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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

During Our Continuing COVID-19 Crisis, Good Ethical-Decision Making May Be Our Only Hope

Two hands grasping, like a handshake

Two hands grasping, like a handshake

Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP


Thomas Plante (@ThomasPlante) Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, is a faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. Views are his own.


As we continue to struggle mightily with the twists and turns of COVID-19 that has now included the recent delta variant, politicization of mask mandates, and the reluctance of so many anti-vaccination holdouts, our frustration and stress levels have soared. Just when we thought that we were almost done with the virus earlier this summer, we have sadly realized that the virus is certainly not done with us. Adding insult to injury is the easy and readily acceptance of misinformation and distortions about the virus and public health science. Somehow, too many people would rather believe social media influencers (whoever they are) and random people on Facebook or TikTok than public health experts, state and county public health officials, and the CDC. Oy!

Adding the accelerating and palpable effects of climate change, daily reports of egregious discrimination, racism, and sexism, rampant wildfires, widening economic inequality, and so many other rather apocalyptic social problems of our time, it is no wonder that people are stressed out to the max. Sadly and often tragically, ongoing frustration paired with chronic stressors can easily result in aggression and violence according to the well-researched frustration-aggression theory. We are clearly seeing an uptick in aggressive behavior all around us on airplanes, in grocery stores, bars and restaurants, in the streets, and disrespectful snarky comments on all the social media platforms. Those with the biggest and loudest bullhorns, such as politicians, cable news anchors, and popular influencers with many followers fuel the flames making everything so much worse.

Perhaps now more than ever before (or at least in recent memory), good ethical decision-making and pleas for embracing morals have been cast aside by many. With current alarming levels of societal disturbance, too many people have let egoism or self-interest rule the day. When I bring up ethics in my discussions and writings during the past year and a half, I am often told that ethics are a “quaint relic from the past” and that I am not only naive but have an overly optimistic view of human nature. Acquisition editors from a variety of publishing houses have recently told me, when I approached them about writing a new ethics book during an upcoming sabbatical, that no one is really interested in ethics and that no one thinks they have a personal problem with ethics. I beg to differ.

Ethics are perhaps more critically important than ever as so many of the problems that we face with COVID-19 and good public health policy and implementation are at their root, problems in ethical decision making and human behavior. We need to push back on egoism and encourage the common good for all, and perhaps especially for the most vulnerable. We need to embrace virtues of respect and dignity for everyone, compassion, care for those who suffer, and to use the best evidence-based science in human behavior and public health too. Rather than reinforcing egoism and narcissism, we have to find a way to reinforce the common good with common sense. We may need both carrots and sticks to do so.

How tragic that such suffering, death, and even our possible extinction is in human hands when possible and reasonable solutions and strategies are within our grasp. Jesuit higher education offered at Santa Clara University and elsewhere is an excellent start to help turn the tide but there is a tsunami of problematic thinking and behavior motivated by self-interest out there against us. We have to work hard to help evangelize the rest of the world to become people of competence, conscience, and compassion for all and for the hope of a better tomorrow. It is a daunting task and we need all hands on deck from ethical people of good will to have a prayer for success. If we fail with this task, we all fail and there may not be any opportunity for another try.


Sep 7, 2021