How should we maintain our moral compasses during COVID-19?

Illustration of people representing different moral philosophies, with the Rawlsian philosophy highlighted
Margueritte Ross/Staff

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Nothing has killed more human beings than infectious disease has, and COVID-19 highlights the continuity of our vulnerability. A crisis can compel us to make moral decisions that reveal what kinds of people we really are. Above all, this pandemic is a moral test for humanity. The epidemic pressures everyone to face profound questions of human existence — it’s a test that all humans stand and must take.

“Every country in the world is facing the same set of ethical questions and dilemmas. … How we answer will be a real test of our humanity and sense of justice,” said Anita Allen, a member of former president Barack Obama’s bioethics committee. Allen asks us, what is right and what is wrong? What can individuals expect from society and what can society expect of them? Is our government’s role simply to set economic and public health guidelines in fighting a deadly disease, or should we expect more?

There are many ideas and approaches in terms of how communities and governments should cope with the pandemic; each is being put to the test. As we are put to the test alongside them, which should we support?

The United Kingdom seems to be heeding the utilitarians. Utilitarianism states that we should choose our course of action based on what is best for the greatest number of people. For example, in situations such as a pandemic, utilitarianism says some people may be justly sacrificed for the greater good. It would benefit society to accept casualties, the argument goes, to minimize disruption.

Britain’s chief scientific adviser stoked controversy when he estimated that about 40 million people in the U.K. could need to catch the coronavirus to build herd immunity. He claimed this would prevent the disease from resurging and protect the economy in the long term. Today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has abandoned its herd immunity plan, even admitting that it was a failure.

On a different note, libertarians often find themselves in conflict with their states, especially in the United States. Libertarians emphasize personal freedom, in terms of both politics and personal autonomy. As a result, there have been objections to lockdowns on the libertarian basis that they infringe on personal rights.

In more normal times, social media is crammed with images of big social gatherings. In many parts of the United States, this pattern persists. “If I get corona, I get corona,” proclaimed a 22-year-old at a spring break party in Florida. Even the American Civil Liberties Union chimed in on how COVID-19 has negatively impacted civil liberties: “The evidence is clear that travel bans and quarantines are not the solution.”

However, the libertarian approach to the pandemic is ineffective and unethical, as it poses great risk to others. Lockdown and canceling every event may have initially seemed radical. But if necessary precautions hadn’t been taken, the death toll could have been much higher — libertarianism disavows the collective, endangering a broader range of the population.

On the other hand, China practiced a kind of communitarianism after the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan. People were told to lock themselves in and were forcibly quarantined for the good of the community and the state. This action was carried out by the Communist Party, which in and of itself is surrounded by global controversy. But, in the end, this strategy of speedy lockdown and tight control was an effective way to combat COVID-19.

This is especially true when examining the disjointed approach of Italy. Thousands of Italian citizens were reprimanded for thwarting quarantine rules despite the widespread tragic results, and it took time before a lockdown was properly instated. Italy’s high number of cases and death toll are solid evidence for this unfortunate plan of action, which did not move quickly or decisively enough.

Thanks to their collectivist cultures, East Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Japan have been at the forefront of successfully reducing their COVID-19 cases and death tolls. Even if some associate communitarianism with authoritarianism, it appears to be a weighty and effective factor in a bid to combat the pandemic. Citizens there worked together to do what was best for the entire community, despite the loss of some personal freedom (which makes this theory inapplicable to many other nations).

A final approach that should be more widely present on the international stage is that of the Rawlsians, based on the ponderings of American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls’ ideals are based on two principles, guaranteeing individuals the most extensive basic liberties that maintain equality and advocating for equal access to all economic and social positions.

Along Rawlsian lines, the moral thing to do during this global pandemic is not to sacrifice a few for the greater good, but to protect everyone, particularly our most vulnerable and our weakest. Overall, this theory is similar to the golden rule; we will all be better off treating others the way we want to be treated.

The coronavirus does not seem to care for class position, social status, natural assets and abilities, intelligence or strength. It is an indiscriminate pandemic. So what are we to do?

Perhaps the citizens of the world should call for a transparent form of governance. These reliable leaders would be trusted to take the needs of everyone into consideration and provide reasoned, clear messages that all members of our global population feel they can follow. In addition, a more diverse economy less dependent on consumerism in conjunction with a media committed to finding and telling the truth can bring moral clarity to the masses suffering under COVID-19.

No matter in which country we might live in, as the epidemic continues to claim lives, the disease is brought within fewer degrees of separation for everyone. We may well find that the notion of loving thy neighbor as thyself should become far more potent nowadays, and join together in a bid to treat others how we want to be treated. Now is the time for international unity, and citizens of every nation should call for their governments to lend a helping hand.

Serkan Aydin is an independent journalist and a research assistant at the University of Leeds.