Ethicist: Coronavirus reduces complex moral codes to the essential — protect your neighbor

Tom Cooper, Opinion contributor Published 6:00 a.m. ET Aug. 16, 2020 | Updated 9:58 a.m. ET Aug. 17, 2020

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Ethicists like me dream of decades as complicated as the one we are living through now. But it is a citizen’s nightmare.

During my 38 years as an ethicist, never have I seen so many ethical questions asked continuously by so many: Who gets the ventilator? Who gets the bed? Who receives the best personal protective equipment and who can be tested first? When and where must you wear a mask, and who has the authority, if anyone, to mandate that you wear it?  

And what of the more institutional questions: Should we re-open the schools, and when? What about the bars, the restaurants, the gyms, and the movie theaters? Does anyone have the authority to put others in harm’s way?

And then there are the questions of policing. We parents have already known the ethical challenges of how much we police our children regarding their screen-time, their curfews, and their relationships. Must we now also police their mask time and their social distancing? And how should all those wild, party-going youth without masks be policed? And speaking of police, to what extent should society be policed? Or should police be defunded, or completely transformed?

So it’s a field day for ethics professionals and professors. There will be no shortage of questions for us to debate during both the COVID-19 and the racial pandemics. It is an ethicist’s dream decade.

And yet one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. More frequently than at any time I can remember, the answers to ethical questions are not hypothetical but point to extreme suffering, bankruptcy, and death.

What to do? How do we move ethics from a long list of questions to answers which matter?  

A crash course in living ethically

In 2017, I was involved in a United Nations project hosted in their United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime headquarters in Vienna in which an international team of ethicists developed an ethics curriculum for students worldwide. What I valued about this project was that ethics was taught in elementary and middle schools, not just in college. Moreover, the curriculum could be customized for participating cultures and countries far beyond those who traditionally teach university ethics.

Teaching young students to think about moral decision making worldwide is essential because they are the leaders and teachers of tomorrow. So certainly ethics education is one path which must be widened and paved into a global highway.

But there are others. 

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About six years ago I reached out to more than 200 ethicists and other colleagues and asked them, “What were the toughest ethical decisions ever made throughout history?” From the many answers they gave me, I fashioned detailed research about how many of the “greats” — Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Socrates, Marie Curie, and others — made their most vexing, hair-pulling decisions.   

After reading their biographies, autobiographies, letters and more, I began to perceive patterns of thought and attitude which they held in common. They each committed themselves to something higher whether described in secular terms such as justice, humanity, or integrity, or something more faith based honoring Allah, God, Krishna, or Jesus. Their ethical decisions were not driven by self-promotion, but by service to mankind and in many cases to an invisible Source.

A face mask is key to staying safe on campus.

A face mask is key to staying safe on campus. (Photo: Getty Images)

I think there’s something to be learned not only by ethics education but also by how these moral exemplars and leaders changed history despite facing death threats, powerful adversaries, and their own worst fears.

But something more is needed.

If one is living in a dream, whether the nightmare of COVID-19, or the dream of “I’m not impacted” that the lucky and prosperous still maintain, there is an essential requirement — to wake up!  

I understand that some people may feel they are already ethical because they were trained in the Western classical ethics of Aristotle and Kant. Or possibly they prefer the ancient Asian wisdom of Laotzu and Confucius. 

Or perhaps, like me, they sense that there is great ethical wisdom embedded in the spirit of other cultures such as the original aloha spirit of Hawaii or the Ubuntu spirit of Africa.  Or perhaps they feel they are ethical because of the teachings of their religious faith.

While I honor all of these traditions, and introduce them to my students, I sense that nothing practical can be accomplished in the dream state. 

Protect your neighbor

If leaders are dreaming only of re-election, and if hedonists are dreaming only of the next unmasked pool party, it’s time to wake them up and say, ”If you are secular, follow the scientific guidelines, and if you are religious, add to those guidelines your own faith’s guidelines such as ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘do no harm.’”  

Ethics can be highly complicated since there are many great intellectual traditions and multiple cultural approaches. However, pandemic ethics cuts through this Gordian knot of endless principles and theories.  

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The lengthy ethics codes we used to develop for institutions ought now to be simplified to just three words — “protect your neighbor.”

Since the American dream has become the American nightmare, the answers to the long list of ethical questions can only be known when we, and especially our leaders, leave amnesia, denial, racism,blame-shifting, and somnambulance behind.

It is time not only for increased ethics education and learning from the best practices of the great ones. It is time to wake up our leaders and ourselves.  

Our complex moral codes can be simplified rather quickly these days: “Wash your hands.” “Wear your mask.” “Stand six feet apart.” Behold, the Ten Commandments are reduced to three.

Tom Cooper is a professor at Emerson College and the author, most recently, of “Doing the Right Thing: Twelve Portraits in Moral Courage.”

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