Moral dilemmas during a pandemic

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Dire situations like this seem to throw up fundamental questions and quandaries that most people never feel the need to answer when life is normal.

A crossroads is a great place for a rendezvous with a moral dilemma.

Plummeting toward the fictional planet Magrathea, the ill-fated sperm whale in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy gets no answer to its questions ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What is the purpose in my life?’ ‘What do I mean by who am I?’ before it fatally hits the surface of the planet shortly after it was ‘called into existence’. Hardly anyone these days asks, in any meaningful sense, the whale’s questions.

But we are grappling with a different set of questions, though: the questions of right and wrong moral philosophers have been asking since philosophy was born. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented weeks-long lockdown we are forced to experience have laid open an opportunity to at least revisit these questions, if not find answers.

In a tweet posted on March 23...


United States President Donald Trump unwittingly hinted at the prevailing dilemma between right and wrong, as fears rose that the 15-day social distancing restrictions imposed in the country to fight the outbreak of the pandemic would cripple the economy. Mr. Trump’s tweet shows that he adopts a consequentialist or utilitarian moral reasoning which locates the right and wrong in the consequences or utility of an act. The underlying moral problem here is whether the human cost of the SARS-CoV-2 virus infection is high enough to sacrifice our freedoms and economic achievements.

This moral dilemma is best encapsulated in the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment for evaluating certain moral predicaments. Imagine you are driving a railway trolley approaching a spot where the track branches into two separate lines. You see a group of five railway workers on the track extending to the right to which the trolley is proceeding. But you can save them by pushing a button that will change its course to the track extending to the left on which there is a single worker. If you do that you sacrifice the life of a single worker to save five others.

This is utilitarianism, a moral system founded by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and it is based on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. The social, economic and public health consequences of the lockdown in our own country make for debates on whether it is right to enforce a prolonged shutdown to fend off the pandemic. True, we cannot judge any of our actions without considering their consequences.

Questions of ethics are bound to be raised as a society undergoes the agony of handling a pandemic. What if our ICUs are overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 patients requiring life-support system? In such circumstances, healthcare professionals would experience the ethical dilemma of prioritising patients for treatment. As the outbreak worsened in Italy, the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) published guidelines for the criteria that doctors and nurses should follow. It recommended that patients with the highest chance of therapeutic success would be entitled access to intensive care.

This utilitarian approach, which suggests that morality is all about maximising good results for the large number, smacks of a lack of empathy. But empathy has its demerits. As Paul Bloom, Yale University Professor of psychology and cognitive science and author of Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion (2016), notes, empathy is a “spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now” and it leaves us shortsighted, pushing us to favour actions that can lead to tragic results in the future.

The metaphysical questions that Douglas Adams has put in the mouth of his fictional whale have been largely rendered irrelevant by science except perhaps in university Departments of Philosophy. We know that we are all, like the naïve whale, ‘called into existence’ by the ‘improbability generator’ — which in our case is Darwinian natural selection. But humans will never cease to ask moral questions and to experience moral dilemmas as we confront situations like the Trolley Problem. Because we are now facing an unknown threat, our moral predicament can perhaps be more poignant.

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