Ethics in a Pandemic Age

Beyond rules, rights, and responsibilities to grace, generosity, and gratitude.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

Chinmay Singh/Pexels
Source: Chinmay Singh/Pexels

During this period of social distancing, the new normal for my wife and I involves juggling teleworking at home while helping our three children keep up with their schoolwork and keep up their spirits as they are isolated from their schools and their friends.

This morning, my 5-year-old son entertained himself by building some puzzles, but then he left them in the middle of the floor. As we were cleaning up before lunch, I encouraged my 8-year-old daughter to help her brother clean up the puzzles, to which she responded indignantly, “But I didn’t play with them!”

I took the opportunity to remind her (and myself) that, especially during this difficult time, we must look beyond strict moral rules about personal rights and responsibilities and look for ways to generously and graciously serve others, with gratitude in our hearts for all of the undeserved goods that we enjoy.

This lesson I shared with my daughter is a lesson that we must all take to heart as we deal with the uncomfortable side-effects of social distancing amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. A world where we all demand our rights and only help solve those problems for which we were personally responsible is a cold world, indeed. A world where we give to each other all and only what we owe to each other is a world devoid of love. In the face of this global health crisis, the challenge before us is not simply to live, but also to learn something of what it means to love.

Across the country, our primary and secondary schools are closing and trying to provide as much support as they can for parents who are trying to continue their children’s education at home. Our colleges and universities are transitioning to 100 percent online education. Our small businesses are trying to balance their need for continued revenue with the importance of protecting and preserving public health. Our elderly are struggling to balance their need to avoid public spaces with their need to travel to multiple stores in an attempt to find groceries and other basic necessities like toilet paper. Our churches are trying to find creative ways to serve their communities while having to cancel services. Our healthcare providers are trying to protect their own health and provide for the medical needs of their communities with sorely limited medical equipment like masks and hand sanitizer, dwindling numbers of hospital beds, and far too few medical tests available.

Meanwhile, the social commentators, which is everyone with a social media account, are expressing contemptuous moral criticisms at every turn. Even those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid coming into contact with the coronavirus are already feeling the serious financial, psychological, relational, and ethical symptoms of this pandemic. Speaking as a doctor (of ethics), my prognosis is that these symptoms will only get worse before they get better.

In response to this growing suffering, many Americans have responded by emphasizing an ethics of rules, rights, and responsibilities that focuses on who owes what to whom. Some have suggested that colleges, universities, and private schools must prorate tuition payments to account for any missed days of teaching, even though their professors and teachers are working overtime to develop remote learning resources. Others have suggested that the government owes tax dollars back to anyone whose income has been negatively affected by government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings. Some insist that it is their right to stockpile food and toilet paper, while others have suggested publicly yelling at apparent hoarders in an attempt to shame them into putting items back on shelves. Still others insist that they have a right to continue gathering in large groups as often as they please, even though doing so is contributing to the spread of a highly contagious and deadly disease.

If we are going to survive this pandemic with not only our physical health, but also our moral health—indeed, our humanity—intact, we must go beyond an ethics of rigid rules, rights, and responsibilities, to an ethics of grace, generosity, and gratitude. The best among us are already demonstrating these virtues in both grand and quiet ways, but I offer these reflections here as a reminder to all of us of the importance of shifting our public conversation away from that which is merely morally required to that which is good.

To show grace to another involves being patient, being quick to praise and slow to criticize, and looking for ways to help them without making them feel inferior. Rather than criticizing school curricula, parents must show grace to school administrators and teachers who are working overtime to put together last-minute lesson plans for at-home learning. Rather than complaining about the lack of available food on the shelves, shoppers must show grace to overworked grocers who are struggling to keep shelves stocked and lines moving. And we must all look for ways to serve those who are most in need in the coming weeks and months, without making them feel inferior because they are in need.

Graciousness supports and is supported by another virtue—generosity. Generosity involves giving to others well beyond what is required or owed. The global pandemic is affecting us all, but some of us are suffering more than others. If we are going to survive this pandemic together, we must all look for ways to give generously and graciously to others out of our time, talents, and resources.

Just like my daughter who didn’t make the mess with the puzzle, none of us is personally responsible for this virus or its economic effects, but it is a cold world where everyone only cleans up the messes they were responsible for making.

We can generously practice social distancing in order to protect the health of others, especially those who are immunocompromised. Those of us who can afford it can generously contribute our money to food banks, churches, and other nonprofit organizations that are trying to serve their communities. We can also practice generosity by shopping as much as possible at small businesses and offering larger than normal tips to service workers.

And no matter how bad things get, we must remember to be grateful for our lives, our health (as long as we have it), our friends and families, and all of the people on whose hard work and goodwill we rely every day.

During my last trip to the grocery store, the cashier started to ask me out of habit, “Were you able to find every…” and then he answered his own question: “Forget it.” Rather than complaining to the cashier about all of the items that were completely sold out, I told him and the woman who was helping to bag my groceries that I was looking forward to trying some new foods this week. Their relieved and surprised responses suggested that they hadn’t heard many positive or grateful remarks in recent days.

When we feel grateful for the good things in our lives, we do not see them as things we deserve, but as undeserved gifts, and this can help us to graciously recognize the generosity and goodwill of others. But this is counter-cultural—we live in an age in which ethical reflection is consumed almost entirely by a focus on individual rights.

While rights certainly are important and we must defend basic human rights in every corner of our society, a moral outlook that sees every good thing as something to which we have a right is an outlook that leaves no room for gratitude. A moral perspective that is concerned only with self and rights will, in the end, be self-righteous.

Rather than demanding our rights to every personal comfort and freedom we normally enjoy (many of which are not rights at all), and rather than helping others only when the rules of moral responsibility strictly require it, in this trying time we must all look for ways to show gracious generosity and generous gratitude to others. If we do, we might just get through this pandemic with both our health and our humanity intact.

This is a guest post by Adam Pelser, Associate Professor of Philosophy at The United States Air Force Academy. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog post are Professor Pelser's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.