Braden Molhoek is Program Associate at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) and a Lecturer in Science, Technology, and Ethics at the GTU
The Conflict and Ethics of We're in this Together
Trying to reflect on ethical concerns raised by COVID-19 feels like trying to untie the Gordian knot. There are profound connections between a variety of aspects that relate to the ongoing situation, from the mental and emotional impact of sheltering in place, to the disproportionate exposure of certain populations to COVID-19, to the economic impact that workers and businesses face, to the heartbreaking and inspiring stories from the front-line workers, not to mention the questions of how do we emerge from this and what are the long lasting repercussions.
In order to make any headway, I am reminded of the work done by Sir William David Ross, a Scottish philosopher more readily known as W.D. Ross. Ross believed there were multiple goods to seek or multiple principles to follow and that inevitably these would come into conflict with one other. These duties, then, should be understood as prima facieobligations, even though he did not particularly care for that term. In other words, you should fulfill your obligations unless it conflicts with an equal or greater obligation. When such a case occurs, that does not mean that the overridden obligation can be discarded completely. Instead, Ross also spoke of moral traces, or ways of making amends for the obligation you’ve failed to fulfill.
Trying to reflect on ethical concerns raised by COVID-19 feels like trying to untie the Gordian knot.
When I discuss this concept in class, I often present a hypothetical situation where I have agreed to help a friend move apartments over the weekend, but a family member suddenly becomes ill. I have two conflicting duties: one to uphold the promise I made to my friend, and the other a familial obligation to visit or assist the person in need. In their book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Beauchamp and Childress identify criteria that can be used to weigh and balance obligations. Like Ross, they emphasize that the infringement of the obligation must be as minimal as possible. So if it turns out that my family member is healthy enough to return home on Saturday afternoon, I cannot use that situation to avoid helping my friend move on Sunday and do as I please. They also state that better reasons must be given for the overriding obligation. This is where the classroom example is far easier than most real life situations. If I am the only family member capable of helping my ill relative, for example, there is an obligation to family that could supersede the obligation to a friend as realistically, any able-bodied person can help my friend move, it does not necessarily have to be me. Another criteria Beauchamp and Childress use is that all alternatives must be exhausted. Again, the classroom example has an easier solution: I can call a mutual friend and ask them to help our friend move in my place. Even if this does not become possible, I can still make amends via moral traces by hiring movers to assist my friend.
What I hope to have done is to show how concerns and obligations need to be balanced, and that even if certain obligations are overridden for more compelling reasons, that moral traces are still relevant.
The complexities of life caused by our response to COVID-19 do not allow for such simple adjudication. What I hope to have done is to show how concerns and obligations need to be balanced, and that even if certain obligations are overridden for more compelling reasons, that moral traces are still relevant. So when we speak of extending shelter in place, we also need to be aware of the impact that has on people, be it emotional, economic, or physical, and seek to mitigate those effects as we strive to flatten the curve to protect the most vulnerable among us and ensure that our medical professionals and resources are not overwhelmed. These are difficult discussions and decisions to have and make, but I would rather work through these problems than be faced with more difficult ones. If ICUs are out of beds and there is a shortage of ventilators, what do we do? In that situation we are making decisions that directly lead to some people receiving treatment and others being denied. It is in everyone’s best interest to find alternatives that avoid such terrible decisions, to remember that we are all in this together, and to treat one another well.