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The Ethics of COVID

Sam Taylor

Posted on January 30, 2021 23:49

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To be motivated into moral action, we must force ourselves to acknowledge reality.

In the United States, COVID-19 deaths have surpassed 429,000. Worldwide, the pandemic has cost the lives of 2.19 million people. 

Metrics like this are hard to truly comprehend: while we're perfectly aware 2.19 million deaths is horrible, we find it difficult to visualize. In turn, we become prone to subject ourselves to indifference and carelessness. Though we recognize that COVID-19 is bad, we so often fail to address its suffusive danger with an apt degree of caution and sympathy. Gathering with friends and family without taking the necessary precautions, refusing to wear masks to avoid discomfort, and circumventing unpleasant restrictions for convenience: these practices are all common, and they all perpetuate the rise of the above numbers. 

But this doesn't mean those who engage in such actions are uncaring. I've seen many wonderful people dodge COVID policies on whimsical or superfluous rationales — even unconsciously, in some cases. But how can we account for this apparent contradiction between the characters and actions of these people? Simply put, by acknowledging that their actions seem only to be manifestations of human nature, as opposed to defects in character. 

To consistently act ethically, we need motivation. Whether it comes from a sense of duty, sympathy, or pride — or even a mere desire to conform — motivation is the mechanism which prompts us into moral action. But the tricky part is, the motivation itself must be brought into being by familiarity. In essence, we need to have direct contact with the source of our motivation. To have immense sympathy for those in poverty, we usually need to see a poverty-stricken community. To have an ardent loyalty to some group, we need to be intimately acquainted with that group, at least in some regard. To have a strong incentive to act morally, we must be removed from abstract statistics and truly acknowledge the reality they represent. 

Now I don't make this analysis without evidence. Documented research illustrates the link we create between moral feeling and familiarity. When we only think about ethical conundrums in an abstract sense, we don't exhibit strong, moral reactions. But when we're acquainted with the details of the situation — details we actually picture — our moral intuitions activate in full. 

Unfortunately, this means that people unfamiliar with the hardship caused by COVID-19 are likely less incentivized to follow pandemic guidelines than others. For many, the societal ailments stemming from the pandemic are nothing but quantities: non-pictorial entities utterly separate from a throng of bed-ridden, tube-strewn people gasping for their final breaths through purple lips. But after all, that's what the numbers represent — real people dying. 

If we can truly recognize that — move past our need for experiential motivation in acting morally, and understand that the numbers represent more than the sum of some abstraction — I hope we’ll have the decency to do everything in our power to mitigate this pandemic, and thereby value human life above convenience.

Sam Taylor

Posted on January 30, 2021 23:49

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