics

5. Many know that in the current pandemic situation there are states and people who are much worse off than we are. Among them there are also those whose situation is not only due to their own mistakes and omissions, but who are also victims of a global power politics. The sanctions and wars against these countries have always been a scourge and are greatly exacerbating the current situation. Certainly this kind of policy is not sustainable either. It must be corrected.
And couldn’t the corona pandemic, which affects all countries of the world, also be an occasion for dismantling previous enemy images and recognising that the world community is all in the same boat? UN Secretary-General António Guterres made an impressive statement on the pandemic in an international video conference on 31 March 2020. According to Guterres, the global community is facing the biggest crisis since the Second World War. This crisis will bring about an economic slump that “probably has no parallel in recent history”. With regard to the economic consequences, he called for more help from the rich to the poor countries of the world. The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead more equal economies.
That’s something we can agree with. But questions arise when he calls for a comprehensive “leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO)” in fighting the pandemic. How sensible is it to call now again for global governance? Equal cooperation and mutual assistance in the international community and within the framework of international law are required. Problems, however, are best solved locally. This includes a state authority legitimised by its citizens within a generally sovereign state governed by the rule of law and constitution. This is being demonstrated again right now. And it is also true for the future.

Problems are best solved locally

6. The tasks involved in combating the corona pandemic also vary greatly from country to country and require appropriate solutions. Of course, many countries also need help for this. On 27 March 2020, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” reported on the current situation in South Eastern Europe and Brazil. The problems arising there are different from those in Switzerland, Austria or Germany. While in our countries, for example, it is usually up to each of us to decide whether the required hygiene and distance recommendations are observed, this is simply not possible at all in the poor districts of Rio de Janeiro. Here, even state power has little access, and instead criminal gangs are controlling the daily routine. Or in the states of the European Balkans: here, thousands of doctors and nurses have migrated and were poached away to the richer states of Europe in recent years which are now bitterly wanted.


Some of the comments of the past days show certain impatience. They document that some people would like to end the state of emergency quickly, requiring to know at this point how things will be “afterwards”. There are often easily understandable reasons for this – for the economy, for the labour market, for families with school-age children, for single people, for those working tirelessly in the health sector and for many more, the current situation is indeed highly demanding. But as long as there is no convincing perspective for a real end to the pandemic, not only plans for the future are needed, but also many creative, compassionate ideas and actions, so that as many people as possible can survive and cope with the current situation – in every respect. It is good that there are so many examples of just this. •

1  cf. Bucher, Peter (eds.) Nachkriegsdeutschland 1945–1949. Band X der Quellen zum politischen Denken der Deutschen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, (Post-war Germany 1945–1949. volume X of the Sources for the Political Thought of the Germans in the 19th and 20th Century), Darmstadt 2010, p. 3 with references to the literature of Eberhard Welty
Adler, Alfred. The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler, Volume 6, Journal articles: 1927–1931, 2004 by the Classical Adlerian Translation Project, Henry T. Stein, Bellingham, USA
3  “Rios Gangs verhängen Ausgangssperre” und “Gefährlicher Ärztemangel in Südosteuropa”. (“Rio gangs impose curfew” and “Dangerous shortage of doctors in southeastern Europe“). In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from  27 March 2020, p. 3 and p. 5 

The population has confidence in the measures taken by the German State

km. The opinion research institute Infratest dimap asked about 1,000 voters in Germany for their opinion in a representative telephone survey on 30 and 31 March 2020. reported in detail on the results of the survey on 2 April 2020. ( Excerpts from the survey are reproduced below.

“A large majority of 93 % of Germans continue to support the idea that people are currently only allowed to meet with members of the same household or with one more person.
Four-fifths (79 %) are hardly concerned about the fact that everyday goods are becoming scarce. When asked whether they are worried about losing their jobs, the picture is clear: three-quarters indicate that their concerns are little (29 %) or even less (46 %).
The trust of citizens in healthcare facilities and physicians in Germany is predominantly high. 77 % have a very high (22 %) or high (55 %) confidence that they can cope with the coronavirus epidemic. For 61 % of those surveyed, the concern that not every person with COVID-19 in Germany will receive adequate medical care is little (48 %) or even less (13 %).
Two thirds of Germans (65 %) think it is right that German policy in the corona crisis has given priority to national thinking and action. Just as many (64 %) also believe that wealthy states like Germany right now should be spending extra money to support people in poorer regions of the world.”

(Translation Current Concerns)

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