COVID-19: What are the ethical issues?

Norton’s authors and editors continue to work hard during the COVID-19 crisis to create the best classroom resources we can. An Introduction to Moral Philosophy author Jonathan Wolff talked with his editor Ken Barton about how they should approach a new afterword for the second edition of the book (forthcoming) that applies moral philosophy to the COVID-19 crisis.

Ken Barton: How has the current crisis impacted your approach to the new edition?

Jonathan Wolff: Because of the normal publishing process, the main writing was finished well before lockdown, and I was getting ready to move on to other work, but as you’ll know you had other ideas for me!

Ken Barton: That’s right. One of the new features of the book is to show how moral reasoning can be applied to practical problems; and then out of nowhere came perhaps the biggest crisis of a generation.

Jonathan Wolff: Yes. The pandemic is a health crisis. It’s also an economic crisis. But underlying all of this a moral crisis. Governments, health facility managers, and ordinary citizens face moral dilemmas on a scale they have never seen before. Luckily we had a window of opportunity to produce an afterword exploring some of the issues in the final days before it went to press. And so that’s what we did. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

Ken Barton: Why do you say that the pandemic is a moral crisis?

Jonathan Wolff: There are at least three levels on which very serious moral questions arise. First it is a moral crisis for governments. Their decisions will determine who lives and who dies even in the next weeks or months, something very rare outside of wartime. Second it is a crisis for those who have to allocate scarce medical resources, such as ventilators or even protective clothing for health workers. But finally it’s a hugely significant moral question for each of us too. What are our responsibilities as private citizens?

Ken Barton: But why do you say ordinary citizens have moral responsibilities?

Jonathan Wolff: For at least two reasons. First, every one of us has a responsibility to scrutinize, assess, and insofar as we can, try to influence the decisions made by our leaders. Our leaders are responsible to us, but in return we have a responsibility to hold our leaders to account, to make sure that they do the right things, the right ways, for the right reasons. But second, in a pandemic how each of us behaves has vitally important effects on others, even on life and health. Some super-spreaders are said to have been responsible each for hundreds or thousands of infections, and so, most likely, numerous deaths. Who wants that on their conscience? Thinking about the questions in the light of the best moral philosophy will help us to understand what it is to be a good person and a good citizen in a pandemic. And everyone will benefit from that.

You can find an excerpt of the new Introduction to Moral Philosophy afterword below. Feel free to use this excerpt in your class. And if you’d like to see the new edition when it publishes, you can contact your Norton rep here to request an exam copy.

Excerpted Afterword:

For many of us it was hard to grasp the seriousness of the virus at first. I had expensive theatre tickets. Was I going to stay at home and miss the show? Or go and do my best not to mingle with other theatre-goers? In the beginning, the general view was that for most people COVID-19 would not be very serious. Older people with compromised immune systems or with heart or lung conditions would be the most at risk, and others, especially younger people, felt that they could carry on with normal life. We saw photographs of students on spring break in Florida, partying as if nothing at all had changed. When you have made plans, spent money, and feel personally at low risk, it is natural to want to carry on as normal, even if, in retrospect, that decision may look very different now.

We have seen several problems with the assumption that life for young people could continue as normal. First, although young people without underlying health conditions are at a lower risk of death, they are not completely risk free. It’s already clear that COVID-19 can indeed be a very nasty illness in young and healthy bodies, and recovery can be long and difficult, and lead to other serious complications. Still, whether to carry on with life as it is may seem purely a matter of personal choice. But second, and much more important, is the fact that those with mild symptoms or none at all can unknowingly spread the virus. Young or not, we are charged with a responsibility to those around us. In a crowded room, the virus can transmit widely, and carriers will inevitably mix with people from vulnerable groups. There comes a point where social mixing of a type that is perfectly normal, and, indeed, generally encouraged, tips into gross and unethical irresponsibility.

Similar observations apply to adherence to quarantining, isolation, and social distancing mandates. In many countries people who are not essential workers may only leave their places of residence for grocery shopping and exercise. They may not go out to meet friends, spend time in parks or the countryside, or venture out for any reason beyond what is necessary for physical health. Nevertheless, these regulations are often disregarded. And such disregard can be morally troubling. If infection rates continue to a point where each infected person infects on average one or more others, the epidemic will never end, and health services could ultimately collapse, causing untold damage.

Here we can see that as each of us struggles through the personal dilemma of how often to leave the home, there can be a clash of forms of argument. How does moral philosophy help? Let’s start with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the theory that the right action is the one that, in the long term, maximizes the sum total of happiness in the world. A variant known as negative utilitarianism, which asks how we can minimize pain, helps us to focus in this particular case. From a utilitarian point of view, I might reason that if I go out, the benefits are clear. I will get a little bit of happiness. But what are the costs? If I am not infected and am not carrying the virus in other ways, and am pretty careful, the chances of getting infected myself are low. But it may be that I am carrying the virus, and if so there is some chance I will infect others. And still, I might convince myself these chances are negligible. Some utilitarians might reason that the small, certain benefit to me outweighs the tiny chance of serious harm. Therefore, according to this argument, it is permitted for me to go out a little more than is recommended. Of course, many utilitarians will say that this argument miscalculates the risk and I should stay at home. Here I’m merely suggesting that it is possible that different utilitarians could carry out the “stay at home” calculation in different ways.

The Kantian, however, will be critical of the claim that the likelihood of benefit, outweighing the risk of harm, justifies leaving the house. Key ideas from Kant are the importance of respecting all people; of generating universal laws; and not treating others purely as means to your ends. First of all, the Kantian would be hesitant to merely consider consequences or conduct mathematical calculations of maximum utility. Of course, it would be crazy—suicidal even—to ignore consequences in a pandemic. But Kantians would look first for universalizable principles that treat everyone with respect and do not treat anyone as a means. On the basis of the utilitarian calculation, can we form a universal law? In other words, is it possible to will as a general rule the maxim, “go out if you believe you are not infected and will enjoy going out”? Whether there is a strict contradiction in the maxim or not, if everyone followed this rule at least a few people would spread infection without knowing it and would likely cause the infection to take hold again, possibly to collective disaster. Going out more often than recommended can only work if people make an exception of themselves, against Kantian principles. In other words, if you believe that it is right for everyone to stay inside as much as possible, but allow yourself to be an exception to the rule, you have created an impossible rule. To make exceptions of ourselves is a form of free riding on the goodwill of others—we assume that if everyone else is behaving and doing their part, it is okay if I slacken up with my own actions. The Aristotelian will further support this reasoning, saying that going out, despite the likelihood of causing harm, is a show of disregard for others that demonstrates bad character.

But yet again the ethics of gender and race introduce interesting and valuable perspectives to the social distancing question. Here we ask, who suffers most if no one goes out? Perhaps mothers looking after young children on their own. Poorer people in crowded housing with no outdoor space. People with no privacy, or with no access to good internet connection. People accidentally separated from their families. All of these scenarios are taking place across the globe as I write. Once more, what looks like a rule designed for all—such as the rule of social distancing—will have unequal impacts on different groups, from refugees to the poor, from women suffering domestic violence to racial groups within our own cities and towns. There is need for some nuance in actual policy to accommodate different circumstances, instead of reinforcing privilege and disadvantage. This crisis may play a critical role in revealing how inequality is sustained.

One of the key issues currently emerging from the COVID-19 crisis is the meaning of leadership in such difficult circumstances. Somehow, we need leaders who are firm and clear, but not dogmatic, and who are flexible enough to change course or to admit they are wrong. Leaders who put their own image or interests above the peoples’ health and interests will be exposed as tragically inept or corrupt. On the other hand, those who simply follow public opinion without true virtue are not likely to be successful in the long term either.

Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean–that true virtue often is the middle point between two opposing vices–is helpful here. Good judgment is the mean between indecision and dogmatism. It entails assessing advice from a wide variety of sources, rather than either putting all of your faith in your own instincts or throwing up your hands in despair. Compassion is the mean between indifference and being paralyzed by emotion. The doctrine of the mean involves paying attention to details and responding to them. Aside from our health, what we need to see most of all is that flexibility in our leaders; listening to all voices and avoiding fixed ideas is critical now, and will continue to be into the future.

I’m writing these words in May 2020, wondering how they will look in a few weeks, months, or years. The world in which they will be read, even in a year’s time, will be different in many ways, ways I cannot possibly predict. My hope is that the virus will have died down, that a vaccine, along with widespread testing, is on its way or is already here, and that those of us with the luxury to do so have taken the opportunity to reflect on what is truly important in our own lives, in the lives of others, and for society as a whole.