May 26, 2020

As Society Moves Online, We Must Redefine Our Moral Community

With the ongoing lockdown, we need to start debate on the civic virtues that bind us.

By Dominic Burbidge

My son is not yet two years old, and while he does not say anything, he is great at walking and running. We go for walks during the lockdown as part of the UK government’s permitted daily exercise and we see how our corner of the world is changing — the empty streets, the closed shops, the delinquent birds. The lockdown so far represents just 0.005% of my lifetime, but 8% of my son’s. In the first couple of weeks I had to hold him back when others approached in order to keep to the social distancing rules. Now he goes himself to stand to the side when another human approaches. This is what he knows to do.

Front and center in the debates on COVID-19 and the lockdown is whether we can reduce the virus’ spread and whether the economy will be able to recover. Lurking in the back of my mind, however, is a rather different question: Will we ever get back the relationships we had before the pandemic struck? With threats of a second virus wave, and preparations afoot for our new ways of living-at-distance, it is clear that the habits we forge these weeks will shape our new normal. Will my son ever know that strangers used to think nothing of being close to one another? I want to start debate on the civic virtues that bind us in these most extraordinary times.

I was recently asked to speak at a parliamentary meeting for women in politics about the effects of coronavirus on the economy, but after thinking it over somewhat, I decided to pose to the online audience a very different question: How are our “languages of love” changing in this pandemic? “Languages of love” is a popular online test that tries to work out which of the following you value most: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, or physical touch. The idea is that by getting to know what you and your partner most respond to, you can make sure your love for them really counts. All five languages of love are under threat from COVID-19, with physical touch perhaps most of all curtailed. The most painful images for me of the pandemic so far are the screenshots of family video conferences to say goodbye to a loved one near death’s door. In this new era of social distancing, family members are unable to hold their loved one’s hand in the final moments.

For the past two years I have been working with colleagues at the University of Oxford and Templeton World Charity Foundation to research and better understand the moral dimensions to some of the biggest social changes the world is facing. At the beginning of the project, it was very hard to say what it is we were doing; our starting hunch was that in the midst of the major technological and social changes we were going through, there was a need to explain society’s “moral whole.” By that, we meant the goodness that binds people, despite the way communities were radically changing shape. But now I find the project, Citizenship in a Networked Age, easy to explain, because it is increasingly clear with each day that passes that what our society is — our social connectivity — is being changed in definitional terms in the midst of this crisis, and that it is urgent we rediscover our moral whole despite these changes.

Here are some immediate examples: As relationships move online, the voluntarist quality of who we choose to spend time with rises to the fore. We choose more about our friendships than we used to, often helping our bonding social capital (ties within groups we are already familiar with) more than our bridging social capital (ties between different groups). It becomes rarer and rarer that we develop friendships accidentally. Education — to take another example — increasingly relies on children establishing personal moral habits and committing to a learning timetable independent of teachers’ oversight. The undivided attention you normally get from meeting with a friend in person suddenly becomes a scarce resource. Location-recording apps help us fight the virus, and yet at the same time they remind us of the danger of physical contact with others and demand periodic lockdown of those of us who are most social.

In a recent podcast for the Citizenship in a Networked Age project, I floated the idea that we may need a Ministry of Social Connectivity, just as we currently have a Ministry of Communities and Local Government in the UK at present. It would be a government body tasked with bringing the best out of the distributed ledger of contemporary society — looking at how the shape of what binds us has shifted — and where opportunities exist for building bridges between groups that are no longer forming accidental friendships. The very nature of society is changing, and so governance and the avenues for collective action need to likewise change. Our networked community, and the redefinition of the moral whole that it involves, needs to be represented politically, just as local communities were the basis to democratic politics in an earlier age.

At the heart of all this is the need for new debate on the civic virtues that bind us as a people, with a common good that we all share and are all responsible for.


Dr Dominic Burbidge is a Research Director of the University of Oxford and Director of the Canterbury Institute. For more information on Citizenship in a Networked Age, see the project website.