Will Covid-19 Change Human Ethics?

I think back to a conversation I had in February of 2020, standing in a hotel lobby in Munich, Germany. I was there for an annual winter trade show where brands in the sporting goods industry exhibit the latest and greatest product ranges. The news which was flooding our email, social feeds and the lobby television set was about the dire situation In Wuhan, China. The question was, ‘will this escape and turn into a global pandemic?’ That seemed like quite a stretch, therefore my point of view was a hard NO. Looking back my opinion seems so naive as I could not have been more wrong.

It is one thing to experience a pandemic like SARS and quite another to live through the Spring of 2020. The whole world reacted in a way that I never thought possible when I expressed my point of view to my friends and coworkers in Munich. I felt that I knew a thing or two and that my almost 50 years of life on the planet gave me a certain amount of wisdom. OK, maybe I was mistaking assumptions for wisdom.

Based on past experience of the way the world works, I felt reasonably sure that airlines would continue to fly without limits imposed by local governments. My place of work did not have a ‘work from home policy’ in place, let alone a practice to support thousands of staff to ‘shelter at home’. One of the main pillars of the consumer economy would not be stopped dead in it’s tracks. None of these things would be allowed to happen. I was sure of these beliefs.

In Canada, once the federal government closed the border to non-essential travel, we all started to make ethical or morale decisions. I cancelled our Spring break vacation as it seemed rather strange to be partaking in leisure travel at that time. But, was it more than a personal reaction, was it an ethical decision? In utilitarian ethics, sacrificing certain freedoms allows for the ‘maximum benefits for the greatest number’. Although, at the time I had no idea how many more ethical choices we would be asked to make.

As we look to the future where the world is starting, ever so slowly, to relax measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus, what kind of ethical responsibility will each of us be asked to take on? Every country is different, just as individual reactions to this call of duty are. Some people are choosing extreme caution for fear of infection for themselves and their loved ones and others are throwing caution to the wind. Some nations are hitting their citizens with monetary fines if they don’t adhere to the rules. In other parts of the world the reminders are more gentle.

As the world continues to remain on pause for all large gatherings of people, waiting for a vaccine, will we rise to the challenge of this new reality and the ethical questions it poses or will the pull of getting back to ‘the way it was’ be too great? Changing our behavior is hard at the best of times, but even more so when it is forced upon us. Yet, there is a question of ethics afoot. I’m just not sure everyone sees it this way.

In 3 Approaches to Ethics: Principles, Outcomes and Integrity there is an exploration of the subset of definitions. Understanding ethics seems to be somewhat complicated in our modern world. Plus we spend so little time talking about it in everyday conversation. Maybe getting back to the basics is necessary right now.

It was a belief of the stoics that Living Well, Living Ethically was a morale imperative. While most of us think we live in an ethical way, I wonder why some of the vocal minority think it is appropriate to demonstrate in the streets? Scientists are boiling down that behavior, (in part), to cognitive sophistication. It is hard to rely on ethics to guide you if you don’t believe in something to begin with.

The human ability to think differently from one person to the next is wonderful and frightening. Misbehaving: being clever and wicked is a form of creativity shows how beautifully we can rationalize our errors in thinking. It seems when we are in this mode, ethics is far from our minds.

Are Ethics and Creativity in Conflict? I truly believe there is no conflict here. I feel that if we all had the same understanding of the facts, our ethics would allow creativity to flourish. I guess it also comes down to what kind of topics we believe are in the domain of ethical consideration and what are not. Misinformation and fake news are terrible vices, in my opinion. It is almost like having the ability to plant an idea in someone’s mind. They become defenseless against it because the think it was their idea to begin with.

Is Creativity and the Role of the Leader the path forward for the chosen few? Or do we all have a calling to behave as a leader? One could argue that we lead ourselves first and that sets the moral and ethical tone by which we lead within our social circles. Indeed, some of us will bear the responsibility to lead by vocation. But, that job is made far easier if we have already established our personal moral and ethical landscape.

If coved-19 will change human ethics worldwide, we must first believe that the threat posed by a pandemic are real. We must trust those who study the facts and believe they are always learning something new. After all a virus is a living thing which must evolve and adapt in order to continue to thrive, just like people, plants or animals. Only if we truly understand that we are all in this together, every living thing on this plant, will we coalesce our wisdom and ethics to prosper in the future.

For me, I’ll never forget that moment in Munich when I was so sure of what I thought, to be the last time I was so sure. I’ve learned from this pandemic. We are better together. Many hands make light work, (even virtually). Ask questions. Don’t be a know it all. Stuff I learned in kindergarten that is still pretty useful.

“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” – Marcus Aurelius

Comments: 2

  • reply
    May 20, 2020

    Well said Christine. In a troubled time where it seems so many people are separated by academics and emotion you remind us that we must have both knowledge and ethics to truly be a sustainable culture.

    I was very sick when the pandemic hit Canada (if I can say thankfully with pneumonia) and while I struggled for breath, I also struggled to avoid the pitfalls of immersing myself in daily media updates and the endless ethical debates on social media. Instead I found an old worn copy of Ancient Wisdom Modern World (HH Dalai Lama) and reminded myself that much of our suffering – and our decision making during a crisis like this for that matter – is caused by our own pride rather than our empathy for others.

    For me it is open to philosophical debate if ethics themselves can actually change but I do believe that in this isolated age if we each open ourselves to changing world to be a better place for the others we impact in our lives – we can change the world as we know it.

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