Logic of Catastrophe – Deeper Logic of Reality

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: University of Belgrade
Address: Cika-Ljubina 18-20. 11000 Belgrade. Serbia
Journal nameChelovek
EditionVolume 33 Issue 3

The huge change brought about by the coronavirus pandemic contains some structural characteristics that define it as a catastrophe. The text explores and offers an outline of a possible analysis of some of the logical and normative features of this phenomenon. Catastrophes are not crises, they are unpredictable, not self-inflicted, accompanied by scarce knowledge or ignorance, and imply some restraints coming from necessities that are their consequences. One of the most important of those consequences are restraints in what in normal circumstances were valid rights, especially those rights that are privileges, i.e. rights that depend on the clause that they won’t be “consumed” by all – implying that in such rights “all” does not imply “everyone”. At the end, the issue of reciprocity and responsibility towards others is briefly mentioned, and especially the phenomenon of widespread indifference towards others.

KeywordsPandemics, catastrophe, deep logic or reality, rights, privileges, indifference towards others
Publication date24.06.2022
Number of characters22149
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1 In situation of widespread confusion regarding Corona pandemics it is not clear where to place the focus of importance and what to emphasize. It is rather obvious that the level of needed knowledge about all relevant facts is lacking. However, the basic notions and conceptual distinctions, those that are usually taken as being of constitutive significance in this sense, are not clear enough nor universally accepted. Even the notion of what is factual is not established properly as a semantic reality, as it should be. One of those notions that seem most important in this context, the concept of rights, seems to have especially disastrous effect on the quality of this discussion. My thesis will be that the Corona pandemics is a type of catastrophe, not a mere crisis. Catastrophes are unpredictable, introduce a high level of uncertainty about what’s happening, destroy our established normative schemes that regulate what we normally do, significantly diminish our capacity to predict and control the future, and even make some laws redundant and obsolete. The scope of what we can or should do change. This introduces a new reality, and produces a need for new kinds of regulation. Previously accepted normative schemes lose their plausibility and relevance. One of those normative schemes, the concept of rights, will be analyzed in more detail later in this short text.

Catastrophe, not crisis

3 The huge changes brought about by the Corona virus pandemic contain some structural characteristics that define it as a catastrophe. It is not a crisis. Crises are something we get ourselves into; they are usually crossroads where we face particularly difficult dilemmas that are results of previous mistakes in decision making, whether those mistakes are the result of ignorance or lack of precision and courage in the decision-making process. In that sense, crises are essentially always at least partially self-inflicted (and, at least to some extent, culpable), which is not the case with catastrophes. Catastrophes are external, unpredictable, come suddenly, and usually do not provide a chance for preparations. They bring a new reality in which many things that were taken as obvious are not such anymore, and many accepted norms lose their effectiveness and even applicability. At the same time they introduce urgency and a need for fast decision-making. The extent of need to act is maximal. In catastrophes we face a need for increased regulatory requirements regarding many aspects of life. It appears as if the deeper layer of reality imposes its mandatory, though by assumption temporary, demands. My thesis is that this logic is not necessarily different from the logic according to which many of our established expectations and rights are already articulated. The difference is in the suddenness and speed of the advent of new phenomenon without established and accepted rules of regulation. The rules regulating the new phenomena have to be formulated, but also accepted, and before that happens there is an empty normative space where the rules and rights are not determined and defined.

Rights, introductory part

5 Оne of the most important parts in facing the pandemics is malfunction in the concept of “rights”. We are living in the age of a specific ideology of rights, and rights are usually taken as sacrosanct and inalienable (cf. Simmons, 1983). However, I propose that rights are not that fundamental, and certainly not sacrosanct, as many believe today. Normative logic of rights is similar to the logic according to which laws function – they are conventions which, to be efficient, must be taken as if they are unchangeable, although they are not. But this is the logic of promises as well, and all other norms – they have to be accepted as mandatory in their lifespan, in the interval in which they are really valid. It is logic of laws and customs, they function sub specie aeternitatis, as if they are eternal although they are not. In fact they usually are (mutual, reciprocal) exchanges of claims and privileges we make with each other, to facilitate established expectations in their work of controlling the future in two main forms: controlling what we will do and what will actually happen.
6 In that sense rights are conventions, valid only temporary – as long as the word “sub” (“as if”) in the clause “sub specie aeternitatis” (“as if they are eternal”) is convincing and accepted (normally, although not necessarily, it will be accepted as long as they are perceived as acceptable, ie. perceived as attractive enough to be accepted). This implies that any actual distribution of rights is a matter of permanent refinement and change – rights are not stable and fixed. As soon as they confront a real challenge, they will be reconsidered, which means they will become subject to the process of possible reinterpretation, in the search of their most sustainable and resilient formulation. Especially, and that will be a subject of this short analysis, this will be the case when they, the rights, conflict with what I will call “deeper realm of reality”. That kind of reality is particularly visible in catastrophes, but is also present in the set of basic, or long-term important, interests of our common life and the limits and constraints of all possible interests that come into possible conflict with those more important interests, primarily interests invested in the continuation of life and its basic structure1. 1. It is not so only with rights, all norms are subject to this provision. For example, the norm of incest, which might be one of the most basic constitutive rules of our civilization, would have to be abandoned if the continuation of life were dependent on that. The biblical story of Lot and his daughters might be taken as illustration there: if the survival of humankind depends on, perhaps only temporary or onetime breaking of this rule it would suddenly become justifiable to break it.

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1. A. John Simmons. Inalienable Rights and Locke’s Treatises. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1983. Vol. 12. P. 3.

2. Babić J. Self-Regarding / Other-Regarding Acts, Prolegomena 5:2 (2006); on the link https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26453577_Self-Regarding_Other-Regarding_Acts

3. Babić J. „Trust, predictability, and lasting peace“, Facta Universitatis, 14:1 (2015); on the link https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284187813_Trust_Predictability_and_Lasting_Peace

4. Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld, Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning, Yale University Press, 1946.

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