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Ethics and Covid-19: How to be good at the end of the world


Schalk Engelbrecht is a research associate with the Centre for Applied Ethics (University of Stellenbosch), and a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Business School.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not changing what it means to be good, to do the right thing, or to be a virtuous human being. It is, however, presenting and amplifying the paradigmatic moral dilemmas one only expects to confront in an Introduction to Ethics course.

Our moral capacity – the ability to think of others and to make rules for ourselves – is something singularly human.

“Two things fill me with awe,” German philosopher Immanuel Kant mused, “…the starry firmament above and the moral law within.” So in awe was Kant of this moral capacity (“the good will” as he called it) that his description of it sounds more like aesthetic appreciation than philosophical argument. According to Kant, “…even if [the good will] should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose… then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself.”

This “good will” – a key feature of Kant’s ethics – is our freedom of choice, when directed by reason. Put differently, a person who possesses a good will voluntarily chooses to do their duty, to consistently and wilfully act in accordance with moral principle.

Amid the Covid-19 crisis we are witnessing luminescent examples of this good will, the crowning glory of the human species. In the UK, for instance, scores of retired nurses and doctors have volunteered, at great peril to themselves, to return to service in the fight against the coronavirus. As their motivation, many of them cite moral duty and the oath they took when they entered the field of healthcare. Even if the efforts of these healthcare workers were to fail, still their good will(s) shimmer with inherent value.

Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, we are also seeing a wave of self-regarding, even malicious behaviour – an obstinate refusal to voluntarily do our moral duty. This indifference to “the moral law within” is on the opposite end of selfless solidarity, a thorny crown demeaning our noble humanity. It includes scenes of comfortable and privileged South Africans maniacally emptying the Woolworths’ shelves in obeyance of the law of our epoch and our economic system – #mefirst.

We’ve seen blame-hurling and racism; reports that the US president tried to buy an as yet undeveloped vaccine from a German company; police officers and military personnel turning South Africa into a country-sized Zimbardo experiment; and criminals exploiting a pandemic to rob and assault others. These unflattering human actions are lamentable reminders of another of Immanuel Kant’s quotes: “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can come.”

The Covid-19 pandemic is not changing what it means to be good, to do the right thing, or to be a virtuous human being. It is, however, presenting and amplifying the paradigmatic moral dilemmas one only expects to confront in an Introduction to Ethics course. One example is the question in biomedical ethics of who to help first when medical resources are limited – those most in need or those who are most likely to respond to treatment? (The current utilitarian consensus is to help those most likely to benefit from treatment, and thus to choose the maximum utility a limited resource can produce).

Another currently much-debated moral debacle is the choice to end or extend lockdown, thereby either allowing people to die or watching the economy wither. In overly simplistic terms, this is a Sophie’s choice between immediate and intense suffering (for a smaller number) on the one horn, and protracted despair (for a large number) on the other.

But being good essentially still means the same – willingly doing our duty, acting to improve the lives of others, and sculpting a self that is worthy of its humanity. What Covid-19 adds, however, is an awakening of the boundless goodness of human beings, while also exposing some unfortunate features of our moral psychology. More importantly, the virus is reshuffling the order and urgency of our moral priorities and surfacing the repressed truth that we need radical structural changes to achieve a fair, ethical and resilient society.

Regarding our moral psychology, the self-regarding and unethical behaviours inspired by the pandemic do not negate the existence or value of our moral capacity. Instead, it represents a species-wide and real-life version of the so-called “situationist challenge to virtue ethics”, a seminal debate in moral theory. Explained simply, while an ethics of virtue assumes that people can develop stable dispositions that reliably cause them to act ethically, the situationist challenge suggests that our behaviour is determined more by our circumstance than by our character. Even the virtuous person will disregard others in the “right” (or “wrong”) circumstances, and when the ship sinks most of us abandon all civility in a scramble for the last space on the life raft.

It is a popular wisdom in the corporate world that a receding tide exposes those who have been swimming without costumes. The situationist challenge claims the same about ethics – in threatening circumstances, when solidarity and neighbourliness is most needed, our naked self-regard is revealed and our circle of concern contracts.

Several experiments in both social psychology and behavioural economics support the idea of a mercurial moral make-up. Two are worth mentioning. In the so-called “Good Samaritan” experiment, researchers found that when they were deliberately put under time pressure, only 10% of seminary students, on their way to deliver a sermon on the parable of “The Good Samaritan”, would stop to help someone lying in the road clearly in need of help.

In the “Damsel in Distress” experiment, subjects were less likely to respond to a call for help when another person in the room failed to react. The lesson: features of our situation, often irrelevant to our moral obligations, can prevent us from exercising our moral capacity. In virtue terms: the ethical character traits we have developed over our lifetime, making us generous or just or caring individuals, lose their predictive power when the chips are down.

This is significant during the pandemic, which is really a practice run for the looming catastrophe of our changing planet and the radical behavioural change it will demand. We are facing – nationally and on a planetary scale – unprecedented challenges that require collective moral effort. At the same time, the nature of these challenges predicts the opposite – a lack of regard for others and attempts to barricade ourselves. This does not only happen on the individual level. In the US, states have stockpiled medical equipment, preventing its use where it is most needed.

Particularly concerning in the South African context are the effects of “social distancing”. In moral psychology “social distancing” (one could better say “moral distancing”) does not refer to the physical distancing we are currently practising to avoid spreading the coronavirus. In ethics, social distancing refers to the decreasing moral obligation (or care) we feel towards those we regard as removed from, “less close” or “less like” us.

Moral distancing happens in a variety of intentional and unintentional ways. In South Africa, economic inequality is a significant distancer, lowering mutual regard between fellow citizens. This explains the tragicomic obscenity of the South African lockdown, during which some post pictures of their daily culinary experiments and complain about weight gain and the injustice of not being able to exercise. Others, the vast majority in fact, spend the lockdown in cramped informal settlements, go hungry and are constantly surveilled and brutalised by the force of the state… for their own good, they are told, and the good of all.

Against this backdrop, the pandemic teaches us the following about “being good”:

First, inequality is not merely a moral infelicity. It is not a divine reality gifted us so we can self-actualise in the face of adversity. The scale of inequality in South Africa is also not an economic, social or anthropological inevitability which we can best manage or contain. It is, instead, a clear and present risk – epidemiologically, socially, ethically and environmentally.

Second, human beings are neither innately evil nor innately good. We have an extraordinary capacity for both. We have seen incredible and spontaneous forms of collaboration and care since the onset of the corona crisis. We have also seen callous self-regard and hate. Which way we go is the product of an interaction between character and circumstance, of internal and external influences. Being good therefore requires ongoing virtue cultivation while being sensitive to, and mitigating against, situational factors.

But private purity is not enough. Being generous and caring individuals, charitably donating food and service will not do in the long term. We need to link private virtues with social circumstances that support them, and that can better address global crises.

In the past, many politicians, economists and critics have claimed that radically different societies and economies are utopian fantasies – unrealistic at best, dangerous and dictatorial at worst. The pandemic is proving, however, that we are capable of radical behavioural and societal change. When a priority is urgent enough, we are able and willing to transform our modes of being.

We should allow this crisis to disabuse us of the cynical and conservative notion that economies and societies cannot be different. It would be a missed opportunity when we slowly re-open our countries and economies, if we returned (as if in a state of amnesia) to the way things were. Instead of trying to spend and consume our way back to an old, unfair and unfulfilling “normal”, the current momentum of spontaneous solidarity should be leveraged to establish and strengthen the public structures, transformed businesses and community action needed for a responsive, inclusive and resilient society. 

Finally, we must realise that how we engage with information, and participate in the generation and distribution of “knowledge” is an ethical matter. The pandemic, and the reckless spreading of injurious and false information that has accompanied it, has highlighted the moral gravity of our knowledge-related vices – including our gullibility, dogmatism, closed-mindedness, recklessness and sometimes malevolence. Being good also means habituating careful and sceptical knowledge practices.

We are not victims of circumstance. Situational factors admittedly have surprising effects on our behaviour. But research in moral psychology demonstrates that the predictive power of character and circumstance are roughly the same. Ethicists like Mark Alfano therefore recommend that instead of being passive situation-consumers, we co-opt or manipulate our circumstances to make virtue more reliable.

In South Africa, this requires us to close social distance, to stop treating inequality as an unfortunate reality at the bottom of the moral and political priority list, and to see it for what it is – a blight on our humanity and dull indifference to the moral law within. For the individual moral agent, but also for the countries of the world, the pandemic ultimately represents what novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch calls “an occasion for un-selfing”. DM


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