You don’t get what you deserve. Part II: diversity versus meritocracy?

“I’m all for diversity. That said, I don’t want to lower the bar.” – If you have been part of a hiring committee, you will probably have heard some version of that phrase. The first sentence expresses a commitment to diversity. The second sentence qualifies it: diversity shouldn’t get in the way of merit. Interestingly, the same phrase can be heard in opposing ways. A staunch defender of meritocracy will find the second sentence (about not lowering the bar) disingenuous. He will argue that, if you’re committed to diversity, you might be disinclined to hire the “best candidate”. By contrast, a defender of diversity will find the first sentence disingenuous. If you’re going in for meritocratic principles, you will just follow your biases and ultimately take the properties of “white” and “male” as a proxy of merit. – This kind of discussion often runs into a stalemate. As I see it, the problem is to treat diversity and meritocracy as an opposition. I will suggest that this kind of discussion can be more fruitful if we see that diversity is not a property of job candidates but of teams, and thus not to be seen in opposition to meritocratic principles.

Let’s begin with a clarification. I assume that it’s false and harmful to believe that we live in a meritocracy. But that doesn’t mean that meritocratic ideas themselves are bad. If it is simply taken as the idea that one gets a job based on their pertinent qualifications, then I am all for meritocratic principles. However, a great problem in applying such principles is that, arguably, the structure of hiring processes makes it difficult to discern qualifications. Why? Because qualifications are often taken to be indicated by other factors such as prestige etc. But prestige, in turn, might be said to correlate with race, gender, class or whatever, rather than with qualifications. At the end of the day, an adherent of diversity can accuse adherents of meritocracy of the same vices that she finds herself accused of. So when merit and diversity are taken as being in opposition, we tend to end up in the following tangle:

  • Adherents of diversity think that meritocracy is ultimately non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.
  • Adherents of meritocracy think that diversity is non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.*

What can we do in such a stalemate? How can the discussion be decided? Something that typically gets pointed out is homogeneity. The adherent of diversity will point to the homogeneity of people. Most departments in my profession, for instance, are populated with white men. The homogeneity points to a lack of diversity. Whether this correlates to a homogeneity of merit is certainly questionable. Therefore, the next step in the discussion is typically an epistemological one: How can we know whether the candidates are qualified? More importantly, can we discern quality independently from features such as race, gender or class? – In this situation, adherents of diversity typically refer to studies that reveal implicit biases. Identical CVs, for instance, have been shown to be treated as more or less favourable depending on the features of the name on the CV. Meritocratists, by contrast, will typically insist that they can discern quality objectively or correct for biases. Again, both sides seem to have a point. We might be subject to biases, but if we don’t leave decisions to individuals but to, say, committees, then we can perhaps correct for biases. At least if these committees are sufficiently diverse, one might add. – However, I think the stalemate will get passed indefinitely to different levels, as long as we treat merit and diversity as an opposition. So how can we move forward?

We try to correct for biases, for instance, by making a committee diverse. While this is a helpful step, it also reveals a crucial feature about diversity that is typically ignored in such discussions. Diversity is a feature of a team or group, not of an individual. The merit or qualification of a candidate is something pertaining to that candidate. If we look for a Latinist, for instance, knowledge of Latin will be a meritorious qualification. Diversity, by contrast, is not a feature, to be found in the candidate. Rather, it is a feature of the group that the candidate will be part of. Adding a woman to all-male team will make the team more diverse, but that is not a feature of the candidate. Therefore, accusing adherents of diversity of sexism or racism is fallacious. Trying to build a more diverse team rather than favouring one category strikes me as a means to counter such phenomena.

Now if we accept that there is such a thing as qualification (or merit), it makes sense to say that in choosing a candidate for a job we will take qualifications into account as a necessary condition. But one rarely merely hires a candidate; one builds a team, and thus further considerations apply. One might end up with a number of highly qualified candidates. But then one has to consider other questions, such as the team one is trying to build. And then it seems apt to consider the composition of the team. But that does not mean that merit and diversity are opposed to one another.

Nevertheless, prioritising considerations about the team over the considerations about the candidates are often met with suspicion. “She only got the job because …” Such an allegation is indeed sexist, because it construes a diversity consideration applicable to a team as the reason for hiring, as if it were the qualification of an individual. But no matter how suspicious one is, qualification and diversity are not on a par, nor can they be opposing features.

Compare: A singer might complain that the choir hired a soprano rather than him, a tenor. But the choir wasn’t merely looking for a singer but for a soprano. Now that doesn’t make the soprano a better singer than the tenor, nor does it make the tenor better than the soprano. Hiring a soprano is relevant to the quality of the group; it doesn’t reflect the quality of the individual.


* However, making such a claim, an adherent of meritocracy will probably rely on the assumption that there is such a thing as “inverted racism or sexism”. In the light of our historical sitation, this strikes me as very difficult to argue, at least with regard to institutional structures. It’s seems like saying that certain doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church are not sexist, simply because there are movements aiming at reform.

Fit. A Note on Aristotle’s Presence in Academia

Since the so-called Scientific Revolution and the birth of modern science, our Western approach towards the world became quantitative. The precedingly dominant qualitative Aristotelian worldview of the Scholastics was replaced by a quantitative one: everything around us was supposed to be quantifiable and quantified. This, of course, seems to affect nowadays academia, too. We often hear “do this, it will be one more line in your CV!” 

Many will reply “This is not true, quality matters just as much!” Yes, it (sometimes) matters in which journal one publishes; it has to be a good journal; one needs to make sure that the quality of the article is good. And how do we know that the journal is good or not? Because of its ranking. So if you thought I will argue that this is Aristotle’s presence in Academia… you were wrong. The criterion is still quantitative. Of course, we trust more that an article in a respectable (i.e., highly ranked) journal is a good one, but we all know this is not always the case. 

Bringing into discussion the qualitative and quantitative distinction is crucial for assessing job applications and the ensuing hiring process. While it used to be easier for those in a position of power to hire whom they want, it has become a bit more difficult. Imagine you really want to hire someone because he (I will use this pronoun for certain reasons) is brilliant. But his brilliance is not reflected in his publications, presentations, teaching evaluations, grants (the latter because he did not get any)… You cannot even say he is a promising scholar, since that should be visible in something. At the same time, there are a lot of competing applications with an impressive record. So what can one do? Make use of the category ‘better fit’, ‘better fit’ for the position, ‘better fit’ for the department.[1] But when is someone a ‘better fit’, given that the job description did not mention anything to this effect? When their research is in line with the department? No, too much overlap! When it complements the existing areas of research? No, way too different!

And here is where Aristotle comes into the picture. It is not the research that has to fit, but the person. And we know from Aristotle and his followers that gender, race and nationality are the result of the (four elemental) qualities. Who can be more fit for a department mostly composed of men from Western Europe than another man from Western Europe? As a woman coming from Eastern Europe, I have no chance. And Eastern Europe is not even the worst place to come from in this respect. 

There is a caveat though. When more people who fit in the department apply, the committee seeks refuge in positing some ‘occult qualities’ to choose the ‘right’ person. ‘Occult’ in the Scholastic sense means that the quality it is not manifest in any way in the person’s profile.[2]

How much is this different from days when positions were just given away on the basis of personal preference? The difference lies in the charade.[3] The difference is that nowadays a bunch of other people, devoid of occult qualities, though with an impressive array of qualities manifest in their CVs and international recognition, spend time and energy to prepare an application, get frustrated, maybe even get sick, just so that the person with the ‘better fit’ can have the impression that he is much better than all the rest who applied.

So when are we going to give up the Aristotelian-Scholastic elementary and occult qualities and opt for a different set of more inclusive qualities?

[1] Aristotle probably put it in his Categories, but it got lost.

[2] I am rather unfair with this term, because the occult qualities were making themselves present through certain effects.

[3] The Oxford dictionary indeed defines charade as “an absurd pretence intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.”

On being a first-generation student

First off: the following is not to be taken as a tale of woe. I am grateful for whatever life has had on offer for me so far, and I am indebted to my teachers – from primary school to university and beyond – in many ways. But I felt that, given that Martin invited me to do so, I should probably provide some context to my comment on his recent post on meritocracy, in which I claimed that my being a first-generation student has had a “profound influence on how I conceive of academia”. So here goes.

I am a first-generation student from a lower-middle-class family. My grandparents on the maternal side owned and operated a small farm, my grandfather on the paternal side worked in a foundry, and his wife – my father’s mother – did off-the-books work as a cleaning woman in order to make ends meet.

When I got my first job as a lecturer in philosophy my monthly income already exceeded that of my mother, who has worked a full-time job in a hospital for more than thirty years. My father, a bricklayer by training, is by now divorced from my mother and declutters homes for a living. Sometimes he calls me in order to tell me about a particularly good bargain he stroke on the flea market.

My parents did not save money for my education. As an undergraduate I was lucky to receive close to the maximum amount of financial assistance afforded by the German Federal Law on Support in Education (BAföG) – still, I had to work in order to be able to fully support myself (tuition fees, which had just been introduced when I began my studies, did not help). At the worst time, I juggled three jobs on the side. I have work experience as a call center agent (bad), cleaning woman (not as bad), fitness club receptionist (strange), private tutor (okay), and teaching assistant (by far the nicest experience).

Not every middle-class family is the same, of course. Nor is every family in which both parents are non-academics. Here is one way in which the latter differ: There are those parents who encourage – or, sometimes, push – their children to do better than themselves, who emphasize the value of higher education, who make sure their children acquire certain skills that are tied to a particular habitus (like playing the piano), who provide age-appropriate books and art experiences. My parents were not like that. “Doing well”, especially for my father, meant having a secure and “down-to-earth” job, ideally for a lifetime. For a boy, this would have been a craft. Girls, ostensibly being less well-suited for handiwork, should strive for a desk job – or aim “to be provided for”. My father had strong reservations about my going to grammar school, even though I did well in primary school and despite my teacher’s unambiguous recommendation. I think it never occurred to him that I could want to attend university – academia was a world too far removed from his own to even consider that possibility.

I think that my upbringing has shaped – and shapes – my experience of academia in many ways. Some of these I consider good, others I have considered stifling at times. And some might even be loosely related to Martin’s blogpost about meritocracy. Let me mention a few points (much of what follows is not news, and has been put more eloquently by others):

  • Estrangement. An awareness of the ways in which the experiences of my childhood and youth, my interests and preferences, my habits and skills differ from what I consider a prototypical academic philosopher – and I concede that my picture of said prototype might be somewhat exaggerated – has often made me feel “not quite at home” in academia. At the same time, my “professional advancement” has been accompanied by a growing estrangement from my family. This is something that, to my knowledge, many first-generation students testify to, and which can be painful at times. My day-to-day life does not have much in common with my parents’ life, my struggles (Will this or that paper ever get published?) must seem alien, if not ridiculous, to them. They have no clear idea of what it is that I do, other than that it consists of a lot of desk-sitting, reading, and typing. And I think it is hard for them to understand why anyone would even want to do something like this. One thing I am pretty sure of is that academia is, indeed, or in one sense at least, a comparatively cozy bubble. And while I deem it admirable to think of ways of how to engage more with the public, I am often unsure about how much of what we actually do can be made intelligible to “the folk”, or justified in the face of crushing real-world problems.
  • Empathy. One reason why I am grateful for my experiences is that they help me empathize with my students, especially those who seem to be afflicted by some kind of hardship – or so I think. I believe that I am a reasonably good and well-liked teacher, and I think that part of what makes my teaching good is precisely this: empathy. Also, I believe that my experiences are responsible for a heightened sensibility to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and privilege. I know that – being white, having grown up in a relatively secure small town, being blessed with resilience and a certain kind of stubbornness, and so on – I am still very well-off. And I do not want to pretend that I know what it is like to come from real poverty, or how it feels to be a victim of racism or constant harassment. But I hope that I am reasonably open to others’ stories about these kinds of things.
  • Authority. In my family of origin, the prevailing attitude towards intellectuals was a strange mixture between contempt and reverence. Both sentiments were probably due to a sense of disparity: intellectuals seemed to belong to a kind of people quite different from ourselves. This attitude has, I believe, shaped how I perceived of my teachers when I was a philosophy student. I noticed that our lecturers invited us – me – to engage with them “on equal terms”, but I could not bring myself to do so. I had a clear sense of hierarchy; to me, my teachers were authorities. I did eventually manage to speak up in class, but I often felt at a loss for words outside of the classroom setting with its relatively fixed and easily discernable rules. I also struggled with finding my voice in class papers, with taking up and defending a certain position. I realize that this struggle is probably not unique to first-generation students, or to students from lower-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, or to students whose parents are immigrants, et cetera – but I believe that the struggle is often aggravated by backgrounds like these. As teachers, I think, we should pay close attention to the different needs our students might have regarding how we engage with them. It should go without saying, but if someone seems shy or reserved, don’t try to push them into a friendly and casual conversation about the model of femininity and its relation to sexuality in the novel you recently read.
  • Merit. Now, how does all this relate to the idea of meritocracy? I think there is a lot to say about meritocracy, much more than can possibly be covered in a (somewhat rambling) blogpost. But let me try to point out at least one aspect. Martin loosely characterizes the belief in meritocracy as the belief that “if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want”. But what does “being good enough” or “trying hard enough” amount to in the first place? Are two students who write equally good term papers working equally hard? What if one of them has two children to care for while the other one still lives with and is supported by her parents? What if one struggles with depression while the other does not? What if one comes equipped with “cultural capital” and a sense of entitlement, while the other feels undeserving and stupid? I am not sure about how to answer these questions. But one thing that has always bothered me is talk of students being “smart” or “not so smart”. Much has been written about this already. And yet, some people still talk that way. Many of the students I teach struggle with writing scientific prose, many of them struggle with understanding the assigned readings, many of them struggle with the task of “making up their own minds” or “finding their voice”. And while I agree that those who do not struggle, or who do not struggle as much, should, of course, be encouraged and supported – I sometimes think that the struggling students might be the ones who benefit the most from our teaching philosophy, and for whom our dedication and encouragement might really make a much-needed difference. It certainly did so for me.

You don’t get what you deserve. Part I: Meritocracy in education vs employment relations

The belief that we live in a meritocracy is the idea that people get what they deserve. At school you don’t get a good grade because of your skin colour or because you have a nice smile but because you demonstrate the required skills. When I was young, the idea helped me to gain a lot of confidence. Being what is now called a first-generation student, I thought I owed my opportunity to study to a meritocratic society. I had this wonderfully confident belief that, if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want. Today, I think that there is so much wrong with this idea that I don’t really know where to start. Meritocratic beliefs are mostly false and harmful. In the light of our sociological knowledge, still believing that people get what they deserve strikes me as on a par with being a flat earther or a climate change denialist. At the same time, beliefs in meritocratic principles are enormously widespread and deep-rooted, even among those who should and do know better. In what follows, I attempt to make nothing more than a beginning to look at that pernicious idea and why it has so much currency.

Perhaps one of the greatest problems of meritocratic ideas is that they create a normative link between possibly unrelated things: There is no intrinsic relation between displaying certain qualities, on the one hand, and getting a job, on the other hand. Of course, they might be related; in fact, displaying certain qualities might be one of the necessary conditions for getting the job. But the justification structure suggested by meritocratic beliefs clearly obscures countless other factors, such as being in the right place at the right time etc. Here are two variants of how this plays out:

  • “I’m not good enough.” – This is a common conclusion drawn by most people. That is, by those, who don’t get the job or grant or promotion they have applied for. If there is one job and a hundred applicants, you can guess that a large amount of people will think they were not good enough. Of course, that’s nonsense for many reasons. But if the belief is that people get what they deserve, then those not getting anything might conclude to be undeserving. A recent piece by a lecturer leaving academia, for instance, contends that part of the problem is that one always has to show that one is “better than the rest”, insinuating that people showing just that might get the job in the end. But apart from the fact that the imbalance between available jobs and applicants pushes such demands to absurd heights, the question arises whether any employer could be sufficiently good to be able to recognise the enormously refined qualities of the applicants.
  • “My qualities are not recognised.” –  The more confident applicants among us might thus draw quite another conclusion, namely that they are good enough, but that their qualities are simply not seen. The counterfactual behind this reasoning seems to be the following: Had my prospective employer seen how good I am, she would have hired me. As I see it, both kinds of reasoning are fallacious in that they construe the relation between performance and getting the job / grant etc. too tightly. Of course, most people know that. But this knowledge does not prevent one from going along with the fallacious reasoning. Why is that? Well, my hunch is that meritocratic beliefs are deeply ingrained in our educational system and spill over to other contexts, such as employment relations. Let me explain.

Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

Notes on the ethics of contagion. A reply to Martin Lenz

In his previous post about the ethics of contagion, Martin Lenz treats the issue of responsibility in the current pandemic. Given how hyperconnected the world is in which we live, everyone might infect an indefinite number of other people and thus turn into a superspreader. Now more than ever we are seeing that individual actions truly make the difference, and so we all need to act as if we were potentially harmful to everyone else in the world.

This situation demands us to take a collective responsibility. Accordingly, we must comply with the rules and advise other people to do the same. Not only that, but we must help one another to take necessary precautions. In other words, we must create supportive environments, namely ones in which we “mutually enable each other in taking necessary precautions” and “in which we can comply without harming ourselves”.

Of course, to comply with any preventive norm or social rule, we need what we have called a ‘supportive environment’. But cooperation among individuals is possible in a social group only when rationality is present1. While this would be highly desirable, the risk of a full collective compliance is conformity, which might have negative outcomes for individual agency. In fact, if a social group drifts away from rational patterns, then it is likely that forms of herd behaviour emerge among its members. For instance, when someone does not take sufficient precautions, people blame him/her for deviating from the current norms of his/her country. Collective blaming, shaming and other moral judgments are forms of herd behaviour too and may have serious consequences for individuals and social life. They are already a signal of the fact that a social group is drifting away from rational patterns of behaviour.

One way to avoid cognitive bias or falling into other traps of conformity is to doubt and hesitate. In this time, doubting about our immediate beliefs and being hesitant about judging others are perhaps the first steps each of us can take to create a supportive environment. Thus, asking ourselves ‘Was that person able to comply with the rules?’ before calling out noncompliance might prevent us to undertake a course of action which has effects that might be mostly unpredictable and even very unpleasant for third parties. (No matter if some effects were beyond our intentions: if they are directly dependent upon our actions, we are at least partly responsible for them anyway). In this way, we can still keep a reasonable attitude, which is also healthy for social life in general.

I am comfortable with this opinion and I do agree with it. However, is it enough to account for an ethics of contagion? I think Lenz’s position is lacking something in its characterization of moral responsibility, for it focuses only on what individual people ought to do. In my opinion, an ethical perspective should pay attention not only to individual agency, but also to the factors that although independent from the will are nevertheless determinant for individual decision making. The aim is to see whether people are always fully responsible for whatever they do, and eventually if we can attribute a part of responsibility to the social setting they belong to. For this sake, I will borrow some notions from social ontology, and I will use them as a key tool for widen the concept of responsibility.

As Lenz himself rightly puts it, “it is vital that universities and indeed other institutions follow policies that enable individuals to act in compliance with preventive measures”. Why is it vital? Because social environments are not always constituted only by relationships among individuals, like Facebook groups or other meet-up phenomena, which emerge out only from random interactions. Rather, social environments may be more complex. For the sake of simplicity, I shall call those environments complex social environments (CSE). Examples of CSE are corporations, social, religious or political institutions, and the Modern State. Thus, by CSE I define a social environment that has a structure not reducible to the sum of the atomic behaviour of its members or of relations among them (like an aggregation of parts), and such that the environment can be considered a unity and identified as a single entity or an individual. Another feature of CSE is that they are heterogeneous, namely they include agents with different powers and interests (some individuals have the power to act on the structure, in virtue of their role or function in the CSE).

This leads to two preliminary points. First, if something in the structure of a CSE does not allow for mutual support, its members will mostly fail in cooperative tasks. That would be the case simply because the CSE under consideration is intrinsically not functional to cooperation among individuals. (We can intuitively understand the structure of a CSE as what designs the limits and conditions for individual agency and personal freedom within the CSE itself). Second, if CSE are single entities or individuals, it means that we can attribute to them responsibility for the collective conduct undertaken by their members. Speaking from a juridical point of view, CSE are a persona like human beings. (Corollary: CSE do not interact only with their members, but – as individuals – also with other CSE).

Going back to our notion of supportive environment, under which conditions we may then deem a CSE supportive? Some conditions are mental and primarily related to individual agency. For instance, acting cooperatively presupposes that people perceive themselves already as a unity or as belonging to the same community. In other words, people must recognize themselves as members of the same CSE. It also implies that people look at others sharing the same environment each time as the person next to them and not as a third man. There must be some degrees of sympathy among CSE members.

Other conditions are related to what up to now I have called the structure of a CSE, and it is exactly here that rationality plays the most important part. Given that it is the most relevant case to our discussion, in the list of structural conditions below I will consider only the Modern State as a CSE:

a) Fair information. Politicians, scientists, intellectuals, media and public figures in general must employ a truthful and honest communication, being informative without aiming to trigger emotive reactions in the audience. In that sense, conversational maxims (Grice 1975) seem to me to be still valid.

b) Unity of decision. There must be a certain amount of coordination among the different political actors at play. In a situation of prolonged emergency and uncertainty, it is generally advisable that local administrations follow the central government.

c) Rationality of law. Social norms and regulations introduced for a pandemic must be scientifically grounded, clear, avoid ambiguities and grey zones.

Italy failed to meet the conditions to become a supportive environment. In what follows I will try to explain why it is the case and I will treat Italy purely as an example of CSE. This might sound as an attack to Italy, but that is not my intention. There are other countries facing similar (if not worse) problems – think about the current situation in China, Hungary, Brazil or the US. I am talking about Italy only because it is the social environment I know better.

a) From the beginning of the global health crisis, in Italy there has been an increasing amount of misinformation and leading politicians superspreading fake news on Covid19. Furthermore, the way Italian media have informed about Covid19 related facts rapidly spread fear and panic among the population, as a nocebo effect [].

b)  Many Italian politicians showed quite a spectacular way to make people comply with restrictions. Most importantly, arbitrary decisions lead to vertical political conflicts between government and local administrations, as well as horizontal ones among local administrations themselves.

c) As a country that has already been badly affected by the last economic crisis, the harsh lockdown had devastating psychological effects among the population. It is also still a matter of debate whether some restrictions2 were necessary and other decisions would not have been better to be taken.

Compared to other European countries, it seems that Italy has been seriously hit by a wave of terror and irrationality. People’s favourite scapegoats have been runners, those practicing sports or simply whoever was taking a walk or was seen outside on the streets. In such a hostile and repressive environment, the decision to hire a corps of 60.000 volunteers, patrolling public spaces and reporting noncompliance to authorities, sounded threatening even to me. Luckily, this truly Orwellian scenario seems to have been reconsidered, and the volunteers will only be employed for avoiding the formation of crowds and for public utility purposes. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases of irrational and herd behaviour to confirm the overall negative impact that lockdown and unfair Covid19 information had in Italy. Not much data has been gathered and not enough research has been carried out yet, but to give more evidence to this point, I shall point out some examples and divide them in two groups.


  • One of my Facebook contacts was stopped by a couple in an SUV, while he was going for a run in the evening. The couple threatened to beat him in case they would have seen him again hanging around outside.
  • A runner destroyed his neighbours’ car with a baseball bat, because every time he was going out for a run, they were repeatedly yelling offenses, filming and threatening him to report his “illegal and irresponsible” behaviour to the police.
  • Someone threw a bucket full of water on a woman while biking, without knowing she was simply a pharmacist coming back from work.

Herd behaviour:

  • People started spontaneously organizing in chats and social media groups to share information about infected people in their village or neighbourhood. Their aim was to avoid alleged infected people and, eventually, report their deviant behaviour to fellow citizens and authorities. Unfortunately, I had first-hand experience of this, for it has been the case in my hometown and in some other towns in the surrounding area as well. Even worse, in Vasto, a town in the Region of Abruzzo, someone wrote and spread a list with the personal information of many members of the Roma community; people labelled Roma as superspreaders and in turn attacked the major because he condemned this reprehensible action3.
  • The anti-establishment and Covid19 denial movement “orange gilets” organized demonstrations in several Italian cities (the two main ones in Milan May 30th, and Rome June 2nd). In a few days, thousands of people gathered without keeping any social distance or wearing face masks. The orange gilets claim that the Covid19 virus has been created to weaken the Italian economy and allow foreign countries to take the control over Italy. Thus, they demand at the same time the resignation of the government, the creation of a new constituent assembly, and an Italexit. In particular, during the Rome demonstration one of their main activists stated that the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte together with Bill Gates wanted to turn us all into “small robots”: by obliging everyone to vaccine against Covid19, they would inject mercury in our veins and thus connect our bodies directly to 5G; in this way, they would be able to control us remotely and, if they want, even to kill us just by heating up our body temperature.
  • On June 2nd, Matteo Salvini and the other leaders of the opposition organized a public demonstration in Rome, to protest the government and celebrate the anniversary of the Italian republic together. In this occasion too, thousands of people gathered disregarding the very basic safety rules, while politicians were only caring about selfies with their supporters.

In this post I have explored some conditions under which an environment might be called supportive. Indeed, in complex social environments those conditions are structural and do not substantially depend on individual agency. Quite on the contrary, the outcomes of individual agency are largely dependent upon these conditions (or the lack of thereof). The structure of a social environment explains the collective conduct of its members. This means that, if structural conditions make the social environment hostile and repressive, its members will not tend to act cooperatively and instead forms of herd behaviour will emerge. Therefore, part of the responsibility for the collective conduct can be attributed also to the environment itself, insofar that its structural conditions are a matter of human decisions anyway. (In a Modern State, politicians formulate and apply restrictions on different levels). For example, the case of Italy shows that the lack of those conditions does not stop compliance itself, rather it opens compliance to conformity, instead of cooperation, and creates a hostile and repressive environment, as opposed to a supportive one. Concerning an ethics of contagion, good information, politics and administration are the fundamental blocks to build a properly supportive environment, that would allow compliance with rules without fostering herd behaviour and encourage both cooperation and mutual help practices.


1 One may object that the human being is a social animal. But even then, the fact that human beings are social animals means that they tend to live in groups with members of the same species. It does not entail per se that human beings are also cooperative by nature.
In the context of an ethics of contagion, by rationality I understand the capacity of deliberating on solid epistemic grounds. By rational (patterns of) behaviour I understand those relying on self-determination and awareness, without being affected by bias and external constraints of the sort. As I have argued above, during a pandemic a rational pattern of behaviour also consists in being able to doubt about our immediate beliefs and hesitate before making moral judgements.

2 Here I may think of the prohibition of sports activities, the obligation to stay within the area of 200m surrounding your house, or the obligation to always wear a mask outside of your house, whatever the place and the occasion (even if you are alone lying on a beach or sitting in a park on your own). But the list might not be limited to.

3 This very episode sadly reminds about the accusations addressed to Jews, of being the superspreaders of both leprosy and the black plague epidemies in France during the 13th and 14th centuries. Remarkably, in both cases Jews were accused to spread the virus in conspiracy with the Sultan and Muslims (Ginzburg 1991: 33-86). More broadly, as Nicolas Guilhot rightly argues, pandemics are the perfect environment for rumours, fake news and conspiracy theories to spread.

PS. This post is inspired by a previous Facebook discussion on the ethics of contagion and by The Metaphysics of Online Groups. Herd Behavior and Polarization, a research side-project in social ontology I am running. I am grateful to Martin Lenz for the former (as well as for the invitation to contribute in the debate). For the latter, I should thank Tommaso Ostillio and Giulio Sciacca. Last but not least, I am indebted to Anouk Hogers for important suggestions.