Logic of Catastrophe – Deeper Logic of Reality
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Logic of Catastrophe – Deeper Logic of Reality
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Jovan Babić 
Affiliation: University of Belgrade
Address: Cika-Ljubina 18-20. 11000 Belgrade. Serbia

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.

Pandemics, catastrophe, deep logic or reality, rights, privileges, indifference towards others
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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.
7 Life is defined here as a long-term intergenerational and multigenerational project. The constraints linked to the continuation of life can produce duties and obligations that will necessarily function prior to any other interests, prior to all those interests that hinder them. This priority is essentially normative, but in reality it will appear as factual and peremptory. If this is true, it means that both interests and their limitations that are manifested within the valid limits of their realization (articulated as duties and obligations) precede rights (they have primacy to established rights). Rights rely on and control interests and, even more, their limitations, but they also supervene on them.


9 Before we turn to the concept of right in some more details, let us first discuss a few other preliminaries. The most important parameter we are dealing with regarding current corona virus pandemic is the ignorance in its many forms. The function of ignorance in this context is far-reaching. Ignorance is a very powerful tool in producing various consequences. Sometimes ignorance excuses, sometimes it prevents good results or, more than that, prevents one from getting out of trouble. Relevant knowledge here is empirical in its nature, which means that it cannot be deductively derived from some basic and universally accepted axioms that are independent of experience. And the pandemic we face now is a kind of a new phenomenon that, in the form we face it, might not have been experienced in the past. Or at least, it is new to the currently living generations, which never experienced the disease-ridden history of their ancestors. Rapid and enormous progress in technological knowledge hasmade life much easier and more comfortable than ever, and this might be the source for disbelief that the pandemic is, or that it can be, something really difficult and dangerous. Although facts must be found in experience and cannot be discovered “deductively” (using only our intellectual capacities), they still exist independently of any experience: presumably they are there even if nobody perceives them, despite the fact that our perceiving and experiencing (obtainable often only indirectly though experimentation) is the condition for our knowledge of them. Why would we mention obvious things like this here? Because an important part of the problem comes from the lack of proper understanding of this simple thing. It is well known that we have witnessed, and still are witnessing, huge disagreements about basic facts in our subject, for example regarding the notion of “vaccine”: many refuse to accept any new version of it because it allegedly puts into question its very definition (how is it possible to call a “vaccine” something that is so different from what has been named as such before?).
10 Another, even more basic, sign that this ignorance appears as a misunderstanding is widespread belief that the factuality of facts is determined by “experts” in a strange procedure of their negotiation about which facts exist. We could notice, if we pay attention, that very often people, and not always lay people, demand "consensus", demand that "experts finally agree" on what is at stake, "so that we all know what the facts are". As if the facts are the matter of negotiation, as if the epistemology of social constructivism has been extended to the natural sciences and their subject! The function of ignorance seems to have become even more important in this complex and gloomy context.
11 Even more important is the fashionable view of “democratic” nature of knowledge, amplified by the internet and social networks. The significance of knowledge is huge, but the (negative) importance of ignorance in situations like this one is enormous and extraordinary. Ignorance often implies false knowledge, and this can have the power to cause aggressive rejection of anything which even seemingly contradicts some tenet of the accepted or semi-accepted belief. Moreover, the contradicting datum will be rejected as “non-factual” or “unscientific” (which is why a proper understanding of facts is so important).
12 Ignorance is not just the negation of knowledge, it is much more complex. It produces two dangerous beliefs. Firstly, that anyone has “a right” to understand everything that concerns them at all, no matter how cursorily (Babić, 2006) and in any way, in order “to be accepted”. Secondly, there is underlining assumption that a brief explanation is sufficient to clarify any fact to those who don’t know the subject matter yet, and the one who “didn’t know” will then know, changing their attitude toward the subject of possible disagreement immediately. All disagreements would be eliminated easily (so any sign of reluctance in this regard might be perceived as a sign of bad will). Finally, the power of ignorance can be stretched to infinity, according to the logical rule Ex falso quodlibet: From false premises follows anything.
13 Our only reliable connection to the reality is knowledge, empirical knowledge, which is, by definition, incomplete and imperfect. This means that our knowledge might not be sufficient for the task of solving many problems, but that fact does not mean that something else can substitute it. There are still many things we do not know about the current COVID pandemic, although the scope of our knowledge is much greater than two years ago, when the pandemic started. For example, it is not clear what would have happened if the vaccination had been carried out efficiently, i. e. in a fast and comprehensive way (leaving aside, for the sake of argument, whether this was possible or not). Would that be the complete end of the story, the end of those processes that have kept the world under blockade for years?
14 If universal vaccination could have stopped that process, the question arises why it was not done, whether it was possible or not, and if not, for what reasons it was not possible. This then moves the point of the argument to a whole other level; but we can put this direction of discussion aside, as it is obviously off topic. If universal vaccination could not stop the further process of development and spread of the pandemic, then that indicates that COVID is a cardinal, and much bigger, catastrophe than what we thought it was.
15 Since it seems that these questions cannot be answered, this argument does not promise relevance or credibility, so we will instead concentrate on two directions or levels of argumentation that are less dependent on specificity of the answers to such empirical questions. These two are as follows: First, the level of functioning of collective immunity as a source of the general obligation to vaccinate and a restriction of all those rights, real and imagined, that stand in the way of that obligation. This argument will show that the "right to non-vaccination", even if taken as a real right, is subject to the logic of restrictions to which many other (though not all) rights are subject, the consumption of which depends on accessibility and affordability. This will be an argument based on the principle that "everyone" does not imply "all".
16 The second level of argument is more cardinal - it shows that, even in the conditions of scarcity and inevitable slowness that vaccination faces, there is a duty not to harm others, no matter how attractive it may be in the context of the irresistibility of some exotic and powerful motives. Passive protection of others (contained in the principle of “do no harm”) is a source of universal obligation that is in no way subject to free and "private" decision-making about what we care or do not care about in the end. In this second level, accessibility and affordability do not play the constitutive role they have in constituting those rights that are privileges and whose exercise depends on the fact that not everyone will reach for their consumption. All rights are restrictions on someone else's freedom and imply a normative change that restricts everyone in what they can do, but privileges, unlike claim rights (for more about classifications of rights see Hohfeld, 1946), cannot be distributed universally (i. e. to all) without restrictions. (Claim rights, in principle, can apply to all, not just to everyone taken as particular candidates for their consumption: although not everyone can be a monk, everyone can buy a house, or get married, if they wish and if there is an opportunity to do so).

Rights, main part; the right to not be vaccinated

18 In catastrophes, language of rights suddenly becomes unconvincing and void. But it is so only because catastrophes make it visible; in principle it is latently so for most rights. They all depend on availability, and some on the form of their distribution. Ordinarily, so called “claim rights” depend just on availability and affordability, but some other rights, those that confer privileges, also depend on the assumption that not everyone is interested in them. For example rights to refuse to vote, or to become a monk, would cease to exist if everyone would actually claim them. They depend on the hidden fact that there will be enough of those who will not consume such rights. This is the feature of all rights and all privileges, and this is very evident in the current misunderstandings regarding the "right not to be vaccinated". My argument at this stage was that such a right, if allowed, would depend on a sufficient number of those who do not claim it. The logical error comes from the erroneous assumption that "everyone" implies “all”: the clause that everyone has a certain right does not entail that all may exercise that right even though all are entitled to claim it. “Everyone”” is a different kind of quantifier here, meaning that anyone can be a candidate for such a right, nothing more. And even then, it is a very exclusive, and strange, kind of privilege. This implies that it may not be able to withstand the rigor of possible requirements in disaster situations.
19 However, if we go even deeper into the logic of pandemics, partly independent of the logic of catastrophes (which could leave aside the “normal” norms in what we can call “normality of life” (see Babić, 2015), we can ask ourselves whether the aspiration to avoid vaccination can be valid at all. We can say that everyone has the right to jump off a bridge (with the intention of committing suicide), provided that not everyone does, but we can also say that no one has the right to push others off bridges (with an intention, for example, of seeing what happens). If the intention to avoid vaccination is more like pushing others off bridges than jumping off them, we can conclude that the “right to non-vaccination” is not sustainable at all, not even as an exception (the logic of exception is part of the thesis that “everybody” does not imply “all”).
20 In a way, all this can be considered an old question of skepticism. But if we include the notion of responsibility in the story, the matter becomes serious and, possibly, connected with a deeper layer of normativity: valid and justified implementation of different levels of normativity contained at different levels of rights and their limitations. The normative force of constrains may prove to be stronger than the normative force of rights (even in case of claim rights, and especially in case of rights as privileges). It remains to be seen whether, as far as vaccination is concerned, this level will be reached in the near future. However, we can say with certainty that it would be strange and irresponsible to be surprised if deeper layer of reality (from which the limitations of the rights we aspire come) does not impose requirements of intersubjectivity that go beyond the normative force of established expectations in an attempt to preserve what has been seen as vitally important and obligatory to preserve.


22 In today's pandemic, this all means that even if vaccination is voluntary, it does not mean that everyone could refuse to be vaccinated. As collective immunity can only be achieved by reaching a certain percentage of those who have acquired immunity (so called “collective immunity”, the definition of which needs to be specified) this means that "the right not to be vaccinated", although universal, does not cover “all”. Recognition that everyone has the right not to be vaccinated, that right is still limited in numbers only to the difference between the percentage required for collective immunity and 100% of the entire population. So, if collective immunity is available, for example, at 80% this implies that only 20% of the population can have such a right. Who then has that right? Everyone has it, provided that everyone who wants to use that right belongs to the 20% that is not necessary for collective immunity. The point is that everyone still has that right, but obviously it is not the case that all have it. nyone interested can have it if their number is less than 20% of the total population. Such logic is already contained in many accepted rights, such as the right to be a monk and follow celibacy, or to be homosexual, or to not vote in general elections: such rights are valid only on the supposition that there will remain enough of those who are not going to “consume” that right. There wouldn’t be elections and all what depends on it (the consequences certainly would be cardinal, producing far reaching and for the purpose of elections disastrous effect) in the first case, and humankind simply couldn’t exist if all were homosexuals or celibacy pursuing monks. (The percentage, above which all these activities would have to be prohibited, of those who would really have the right to not be vaccinated would presumably still be higher than the percentage of homosexuals or monks).
23 Of course, all this would become unnecessary and redundant if vaccination was mandatory. But the question of whether it should be mandatory depends on another question: is the right not to be vaccinated analogous to a right like the one to celibacy – or is it more akin to a right to shoot randomly in the dark, or the imaginary “right” to push others off the bridges. If second is the case, the dialectics between “everyone” and “all” would cease its relevance. Talking of “rights” then becomes implausible and unconvincing because “deeper logic of reality” then prevails (within the limits of what is possible, of course).
24 The text does not analyze the moral dimension of the attitude towards the current pandemics, above all what is perhaps the most important from the moral point of view: the attitude towards others. Here we are confronted with one morally extremely malignant phenomenon: moral indifference towards others, which looks like extreme selfishness and worse. The right not to be vaccinated can be justified in a similar way as the right to commit suicide, or to participate in the game of Russian roulette (with all restrictions included), but from a moral point of view, that is not the main problem. The main problem is not that one can freely accept the risk of illness and death (if one perceives vaccination as a humiliation large enough that they would rather accept that risk of illness and dying than be humiliated by vaccine), but something else: that it is possible to infect others to aggravate access to medical care (by getting very ill, taking up hospital beds, and preventing doctors from being able to treat other ongoing diseases). In that sense antivaxers are more similar to hackers who make malicious computer programs, so-called "viruses" (which, when released, for no reason hit unknown victims) than "real" terrorists (who invest their moral and physical integrity in attacking the innocents to draw attention to their, in their view unjust and undeserved, disenfranchisement and helplessness). Morally, it is much worse than participating in war: the rule of war allows not only the risk of dying but, which is morally much worse, of killing others, but that relationship is reciprocal. There is no reciprocity in refusing vaccination, so irresponsibility towards oneself becomes insignificant compared to irresponsibility towards others.


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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