This Issue: Morality in an Amoral World

A crisis is a mirror.

It shows us – if we have the courage to see – who we are as individuals and as a society. The self-congratulatory poses of governments, politicians, and state institutions are confronted with the harsh test of reality. Each of us – as individuals, friends, families, neighbours, communities – face new and sometimes difficult challenges.

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is such a crisis. Governments? Some are well-prepared, with solid public health systems and free health care for all. Meanwhile, in the US, in mid-February, two weeks after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the Trump administration pushed ahead with major funding cuts to U.S. public health programs, including a $25 million cut to Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, and $85 million in cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program. In Ontario, when COVID-19 struck, public health authorities were facing the looming 27% cut to public health spending announced by the Ford government in its budget. (Belatedly, Ontario has just declared a state of emergency and put those cuts on hold – for now.)

In the confusing rush of events that mark a crisis, it is easy to be so focused on what is happening that we forget to ask why. Yet it is when we ask why that we confront the ethical and moral questions that illuminate who we are and what kind of society we live in.

Why, for example, are pharmaceutical companies competing to produce a vaccine for COVID-19? Why, instead of keeping their work secret, aren’t scientists around the world collaborating, sharing their research, and making the results freely available? Why isn’t this question even being asked in public discourse? It seems that we are supposed to take it for granted that, above everything else, the goal of scientific work should be to make a profit. U.S. government officials have already stated that an eventual COVID-19 vaccine may not be available to everyone in the U.S., let alone in poorer countries, because it may be ‘too expensive.’

We’ve moved backwards.

The worst epidemics in Canada and the U.S. in the last 100 years were the recurrent polio epidemics. In Canada, an estimated 11,000 people were left paralyzed by polio just between 1949 and 1954. In 1954 alone, there were 9,000 cases including nearly 500 deaths. In the U.S., in 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio, resulting in 3,135 deaths and 21,269 cases of paralysis. The polio nightmare started coming to an end when Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1955. The patent? None. Salk refused to patent his discovery: he wanted it to be freely available to everyone.

Salk himself was following in the footsteps of Fredrick Banting, Charles Best, and James Colip, the discovers of insulin. They did patent their discovery – and then sold the patent to the University of Toronto, for $1. They said they didn’t want to profit from a discovery for the common good.

Salk’s and Banting’s attitude would be unthinkable now. What capitalism has succeeded in doing, it seems, is to make it acceptable for corporations to engage in behaviour, on a large scale, which most of us, as individuals, would refrain from as a matter of common decency.

And indeed, as individuals, as friends, as a community, people continue to support and help each other in times of trouble. Informal networks of mutual support spring up, as they nearly always do in a crisis. Beyond the headlines about COVID-19 emergency measures, closures, and social distancing, there are countless stories about people reaching out and helping those who need help.

Yet capitalism tells us, endlessly, that selfishness is good and inevitable. In the place of morality, it proclaims an amoral vision in which nothing matters except making as much money as possible. Greed is good. Exploiting others, destroying the planet, condemning people to a life of poverty and suffering, it’s all good, as long as money can be made. Capitalism allows no moral qualms.

While there are some – too many, it’s true – who have internalized this attitude, most of us do not act this way in our own lives. Society could not exist if we did, because we need each other. As social beings, we survive and thrive to the extent that we can form and count on relationships that are built on mutual support, co-operation, and trust.

The moral principle that has come to be known as the Golden Rule embodies this truth. Versions of what we call the Golden Rule emerged in many different religions, as the Golden Rule poster below illustrates. That fact that it is part of so many different traditions tells us that it pre-dates those traditions: it is embedded in human nature itself.

If we, or at least most of us, did not recognize the fact that each of us is worthy of respect and deserving of having our needs met, we could not survive as a social species. At the same time, if treating others as we ourselves would wish to be treated were always perfectly natural and automatic, then we wouldn’t need a Golden Rule. We don’t have a rule that tells us to breathe. We just do it.

One of the things that the existence of the Golden Rule tells us, then, is that we humans are imperfect and full of contradictions. Even when we know what we should do, we sometimes fall short, and need to be reminded or held to account. That, no doubt, is why discussions of the Golden Rule so frequently stress compassion, forgiveness, and second chances. It recognizes that there are times when we need to forgive, and times when we need to be forgiven.

At the same time, no rule, no matter how profound, is a substitute for thinking critically about real-life situations. For example, few of us would advise a woman in an abusive relationship to return to her violent partner and give him a second – third – fourth – fifth chance. There are times when anger is a healthier response than turning the other cheek.

There are occasions, in fact, when, confronted with the life’s complexities, we might also want to keep in mind George Bernard Shaw’s contrarian dictum: “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”

Nor does the Golden Rule, by itself, guide us in dealing with those who have power over us, especially when that power is wielded to oppress. To deal with them, we need to draw on another part of our human nature: our impulse to come together and support each other to fight for justice. As Cornell West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis that challenges us to look beyond our own immediate concerns and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We don’t have much time: climate change will make this virus seem like a picnic.

But we do have some time right now, because many of us have had our lives put on hold. Let’s try to use that time as constructively as we can.

There are things we can do to help, like donating money, even while we are self-isolating. There are people who are facing this virus – and other concurrent public health disasters, like malaria, which kills 3,000 children every day – under infinitely worse conditions than we are. Think of Yemen, Gaza, Congo. Venezuela and Iran are trying to cope with their outbreaks even while the United States is tightening sanctions on medical and humanitarian supplies.

They need our active solidarity.

One step you can take today is to donate to Tarek Loubani’s GLIA Project, which is printing 3D masks and stethoscopes for Palestine and other under-served communities whose capacities for dealing with a health crisis are much worse than ours. You can donate to them here.

Please help. And stay well!

– Ulli Diemer

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The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is the name given to the principle of treating others as you want to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in many religions and cultures. It also underlies movements for social justice around the world, and many of the articles and resources found on the Connexions website.

Capitalist Agriculture and Covid-19: A Deadly Combination

A socialist biologist explains the tight links between new viruses, industrial food production, and the profitability of multinational corporations. The real danger of each new outbreak, says Rob Wallace, is the failure, or refusal, to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. Read more

Keywords: PandemicsIndustrial Agriculture

Agroecology and the Fight Against Deadly Capitalist Agriculture

Agroecology, says Colin Todhunter, can free farmers from dependency, manipulated commodity markets, unfair subsidies and food insecurity. It is resisted by giant corporations that profit from the status quo. Read more

Keywords: Agriculture/EcologyOrganic Agriculture/Food

How We Stay Blind to the Story of Power

Jonathan Cook writes “Power is the force that shapes almost everything about our lives and our deaths. There is no more important issue. Understanding power and overcoming it through that understanding is the only path to liberation we can take as individuals, as societies, and as a species. Which is why it should be simply astonishing that no one in the media, supposedly a free marketplace of ideas, ever directly addresses matters of power – beyond the shadow play of party politics and celebrity scandals.” Read more

Keywords: PowerHegemony

The Violence of Conservation

Fiore Longo of Survival International argues for an end to big conservation projects that abuse and destroy the very peoples who know how to protect the land. Read more

Keywords: ConservationIndigenous Peoples

Understanding the Golden Rule

Given its omnipresence across history, the Golden Rule is often described as a universal ethical principle. Read more

Keywords: Golden RuleEthics

Website of the Week

Golden Rule Website

This website is devoted to explaining and popularizing the Golden Rule. Explore it here

Keywords: Golden Rule Ethics

Book of the Week

A Paradise Built in Hell

By Rebecca Solnit

The most startling thing about disasters, according to Rebecca Solnit, is not merely that so many people rise to the occasion, but that they do so with joy. That joy reveals an ordinarily unmet yearning for community, purposefulness, and meaningful work that disaster often provides. it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living. The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.
Read more

Keywords: DisastersHuman Nature

Film of the Week

Sorry We Missed You

Ken Loach’s latest film delves into the gig economy and the toll that precarious work takes on working people and their families. It focuses on the human cost, and the fundamental immorality, of an economic system that shatters lives for the sake of profit. Read more

Keywords: Precarious Work Work


Pakistan's Women's March: Shaking Patriarchy 'To Its Core'

Thousands of women marched across Pakistan's main urban centres to mark International Women's Day this year. 2020 is the third successive year that the Aurat March, women's march, has been held in the country. Read more

Keywords: Women’s MovementWomen’s Rights

People’s History

The Life Of Death

Holocaust survivor Israel Shahak writes about his personal experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and reflects on the moral choices that people made in terrible times. According to Shahak, “The really great form of courage and honesty that could be witnessed under the conditions of the Holocaust was when a Pole opposed the opinion or the silence of other Poles, when a Jew opposed other Jews, and when Germans opposed other Germans or Nazism in general. This is the type of courage which we should learn about and emulate.” Read more

Keywords: Courage Pain of Others

From the Archives

Principles of Nuremberg

The Nuremberg principles were established to codify the legal principles underlying the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi party members following World War II. They were conceived as principles of international law that would determine what constitutes a war crime, and were supposed to apply to all countries, and to all persons, military or civilian. Read them here

Keywords: International LawWar Crimes

Seeds of Fire

March 21, 1960

The Sharpeville Massacre

Black South Africans protesting the apartheid regime’s pass laws, which serve to severely limit the right of non-whites to move about freely, are fired on by police in Sharpeville. 69 people are killed and 180 injured. Many of those killed and injured are shot in the back as they are running away. A wave of protests sweeps South Africa in the aftermath. Today, the date is commemorated as a public holiday to honour human rights and remember those killed.

March 22, 1622


Opechancanough, the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy in what is now the U.S. state of Virginia, seeing no other way to stop the British colonists who have been continuously seizing native land since 1607, initiates military action against the Jamestown colony. A third of the English settlers are killed in the conflict, but the natives are unable to carry out their aim of expelling the colony.

March 24, 1853

Mary Ann Shadd founds Provincial Freeman

The abolitionist newspaper the Provincial Freeman is founded by Mary Ann Shadd and Isaac Shadd in Windsor, Ontario. Published from 1853 to 1857, the Provincial Freeman proclaims itself “Devoted to Anti-Slavery, Temperance, and General Literature.” Mary Ann Shadd is the first African-American woman publisher in North America.

March 24, 1974

The Chipko movement

A group of peasant women in Reni Village in the state of Uttarakhand, India surround and hold on to trees in their forest to prevent them from being cut down by a lumber company given cutting rights by the government. The confrontation grows out of growing resistance to the commercial logging that is destroying the traditional forests that local people rely on for their livelihoods.

Henry James Quotation – Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.

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This issue was edited by Ulli Diemer.


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