Extremism, which is variously regarded as the adversary of peaceful moderation or the vanguard of righteous dissent, often is immediately recognizable, but sometimes it may be ambiguous, insidious, or undefined. Growing apprehensions about mainstream extremism reflect a linguistic contraindication that may be a symptom of cultural disorientation. Insights from neuroscience suggest that some forms of extremism may arise from an imbalance of brain pathways involved in moral reasoning, such that those signaling sacred valuations and rule processing attain dominance over those representing empathy and deliberative reasoning. If the brain be compared to an orchestra, extremism would be analogous to the unpitched percussion section taking over, the bass drum and clash cymbals intruding into orchestral harmony and drowning out the string and brass sections with harsh, metronomic, auditory hyperintensity. And yet there is a proper role for these instruments. The ideal balance, whether of neural signals or orchestral voices, requires discernment of value beyond factual information. A number of ethical approaches supply moral clarity to assist with making ethical distinctions when convictions reach into the extreme, and while helpful, these leave unanswered deeper questions of ultimate meaning.
The nursing home where I worked this past summer was fortunate. The long-term care facility shielded its residents from the chaos of the pandemic unfolding outside and managed to avoid any positive COVID-19 cases among its residents and staff for the summer. Of course, this came at a cost. Visitors were barred, activities were canceled, and residents were largely made to stay in their rooms. Even though residents received the same medical care as before—physicians still inspected wounds and nurses continued to pass medications—their mental health and overall wellbeing noticeably diminished. No longer able to enjoy bingo or attend religious services, they sat in their rooms watching TV, becoming more confused by the day.
Other nursing homes have encountered greater medically-related difficulties. By October of 2020, nearly 50% of COVID-19 deaths occur in nursing homes, with Britain losing approximately 5% of its nursing home population to the virus. During those early months of the pandemic in the US, residents and employees of nursing homes accounted for 35% of COVID deaths in the country. The elderly in general were afflicted by the disease at a disproportionate rate, and this knowledge caused many to shelter in their homes uncertain about when they might be able to leave.
During the COVID-19 global pandemic, in combination with handwashing and eye protection, face masks have become necessary apparel for healthcare professionals to prevent transmission of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). As the mouth both breathes and speaks, a barrier to potentially infectious respiratory droplets can also be a barrier to communication. This is obvious to the hearing-impaired, who rely on reading lips to interpret words they cannot clearly hear. Masks also modify communication in subtle ways in which the wearer may be unaware. The masking of facial expressions can alter how the wearer is perceived.
The term “value of life” can refer to life’s intrinsic dignity: something non-incremental and time-unaffected in contrast to the fluctuating, incremental “value” of our lives, as they are longer or shorter and more or less flourishing. Human beings are equal in their basic moral importance: the moral indignities we condemn in the treatment of e.g. those with dementia reflect the ongoing human dignity that is being violated. Indignities licensed by the person in advance remain indignities, as when people might volunteer their living, unconscious bodies for surrogacy or training in amputation techniques. Respect for someone’s dignity is significantly impacted by a failure to value that person’s very existence, whatever genuine respect and good will is shown by wanting the person’s life to go well. Valuing and respecting life is not, however, vitalism: there can be good and compelling reasons for eschewing some means of prolonging life.