A clash over policies and the trade-offs involved would be one thing, and, given the stakes, such a clash would inevitably involve powerful emotions. But even where there were minimal policy differences, those who were deemed by social media activists to be insufficiently affrighted were subjected to vitriolic hostility—standing accused of callousness or rank stupidity, a deficiency in morals or intelligence or both. Being a good person came to mean not just staying indoors and washing your hands and doing everything necessary to minimize your chances of catching the virus or infecting others, but also following self-appointed opinion leaders up to the right pitch of anxiety. Nothing practical depended on doing so, but something of the highest importance for social psychology did.
This is not merely a philosophical problem in psychology. The deaths from despair that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over recent years—through suicides and foreseeable drug overdoses—are a real-world symptom of the pathological inadequacy of this all-too-rational Hobbesian system. Liberals have warned over the past half decade of the rise of an irrational populism, which they fear will lead to authoritarian politics or social violence. Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, Identity, diagnoses those who are not content with life after the end of history as suffering from megalothymia, an excess of spiritedness and desire for respect—a condition Hobbes would have recognized as the malady of vainglory. Yet the opposite condition, a depletion of passionate spirit, is in truth the one from which more people suffer and perish today: not an inadequate fear of death, but a deficiency of reasons to live.