Will Covid-19 turn us into a nation of ethicists?
The pandemic has exposed what values we hold sacred
Never in living memory has public debate felt so much like a poorly-taught ethics seminar. Unless we happened to study philosophy at university, the last time many of us were forced to think through our deepest moral commitments systematically was during an RE lesson — though as this subject has been in crisis for years, maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s why the Netflix show ‘The Good Place’ spawned a meme: ‘This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors’. Today ethics is associated in popular imagination with obscure thought experiments or how many units of utility can dance on the head of a pin while the rest of us get on with living our lives.
Covid-19 might change all that. In a blistering British Medical Journal editorial this month, the journal accuses the Government of “social murder” in unambiguous moral language. It asks, “is inaction, action?” and concludes: “state failures [including delaying lockdowns] that led us to two million deaths are “actions” and “inactions” that should shame us all.”
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The editorial implies, though never spells out, that the protection of life and health is the highest moral good. This makes sense from the standpoint of the medical community, trained and moulded around this perspective. Many others share this intuition — but it is not as universal as it may appear.
Jonathan Sumption, for example, continues to argue that the cost of mass lockdowns on the healthy are not worth the benefits gained by those at risk — and that limiting freedom for others (and impacting their health, livelihoods and quality of life along the way) is just as morally dangerous. Elsewhere, Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu argues that mass, rather than selective, lockdowns are the ‘levelling down’ of equality: ‘In order for there to be equality, people who could be better off are made worse off’ and that this is ‘morally repugnant’. Both of these perspectives imply that there are moral priorities beyond the straightforward protection of life, that quality of life matters, as does how much the state can require us to sacrifice to protect the lives of others.
How do we decide which is right? Do we want our leaders to protect life, no matter what, and to be held morally accountable when they fail? Or do we want a state that seeks to protect life, but balances this aim against other needs such as access to work, family, social life and their accompanying mental health benefits?
Many of us might say we don’t care, a long as the government actually has a plan and delivers it competently; and yet these questions matter, and most of us have nowhere to ask them. RE is underfunded and overlooked, and fewer of us are members of faith communities. As society becomes more pluralist, and the influence of Christianity less visible, the moral fault lines can only widen. Without places where we as citizens can work out what we think, what we hold sacred, what is primary, how can we expect our leaders to know what to do, or us to hold them to account?
What did anyone think was going to happen? We’ve spent the last four decades at least acting like history has ended, like all the great questions had been decided and all of us could do what we want, when we want, without any consequence and the old rules no longer apply. Now we suddenly find out it hasn’t, we can’t, and they do, and suddenly, we’re like the fat guy who joins a health club in January, puffing and blowing our way through moral work-outs that our parents would have taken at a canter.
We’re all so terrified to take a chance over the effects of the virus that we end up forcing a cure on ourselves and others which may very well end up being worse than the disease. I hope the “it’s worth it if it saves one single life” brigade show up to sympathize at the funerals off all those who’ve missed their scans, didn’t get symptoms checked or just gave up and topped themselves. Oh, wait, funerals are a no-no too, aren’t they?
British secondary schools need to start teaching things like ethics, logic and philosophy. Teaching on how to ask, think rationally about, and discuss the big questions about life, values and society is something that was conspicuously absent from my secondary education (at a state comprehensive in the 90s). The first time debate, philosophy etc. appeared in my life was at university. I really wish school had prepared me a bit more, as rational thinking and debate are such good, transferable skills and offer an excellent grounding for all degrees, a lot of jobs, and being an all-round decent member of society.
I also think the lack of previous discussion in the UK is a cultural thing. In France, there’s constant philosophising about more or less everything, with lots of deep-thinking people on TV shows saying super clever things. In Germany, you have people like Richard David Precht, making practical philosophy accessible and interesting. Who does Britain have? Are we too caught up in the “oh, come off it” attitude, which considers philosophers to be boring old farts who take themselves far too seriously?
The pandemic has been the first time that many people have had to grapple with these big issues and – without the mental tools to structure that thought – discussions become emotionally charged and fraught with conflict. The experience gained can be put to good use – if only its value can be acknowledged.
I remember reading Thouless Straight and Crooked Thinking at school. I find it invaluable even today.
Thanks, I shall check that out and add it to my ever-extending reading list!
I think that’s a great idea. I think there would be opposition to the idea from those who think education should be about developing marketable skills for an economic life rather than thinking skills for a meaningful life.
‘British secondary schools need to start teaching things like ethics, logic and philosophy.’
Perhaps. But none of these things should be taught by the current teaching cohort. For a start they have been ramming the ethics and philosophy of Woke down the throats of generations of kids, with deleterious results. As for them teaching logic, the mind just boggles.
This is precisely the thing. If tomorrow it became mandatory to teach kids ethics, logic and philosophy, they’d come out of school even more damaged than they are now.
I shouldn’t be surprised that people commenting here are actually saying ‘don’t teach the plebs ethics or philosophy because they’d go all left wing on us’.
You’re projecting. Nobody is saying that. Nobody here objects to philosophy being taught, they object to it being taught by ideologues who, like you, will misrepresent and lie to make their point.
What is being said is that if philosophy is taught the current teachers need to be replaced by people who will teach the ‘correct’ ethics. Not at all sinister?
What an ugly sentiment that would be if I held it, Mark!
But don’t worry, I’m not saying that we should keep children from philosophy because, given the proper tools and left to their own devices, they’d start thinking things I don’t like. I’m saying that the moral values and epistemic principles that prevail in teaching and throughout educational institutions mean that any attempt to seriously ground our children in philosophy, logic and ethics would not stand a chance of being balanced. Whether they meant to or not, teachers would inculcate their own ideological beliefs in children, who would mistake it for fundamental truth.
Beat me to it. In fact the current system would refuse to teach philosophy in any meaningful sense.
If kids were presented with just a few basic philosophical ideas too many of them would end up as classical Liberals. If not through the beauty of Enlightenment thinkers – then through sheer terror of the views of many of the others.
My favourite simple philosophy trick is a version of the Trolley problem that made me think the first time someone told it too me:
The 1st part is of course changing the route of a Trolley and killing 1 innocent over 4 innocents it was heading for. Sounds good, maybe you’re convinced that you’ve saved 3 lives.
Then reworded: There are 4 people in hospital urgently needing organs to survive. There’s 1 healthy person with suitable organs….
Once it’s reworded like this it becomes near impossible to save the most lives, because it’s clearly murder. Sure with the Trolley problem I could begin to justify saving 100 by killing 1. But in the medical situation I’d struggle to justify 1 murder to save a million. There’s little or no difference between the 2 situations.
Luke, the choices proposed on your “trolley argument” hold no water. On both situations the set of alternatives is selectively unrealistic – on the first the issue to address is making the trolley safer (rather than “selecting how many it will kill”), and on the second set the issue to address is finding alternatives for sourcing transplantable organs (not “deciding who must die”).
Your approach provides an example of how to push a decent person onto a faulty decision process by manipulating the visibility of alternative choices. Quite common these days, actually.
In the trolley problem, the trolley was hurdling along the track out of control… the alternatives were – throw the switch killing 1 or allow it to continue its journey thereby killing 4
It’s not my “trolley argument: it’s a fairly old moral question. It’s a simple but facinating moral puzzle.
There’s a few variations of it.
NZ is the same. Zero philosophical debate anywhere down here.
Actually, make that zero debate on anything.
Pretty much zero Covid, too.
ethics, logic and philosophy, I’d go for THINK critically, and for themselves, and I’d suggest doing that in infants (whatever its called these decades) rather than waiting for later.
It’s not that informed discussion has lost its value. The problem is that people are intellectually lazy, and much prefer ready-made rationales than actually processing information.
How do you think populist politicians manage to get what they want, regardless of their imbecility?
We are now on a course of action that we cannot change. I suppose we can tweak it here and there and eventually convince ourselves that we will return to the way of living we once had. Impossible of course but not for the reasons the ‘build back better ‘ great reset bunch think.
We have damaged our society beyond repair in the short and near future terms. Possibly into the distant future as well but that we cannot tell for now.
We stopped society functioning because we thought we could do so without penalties . No society has ever done this .We do not know the psychological damage done to millions particularly in the West . Closing down our world was an experiment done to save as many lives as possible and done under stress without thinking it through . Aware of the contradictions and the coming storm the governments and their advisers just
prescribe more of the same.
War we can cope with as wars end with victory or defeat and that is something we can come to terms with . This state we are in is nothing as
clear cut as that. The policy of fear and of using the media to instill it on an hourly basis is so damaging to us as humans that the effects will be disastrous. The morality of that is dubious to say the least . Coping with disease but also with this state instilled fear and the loss of freedom is
not only destabalising but on a personal level damaging .
What sort of person thinks that threatening a ten year prison sentence for failing to fill in a form correctly is sound policy is beyond me, That us the level of those in power. God help us.
Covid 19 has exposed our society for what it has become – vacuous. No God, no hope, no faith, no inner strength, no patience, no perseverance, no joy in adversity, and very little compassion. Lord, save us.
It’ll turn us all into Ethicists until the money runs out. Then it’ll turn us all into Darwinists.
Yet another chance to argue about lockdowns. My guess is that 95% will be against lockdowns and 5% will be for.
Latest poll I saw was that 79% were in favour. It was early January though, so they might have all changed their mind by now. Don’t you mean 95% of Unherd commenters?
Yes, thanks for the clarification.
In fairness its the way the question is asked :
Do you want a lockdown that will save lives?
Never: do your want to destroy people’s lives and children’s futures killing some of them, in order to maybe save some lives?
Both are hugely loaded, but at least the 2nd is honest
In what bracket do the 0.01%who just make slightly obtuse comments sit?
I wouldn’t bother. He stated under another article that he doesn’t believe in individual freedoms. It’s almost impossible to come back from that level of docility.
A crisis remains a crisis, and an evil remains an evil, no matter how tedious the discussion of it becomes.
Perhaps for many, the difficulty is having access to a coherent framework by which to negotiate the complex territory of ethics which your article implies. However I’m not sure RE is the framework by which to achieve that.
The most widely used framework currently in use is the human rights framework so I would have thought that people including children need to be taught how the human rights framework works and how it functions on the principles of Interdependency and interrelatedness.
Thus, rather than being continually flummoxed, insulted or cancelled by polemisists, the right to life can be properly understood as a relational right rather than an absolute one. This would put the right to education, the right to work and the right to basic needs on an equal footing with the right to life.
In my view, the human rights framework would also help people to better understand the paradoxical nature of ethics especially in relation to the life death relationship that underpins the sustainability of LIFE.
Personally I think it would be better to just focus on the human rights framework rather than spread intellectual capacity thinly by studying utilitarianism, consequentialism, Kantian ethics etc since in more ways than one, the human rights framework synthesises the best of these traditions and therefore in my view is the most evolved framework by which to negotiate ethics.
While lockdowns have had a limited effect on the spread of coronavirus, they have massively reduced the number of flu infections and associated deaths this winter. In the US, for example, anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people (mostly elderly) die from flu in a typical year.
Given we’ve now proven lockdowns can almost eliminate flu, isn’t there a moral imperative to lockdown every year to prevent tens of thousands of deaths? Why are lives lost to flu less valuable than lives lost to covid? How can countries such as Australia and New Zealand, that have willingly sealed themselves off from the rest of the world and enacted very strict lockdowns to save lives, justify not doing the same each year to prevent flu deaths?
I realize no country will actually do this (I think), but I don’t see the convincing moral argument for not following this course of action if strict lockdowns are acceptable to deal with covid.
How can we know that we’ve eliminated flu, when PCR tests can give positive results from detecting non-Covid-19 virus material? It seems far more likely that there has been about as much flu as normal, only it has been interpreted as Covid-19.
I am surprised to read that you think it is unlikely that any country will henceforth lock down every winter to prevent flu deaths. It has been clear for quite a while that many of the public health experts who now call the shots want us to have mandatory masks and restrictions every winter.
PCR tests seem quite reliable now, at 100,000s a day they should at least be consistent false positive rates by now (total positive rate is < 3%, so false positive must be under that) . There’s also the issue of huge excess deaths and the death certificates – where doctors decide on cause of death. I think in the high 80s% of with positive Covid deaths are deemed because of or partially Covid.
I agree with your worry about future restrictions. The moral question haa always been why were 20,000 flu deaths acceptable, yet Covid deaths a tragedy? Particularly as it appears flu is easier to suppress.
I hope (given current evidence unreasonably) that a happy medium could be achieved. Free flu jabs (plus invest in improving them), when you’re ill stay at home- certainly don’t visit granny, granny to take some reasonable cautions if flu season bad.
Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I don’t quite understand part of the point you make in your first paragraph. The fact that the positive rate of PCR tests is under 3% does nothing to increase my faith in the reliability of the tests for giving us an accurate idea of Covid-19 infections. Some sources (such as the people at Cormen Drosten Review dot com) say that, depending on cycle threshold, up to 97% of positive results given by PCR tests could be false positives.
I’m not quite sure how else to explain it.
The current falling overall positive rate with sustained, (in fact higher) and consistent testing shows that the idea of a huge number of false positives doesn’t add up. When we had 80,000 positives in 1 day from 500,000 tests, why are we now getting 16,000 positives from 800,000 tests?
There’s also the huge body of medical opinion, all the sick people and people dying of a consistent illness. Maybe the exceptionally high excess mortality rates have been caused by something else, something that consistently kills the same sort of people in the same way – and makes them test false positive for Covid.
I’m still very sceptical of UKs lockdowns for a variety of reasons, the fact they don’t appear to have saved many lives whilst causing huge collateral damage is the main one. Cases clearly starting falling before lockdown 3, yet this doesn’t fit the narrative (yes I know there were restrictions in place before then). Literally UK government data and graphs clearly shows this.
Ah, that makes sense, thank you. All else being equal – that is, if the testing and interpretative methodology has gone unchanged – that seems to show that PCR testing in the UK is now more reliable than I thought. That said, there is still a fair bit of room for wooliness, given that the tests cannot determine whether infectious virus is present.
Do you know if there is publicly available information on the cycle thresholds used in UK PCR testing? In Canada there seems to be a list of each of the country’s laboratories and the cycle thresholds they use, but I haven’t come across such a thing.
It sounds like we share similar opinions of the UK government’s lockdowns and restrictions. But there is still one thing in your comment that surprises me; is it true to say that we have had ‘exceptionally high excess mortality rates’?
The BMJ Editorial is ( as usual and sadly) a triumph of wisdom after the event and prior to a time when any form of cogent reckoning is possible. We will not know who did best and worst for years, when all the actions, inactions, intended and unintended consequences have worked through …..
I recommend that people read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt, for his research on what makes people have very different moral priorities
It seems to have turned us into a nation of authoritarians (or perhaps sheep)
Uhm, if this crisis has learned anything it’s that most of us have no values whatsoever when fear is around. Instead of upholding principles people behave like sheep, they close the schools, they close their doors and they wait for further instructions, no matter what the consequences are. The measures against covid are nothing more than egocentric fear of individuals turned into collective fear. It has nothing to do with taking care of the elderly and frail. Absolutely nothing at all. Apart from that the measures don’t work.
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