“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” – Albert Camus, The Plague.
Again I would like to express my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship everyone around the world is experiencing during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing in these essays is intended to diminish the loss others have suffered. Instead I hope to find a philosophical grounding in order to extract the lessons and meaning of this tragedy and the possibility of consolation.
Last time I demonstrated that COVID-19 is the result of natural laws and appears to be a categorical, albeit blind evil. Now we are ready to construct an ethical response. In earlier blogs, I outlined William Frankena’s priority of ethical behavior in complex situations: first avoid and next eliminate evil, then promote good, and last, never choose any evil unless there is a clear excess of good from the choice.1 His approach works well in our current circumstances:
(1) Avoid evil, in this case, spreading the virus to others – commit to shelter in place and social isolation.
(2) Work to reduce the evil – this falls mainly on healthcare workers but can be met by the rest of us by facilitating their work, and voluntary plasma donation by those recovered from the virus.
(3) Promote good – offer help to the most affected, the elderly, furloughed workers, and the needy.
(4) Avoid acts whereby evil exceeds good – such as hoarding supplies, but also all illegal and unethical behavior.
Then there is the matter of duty; in dire circumstances, every citizen of a civilized nation has a responsibility to fulfill their civic duty: to follow the directives of our designated authorities and to comply with the recommendations of our medical experts – without question except in the unlikely scenario of unethical commands. The price for the benefits of membership in society is the commitment to comply with its legitimate rules in a crisis. Selfishness and disobedience are violations of one’s ostensible obligation to one’s community.
Last is supererogation, going beyond the ‘call of duty.’ Tragedy is the consummate opportunity to mitigate one’s past burden of errors, whether intentional or accidental, by looking every day for the opportunity to do good that exceeds societal expectations either by charity or unpaid service to those in need. Few of us have the potential to change the course of the epidemic, but most of us have the opportunity to be heroic in small ways.
Next time we will look at theological, metaphysical, and existential implications of the pandemic.
1See my post Ethics and Others on this site 12/17/18 and 12/19/18.