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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Weighing Values in the Midst of a Pandemic

balance scale

balance scale

Don Heider

Don Heider is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

Health experts are clear. Keeping people away from each other is the best way of slowing and eventually stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Yet at the same time, this strategy is doing serious damage to the economy and some people’s ability to make a living. Given these competing interests, what’s the most ethical course moving forward?

Ethics really is what we turn to when there are competing moral claims. In the current pandemic, what are the competing claims? On one hand, we want to save lives. Preserving human life is a moral principle that transcends cultures, times, national boundaries, and religious beliefs. In other words, it’s a universal moral principle.

The competing claim? A hurting economy does have costs. Because of the coronavirus, we have seen parts of our economy hurt: retail, travel, hospitality, auto sales, entertainment, sports. People have been laid off, paychecks have stopped, the stock market has plummeted. So we are harming many people economically by calling for social isolation.

At the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, we use five lenses to help make ethical decisions. You may know them as …

Utilitarian Approach

The utilitarian approach to ethics tells us to choose the outcome that produces the greatest good and does the least harm. Is the greatest good keeping everyone employed? Or is the greatest good keeping everyone, or as many as possible, alive? In the case, we think the least harm would mean what option can we choose that preserves the largest number of human lives.

Rights Approach

The rights approach to ethics attempts to protect moral rights of those affected. We all certainly have the right to work and make a living. But even as many jobs have come to a halt, others have emerged. For instance, retail jobs are on hold, but supply chain jobs, jobs at grocery stores, and jobs at Amazon are increasing. So displacing workers certainly deprives some people of their chosen profession, exposing workers to a potentially deadly virus would deprive them of their right to survive, surely a more fundamental human right.

Fairness Approach

The fairness, or justice, approach asks which option treats people equally or proportionately. Shelter-in-place rules are designed to try to protect everyone in the same way, equally. By having everyone shelter at home (apart from essential workers), we are also seeking to protect everyone equally from the virus. Asking workers to go back to work before the virus is alleviated; privileges workers who can work from home and disadvantages those folks who have to work in factories or in close quarters with each other or the general public and all with whom they come in contact.

Common Good Approach

The common good approach advocates for conditions which help society as a whole. A healthy economy is good for society overall. Safety from a deadly disease is also a common good. On balance, we would argue being protected from the virus does more to promote good than does a healthy economy. With a tremendous loss of life, we may not have a society at all.

Virtue Approach

Finally, the virtue approach asks us to consider options that would make us the best person we can be. In this case, it would be choosing options that make us the best country we can be. Do we want to be a country that is known for doing everything we can to protect citizens, especially vulnerable citizens, or do we want to be known as a country that puts economic values first in all things? The answer seems clear.

The coronavirus is having a devastating effect on the economy, and especially on certain segments. We have to ask though, will this economic downturn be a permanent or temporary situation? The economic pain is real, but by most accounts, temporary. Death is most certainly permanent.

If you listen to almost any financial analyst, almost any economist, they have a similar message in the midst of the economic rollercoaster caused by the pandemic—that is the economy will recover (as reported in The Atlantic and Forbes).

So when we hear leaders call for citizens to either ignore social distancing, or for an accelerated easing of shelter-at-home restrictions, one thing seems clear from an ethical perspective; these leaders are putting money ahead of human life. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has called for senior citizens to sacrifice their lives for the economy (as reported in Vanity Fair).

Every credible medical source tells us, if we are able to stay the course for a few weeks or several months, we will save thousands of lives and ensure that our economy is on long-standing, solid footing. On balance, is sacrificing those lives worth a quicker return to economic activity that holds little promise of being a lasting economic recovery?

Using our framework for ethical decision making, we conclude that those calling for protecting people’s health first and foremost, are calling for the right and good ethical choice in regard to the overall well being of Americans.


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Mar 30, 2020