Covid-19: Dealing with Moral Dilemmas in Everyday Life

Many of us are more secluded than usual right now. Some are living more closely with family members. Some are facing great difficulty in some personal or professional realm. For some, essential workers, care-givers, and others, life has sped up. We all, though, must look at ourselves clearly when we retire at night, able to answer the question: Have I acted rightly?

For some, it feels ever more difficult to answer this question right now.

Rushworth M. Kidder

A mentor early in my career, Rushworth M. Kidder (whose passage I still mourn), was a renowned expert on practical ethical decision making. In his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices, Rush developed a framework for thinking about moral dilemmas: difficult questions that pit one right action against another.

It seems that all we need now to do is simple: follow the advice of the experts who know. We must isolate, practice contagion hygiene, and distance ourselves.  But even within the bounds of these current restrictions, we face questions about what we as individuals — and groups — should do.

We are all facing such dilemmas in more and more intense ways:

    • I need food: Do I shop? When? Where?
    • An encampment of homeless need supplies: Do we go to them? How?
    • A vulnerable person needs shelter: Do I take them in? Under what conditions?
    • My aging family member visits unannounced: Do I allow them in?
    • A person owes taxes to the government: Should they receive a stimulus payment?

Moral dilemmas like these are different than temptations, which is what many people commonly mean when they refer to a “dilemma.” A temptation has a clear right action on one side, and an attractive yet wrong action on the other. For instance, under current isolation conditions, in my area it would be wrong of me to hold a dinner party, much as I might like to.

But dilemmas are different: Two right actions, and I can’t do both. It might seem like there would be infinite kinds of dilemmas, but Rush noted that there are just four:

    • Truth vs. Loyalty: Do I tell the truth, or do I remain loyal?
    • Justice vs. Mercy: Do I punish, or am I merciful?
    • Individual vs. Community: Should I act for myself or family, or for the larger community?
    • Short term vs. Long term: Should I act for the immediate good, or focus on the long term?

Under our current conditions, all of these dilemmas are front-and-center. Every move I make calls for me to consider the boundaries between my own well-being and that of the broader community. As we consider what to do in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we face stark short-term vs. long-term questions. And as time goes on, we will need to begin to make decisions about punishment, and about truth telling.

Just knowing that there are different kinds of dilemmas is not enough, as Rush knew. He notes that there are three ways of thinking about how to answer such dilemmas. Each has a long philosophical tradition(*) and has advantages as well as drawbacks:

    • Outcome-based: Do what is the best for the greatest number. Also known as “utilitarian.” Drawbacks of this approach: Can be cruel to the minority; assumes you can know all the outcomes of your actions.
    • Rule-based: Determine the proper rule, and act as if you are setting a precedent for all who might face an identical problem in future. Also known as the “categorical imperative.” Drawbacks: Can be overly rigid; under some circumstances can result in ridiculous outcomes (eg answering truthfully when a murderer rings your bell and asks if your family is home)
    • Care-based: Do what you would want done if the situation were reversed. Also known as the “golden rule.” Drawbacks: Cannot always know who the “other” would be; may be overly biased towards leniency

These decision-making principles are not like a computer, where you enter the question and they give an answer. Sometimes different principles will suggest different courses of action. What they do is give me a lens through which to look at my dilemma, and develop a response with which I might be morally comfortable.


* (I am simplifying the philosophy somewhat in the above, so for my theorist friends please be lenient.)

Published by

Brad Rourke

Director of external affairs and DC operations at the Kettering Foundation.

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