by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 10
February 2021
Idea
15:40

Will Covid-19 turn us into a nation of ethicists?

The pandemic has exposed what values we hold sacred
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Never in living memory has public debate felt so much like a poorly-taught ethics seminar. Credit: Getty

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.”

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?

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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.

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