David E. DeCosse is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
What’s the right thing to do when you find yourself in the middle of a pandemic?
You’re not alone if you’re not sure how to answer that question. So here are five ethical basics to consider for this difficult time…
- It’s not only about you.
One thing that pandemics reveal to us—like it or not—is that we are literally and ethically connected to everyone else. Seeing this goes against many grains. We like to think that we are masters of our own fate; or that we’re young and strong and won’t get sick; or that we’re not responsible for what happens to someone on the other side of town; or that it’s someone else’s fault if he or she gets sick. But a pandemic contradicts all those assumptions. Because we are so interconnected with others, it can be medically and ethically necessary to have our freedom restricted by such practices as quarantine or social distancing or “shelter-in-place” orders. By heeding these restrictions, we are far less likely to become infected. And by heeding these restrictions, we are also far less likely to harm others by passing on the virus—even when we have no symptoms and even when the “others” in question may be people whom we will never know.
- In a pandemic, ethics takes a long view
When we think of the phrase, “Do the right thing,” we usually think of taking an ethical action that would benefit someone in the here and now. No pandemic changes the importance of such actions. But a pandemic also requires that we act ethically with a long view. We may never see the benefit of actions we take like social distancing other than in charts that show in months ahead a slowing rate of infection in our community. We also may never know all those who have been helped by our actions to prevent the spread of the virus.
- Don’t fear everything but fear the right things
In a pandemic, our foe is silent and invisible. Coronavirus hides in tiny respiratory droplets and shows itself only under a microscope or when it emerges as a ravaging illness. Because we can’t see it or touch it or hear it, it may seem pointless to take extreme actions like quarantine or social distancing. And because we can’t see it or touch it or hear it, we may also feel anxious and fear that everything or everyone could infect us. Here it’s a crucial aspect of our responsibility to pay attention to credible public health experts about what we should do and not do. Fear alone can drive us to our worst ethical behavior. Fear mixed with common sense and good science can dispose us to take the actions we ought to take.
- In a pandemic, ethics stays the same—and ethics also changes
No pandemic changes the essential duties we have to respect and care for others and for ourselves. And no pandemic changes the requirement of justice that the poor and disadvantaged should not bear harm more than everyone else. But pandemics also can be such extreme situations that they threaten things that we normally take for granted. So a pandemic can cause so many people to be sick that health care systems become overwhelmed and societies begin to break down. In such an out-of-control scenario, our usual ethical assumptions about who should get treated can give way in the face of scarce medical resources and the threat of disorder. We may usually assume, “the first to come should be the first to be served.” But, in a pandemic, the guiding ethical principles for the provision of health care may be “save the most lives” or “save those most likely to recover” or “save people first who can preserve society” (like health-care workers and public safety officers).
- Beware the bias in blaming
Pandemics create fear. In part, that’s because the risks are great: Coronavirus can cause serious illness and death. And in part it’s because it’s so hard to figure out how to stop the spread of this infection, which seems to proceed like a sinister, seeping cloud. Amid such fear, we can start casting blame for the pandemic on whole groups of people. But we need to make crucial, ethical distinctions. It’s one thing to hold individuals accountable after a careful and impartial analysis of their actions. It’s another thing to blame whole groups of people on account of their skin color or country of origin or immigration status for actions—and a virus—over which they have no control.