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.