A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away… --Albert Camus
Viruses are strange things. Viruses are commonly characterized as submicroscopic, obligate intracellular parasites, which do not have the means to function or reproduce on their own. They are submicroscopic because most are too small to be seen with an optical microscope; obligate because they do only one thing; intracellular parasites because they coopt the machinery of infiltrated cells to reproduce themselves.
It has always struck me as weird and remarkable that something so foreign to the sensible human world can have such a great effect on human life. We’re taught at an early age that we experience only one level of reality, the level of dogs and trees and buildings. But there are many more levels containing things much smaller and much larger than us. We cannot easily peer into these levels like we might peer into a secret room. Yet things that happen on these hidden levels affect our world, because we are stretched out in them. We exist in the microscopic and the cosmic worlds, although our positions there are complicated and difficult to understand.
Over the last several months, life has changed radically as a result of something happening in a world that we cannot see. I’m speaking, of course, of the COVID-19 pandemic and the suffering, death, and grief that comes with it. People all over are shutting themselves in their homes. Economies are teetering. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Social events have been cancelled; businesses closed; cities quarantined. All because of the spread of a minuscule, senseless, unfeeling thing: a virus called SARS-CoV-2.
Everyone I talk to finds this situation weird. Probably it feels weird anytime one’s life changes in ways both unexpected and dramatic. This situation certainly meets those criteria.
But, at least for me, there’s an added layer to the weirdness. My plans and projects, my routines and ways of living, the establishments, relationships, and interactions that bring meaning and substance to my life seem to belong solely to the world of sight and sound. They don’t seem immutable, but that which threatens them ought to be things I can grasp, reason with, or flee from, not things from another world, which I occupy only darkly. It’s weird that we should desperately strive against not a human being nor a beast nor a mountain, but against invisible parasites, billions of which could stand on the head of a pin. It’s weird that something so small could wreak such havoc.
Yet it does. Viruses aren’t made to man’s measure. They don’t fit into our everyday picture of cause and effect. They remind us of the fragility of our existence, of how everything we do depends not only upon our designs but upon goings-on and contingencies outside the ordinary realm of agency and action. They remind us that all of human life hangs by a thread so thin it can be cut by something 179,000 times smaller than a dime.
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this situation feels like a dream. But it isn’t.
 The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International Edition, Random House, p. 37 (1991).
 Cann, Alan. Principles of molecular virology, Elsevier Academic Press, 2015.
I am constitutionally vulnerable to jingles, tunes, and all things catchy. Among the jingles that seem to be permanently stuck in my head are:
The jingles in my head were put there intentionally, but not by me. As everyone knows, marketers exploit the human disposition to remember and repeat songs, phrases, and ideas that have certain psychologically appealing properties. As far as marketing techniques go, jingles are fairly innocuous. Still, I think jingles of this kind affect our wellbeing in pernicious ways.
Think about what the world would be like without all the catchy tunes that advertisers and their ilk impose upon us. For one, I wouldn’t be doing things like singing about Safe Auto or dollops of Daisy in the shower. Moreover, you and I wouldn't share a lot of the trivial common ground that we now do. For instance, you wouldn’t be able to complete phrases like “Break me off a piece of that…” or “The best part of waking up is Folgers…” if I started singing them.
In my opinion, this would be for the better. There is something offensive about the fact that so many of our shibboleths are effectively meaningless babble with no positive aesthetic value. If you and I must repeat the lyrics of tunes over and over again to ourselves, if such tunes are going to be part of what characterizes the flavor of our communal life, then shouldn’t they mean something? Shouldn’t they be beautiful or somehow choiceworthy? All else being equal, it seems to me that our lives would be better if our minds and common ground were not polluted by junk.
Maybe junk is unavoidable. Much of our junk is the product of capitalist mechanisms and so is contingent upon a particular type of society, but maybe worthless songs and phrases that stick to the mind like lint sticks to Velcro arise in every type of society. Yet one sometimes gets the impression when reading texts from other times and places that the minds of past peoples were crammed with more worthwhile things than our own. For example, the Greeks seemed to talk to one another as if they all had Homer and Hesiod rattling around in their heads. Consider just one instance. In The Apology when Socrates is snidely noting that he will not use his family to garner sympathy in the courtroom where he is on trial, he sneaks in a quote from Homer, almost as if it were a jingle flowing effortlessly off the tip of his tongue:
“…I too have relatives, for I am, as Homer has it, ‘not born of an oak or a rock,’ but of human parents, so that I have relatives and, men of Athens, I have three sons, one nearly grown up, and two still children; but nevertheless I shall not bring any of them here and beg you to acquit me.”
Through my rose-colored glasses, the (apparent) suffusion of the work of poets and mythmakers into Greek thought and common ground is enviable compared to the suffusion of empty tunes and phrases that characterizes the society we live in. Indeed, there’s some significant unluckiness in having been born into a situation wherein one has to resist the ridiculous compulsion to ask others what they would do for a Klondike bar.
 This one is especially puzzling, since I can’t recall ever even watching the show all the way through.
 As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas that are propagated through cultures can be thought of us as replicators that are analogous to genes. Dawkins coined the term ‘memes’ for these cultural replicators. Memes “replicate themselves” via communication and imitation. Just like genes, memes can change over time in heritable ways, and the environments in which memes replicate (i.e. human cultures) are such that some heritable variations give some memes a replicative advantage over others, which is all that is needed for natural selection to occur (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, ch. 11). According to this framework, a successful marketer, much like a successful proselytizer or demagogue, is good at creating memes with properties that promote prolific and fidelitous replication. I find this way of looking at things simultaneously unsettling and true to my own experience, inundated as my head seems to be with all sorts of noxious little replicating parasites.
 Plato, The Apology 34d, trans. Harold Fowler
My spouse and I are at an age when it’s not usually much of a surprise when one of our friends calls us to exclaim, “We’re having a baby!” We know exactly what to say. We offer enthusiastic congratulations, gab about baby names, and so on. Probably you’ve heard an exclamation like this too; probably you responded in roughly the same way.
As commonplace as this type of declaration is, there’s something interesting about it. On the face of it, having a baby is something that exactly one person—the person from whom the baby emerges—does. Yet much of the time “We’re having a baby!” and related statements are not taken to be infelicitous. So what gives?
I think ‘having a baby’ is ambiguous. Sometimes that expression refers to one type of event, a biological process, and other times to another, an intentional action. This ambiguity explains why “We’re having a baby!” sometimes sounds weird but other times sounds perfectly natural.
On the one hand, ‘having a baby’ sometimes denotes the biological process (or family of processes) of childbirth, whereby a baby leaves a person’s uterus and emerges alive into the world. It might be more accurate to say that childbirth is something that happens to a person rather than something that someone does. In any case, childbirth is a process of which exactly one person can be a subject. When ‘having a baby’ denotes childbirth, it doesn’t make sense to say “We’re having a baby!”.
On the other hand, ‘having a baby’ sometimes denotes something broader than childbirth. It denotes something like the process of responsibly bringing a baby into the world. As everyone knows, responsibly bringing a baby into the world requires a significant amount of work. The details of what this looks like vary across time and space. In our society, money must be saved; information must be gathered; time must be set aside; doctors must be seen and paid for. Childbirth is normally part of this process, but the process is not mainly a biological one. Rather, it is a complex and protracted intentional action, something people do rather than something that happens to them.
When ‘having a baby’ denotes an intentional action, it makes perfect sense to say, “We’re having a baby!”. After all, most actions can be performed jointly by several individuals, and participants in a joint action can perfectly well use the first-person plural pronoun in describing what they are doing (e.g. “We’re painting a house.”). The action of having a baby is no different. Two or more individuals who harmonize their plans and activities so that a baby can be responsibly brought into the world are jointly having a baby. And those individuals can legitimately say, “We’re having a baby!”.
So we now have an explanation as to why “We’re having a baby!” sometimes sounds weird but usually doesn’t: the expression is ambiguous, sometimes denoting a biological process of which exactly one person can be a subject and sometimes denoting an intentional action of which multiple people can be a subject. Occasionally people exploit this ambiguity in witty ways (“We’re having a baby? I don’t see you doing any pushing!”). But most of the time, we navigate the expression’s ambiguity so effortlessly that we hardly think about it.
A further upshot of this discussion is that we now have available a charitable interpretation of similar expressions that on the surface look rather patriarchal and problematic. Sometimes you hear the partners of people who are giving birth say things like “Our cervix is dilating!” and “Our contractions are five minutes apart.”. While these statements might be used by a speaker to assert ownership over another person’s body, in contexts involving joint action, possessive plural pronouns are frequently used in a way that does not imply ownership.
For instance, suppose that a group of students is putting on a school play. Someone asks the dramaturge how the first dress rehearsal went, and the dramaturge responds dejectedly by saying, “Well, our costumes were great, and our lead was inspired, but everything else was a mess.” Responding to this statement by pointing out that neither the speaker nor the group owns the costumes or the lead would be infelicitous, because the dramaturge’s uses of the possessive merely indicate that the target objects were being used by the group or occupied an integral role in the group’s activities.
Similarly, when the partner of a person giving birth says something like “Our cervix is dilating!”, the partner may be using the plural possessive simply to indicate that the cervix in question is playing an integral role in the joint action of having a baby in which the partner is participating. The cervix normally does play an integral part in the joint action of having a baby (childbirth is normally a part of having a baby, and the dilation of the cervix is normally a part of childbirth), so this use is perhaps only natural.
 To simplify things, I assume that the baby is not, at the time of birth, a person. It’s true that medical professionals often assist and monitor childbirth. But it doesn’t follow that those medical professionals are subjects of the childbirth or that the person pushing out the baby and the medical professionals are together birthing a child. Analogously, my spouse sometimes rubs our pet rabbit’s tummy in order to help the rabbit digest hay. But it doesn’t follow that the rabbit and my spouse are jointly digesting hay.
 Actually, there is a way of reading this according to which it could make sense for someone to say it. To see this, consider the statement “We lifted a table.”. On a collective reading of this statement, the people referred to by the 'we' jointly lifted a table. But on a distributive reading of this statement, the people referred to by the 'we' separately lifted a table (and perhaps they lifted different tables). Similarly, “We’re having a baby!” could mean that we are jointly having a baby, or it could mean that each of us is separately having a baby. My claim is that this statement is infelicitous when read in the collective way. All the statements I’m interested in here should be read in the collective way.
I recently spent a good amount of time in the office of my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In my experience, the DMV is an unhappy place. Typically one must go there to pay a tax, take an exam, or do something else unpleasant. One can count on the fact that one’s task will require one to populate a surfeit of detailed forms with the most banal autobiographical information possible, and, on top of that, one will likely have to queue for a long time in a dreary, crowded room with uncomfortable seats only to be told by an official that one has filled out the wrong forms and that one must start the entire process again.
It seems likely that in every society there are certain commonly shared experiences that typify in important ways characteristic features of life in that society and for this reason occupy a special place in the society’s collective consciousness. I think that visiting the DMV is one such experience for those of us who live in the United States. If you live in the United States, then you’ve probably been to the DMV at least once, and you’ve probably experienced a familiar sort of nebulous dissatisfaction with what goes on there. Try telling someone you’re going to the DMV, and you’ll likely get a sympathetic look and a horror story of some sort (similar things happen when you tell someone you’re getting your wisdom teeth removed). The DMV is one of the regular points of physical contact most of us have with the sprawling, depersonalized bureaucracies that form the foundation of our society. The rigidity and impersonality of the process, combined with the prima facie inconsequence of the tasks one is required to perform, tend to grate on creatures like us.
I’d like to suggest that the experience of going to the DMV is a microcosm of the experience of living in a society with a highly complex bureaucracy. In particular, I suggest that the emotional position one finds oneself in at the DMV represents in miniature the emotional position that our society tends to put us in. Let me explain.
The nebulous dissatisfaction one is prone to experience while visiting the DMV is, I think, a natural reaction to a rather bizarre, unpleasant, and perhaps sometimes unreasonable social situation. Normally in social situations dissatisfaction manifests itself in the form of attitudes that are directed at persons. Some of these, such as resentment, indignation, and disapprobation, are rooted in a perceived lack of good will or regard on the part of the attitude’s object towards oneself or others. Other attitudes, such as anger, exasperation, and disdain, are not inherently interpersonal but nevertheless often are directed at persons. Person-directed attitudes such as these play a role in regulating and ameliorating the interactions of individuals who inevitably have different points of view. They partly constitute the affective lens through which we perceive the world and our place in it, and without them human life and relationships would be unrecognizable. The problem is that these person-directed attitudes are often naturally elicited by, and yet inappropriate in, the DMV.
To make my point entirely concrete, let’s consider a specific case. In California, new residents are required to register their vehicles within sixty days, and to be registered one’s vehicle must first pass a rigorous smog test. A certain first-year philosophy graduate student and new California resident discovered that his car could not pass a smog test without expensive repairs, which he could not afford. Consequently, this graduate student delayed registering his car for some time. Eventually, however, this student was compelled to register his vehicle. His visit to the DMV for that purpose was, by most metrics, a disaster. Our hero had to queue for over an hour, bungled the paperwork at least once, and—murderer at the door!—was honest about how overdue his registration was, which resulted in his paying an exorbitant penalty.
I hope it will not take too great a feat of imagination to envision this student’s mental state. He was indignant about having to pay such a large penalty for failing to register his vehicle sooner even though he could not afford to do so. He was resentful that he had to queue so long in order to pay this unreasonable penalty. No doubt these attitudes were less than ideally rational. They were also entirely human and entirely understandable.
The difficulty for our student was that there was no person at which these natural attitudes could be appropriately directed. After all, he would have been mistaken if he had directed these attitudes towards anyone he actually encountered at the DMV. It’s true that DMV clerks were a cause of the unpleasantness. They took his money; they refused to hear his pleas. But, like cogs in a machine, they were not responsible for it. The same goes for the DMV managers and even, I think, individual California legislators, all of whom have little to no effective control over the policies that the clerks are required to enact. The requirements imposed upon the student were social requirements, and yet there was no particular person who was responsible for them. The requirements were a product of the rigid and impersonal machine of state. Our student, then, found himself in an unsettled position. He experienced person-directed attitudes that were in one way apt, and yet there was no appropriate target of those attitudes. There was a mismatch between the student’s emotional repertoire and his social environment, which required him to suppress rather than express his emotions.
All this may strike you as a tad melodramatic. It is. But I think the student’s conundrum at the DMV typifies a much broader phenomenon. Our social lives are structured by bureaucracies that are to a large extent self-standing. Without them our form of life would not be possible. And yet, as is well known, bureaucracies can reify and propagate all manner of injustice, unreasonableness, and idiocy. This is one of the most salient moral problems of our age. Unfortunately, most of our most important moral emotions—indignation, resentment, disapprobation, and so on—are in the first instance person-directed. They are (at least partly) the product of millions of years of evolution in social environments characterized almost exclusively by face-to-face interactions with familiar conspecifics. Our evolutionary history did not equip us with emotional capacities entirely fit for life in our world, and this, I speculate, causes a great deal of discomfort and misplaced emotions. Take a minute to recall some instances when you felt frustration while interacting with a representative of some inept organization, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
What is the upshot of all this? If I am on to something here, then we should recognize that it is part of the (post)modern condition that we do not have emotional capacities which fit entirely well with many of the social and moral problems we face. There will be great temptation to direct apt emotions at inapt targets, and a great dissatisfaction when we cannot. I suspect that one of the reasons it is so collectively cathartic to skewer a public figure who has done something wrong, especially when that wrong embodies broader social trends, is that our moral emotions finally have full purchase. But in frustrating situations like our student’s DMV visit where they do not, we must somehow come to grips with the fact that catharsis is unavailable. And we must find a way to navigate these situations without relying unrestrainedly on emotions which, in other social contexts, serve us well.
 These are examples of what the philosopher Peter Strawson called ‘reactive attitudes’. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment” in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, pp. 1-28 (2008).
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