Several years ago when I started teaching philosophy at Coconino Community College I introduced myself to a colleague who teaches in a decidedly and overtly practical program. Upon learning the discipline I teach in, her face contorted into a condescending sneer as she made passing reference to her time as an undergrad studying whether or not practicing cannibalism on a lifeboat to ward off starvation would be acceptable. This was her idea of what moral philosophers do. We ponder improbable scenarios to extract lessons that have little to do with how we ought to live under more mundane circumstances. Her reaction made me ponder whether or not philosophers have done a good job making the value of our work clear. As a practitioner of moral philosophy, I am happy to report that we can contribute to important public discussions in ways that go beyond detailing the contours of ethical cannibalism.
In this space, I want to illustrate both the truth and the value of an insight into ethical thinking that was made very close to the dawn of Western speculation. Aristotle noted that ethics has a discernible subject matter within which true and false judgments can be made, but these judgements tend to only hold for the most part. In other words, ethics is an objective science or logos, but it is also not maximally precise. (Aristotle, 2019, pp. 2-3) Let us pause here to explain what Aristotle meant by science, and what he meant when he stated that ethics is not a maximally precise science.
A science is any organized body of knowledge. Hence, to say that ethics is a science is to say we can think about the goodness/badness and rightness/ wrongness of an action, motivation, institution, or practice in an organized and comprehensive way. What about Aristotle’s insight that ethics is not maximally precise?Different sciences admit of different levels of precision. Mathematicians are often in the business of giving demonstrable proofs in which their conclusions follow necessarily from a set of axioms. This is an example of a maximally precise science. Physicists seek to describe the physical world using the language of mathematics. Hence, the results of the physicist are often rather precise as well. In contrast, sciences such as economics, psychology, sociology and anthropology seek to discover generalizable facts about their subject matters, but these generalizable facts are not exceptionless in the way that the results of the mathematician and physicist often are. Ethics is more like the “soft sciences” of economics and psychology. That is Aristotle’s insight.
We can explore and come to understand why this Aristotelian thought is a genuine insight by examining how residents of Flagstaff ought to respond to the health and economic crisis created by COVID-19.
We will conduct our investigation from within a particular tradition in ethics that is focused on the question, “what do we owe to one another?” The tradition in question is the contractualist tradition, and this question of what we owe to each other places our discussion in the realm of moral duties. (Scanlon, 1998; Wallace, 2019; Darwall, 2009) In section II, I will lay out how a contractualist understands the nature of moral obligations and how one might go about establishing which duties we have. In section III, I will use our local COVID-19 crisis to illustrate why our ethical theorizing about the obligations we have to one another yields indeterminate results. In section IV, I will offer some concluding reflections on the least that we should all do and why it is important to keep the limits of what even competent ethical reflection can yield in mind when thinking about appropriate responses to COVID-19.
Ethics as a Nexus of Mutual Accountability Relations
If one wants to understand why there are truths about what we ought to do morally speaking, one needs to pay close attention to what we are trying to accomplish when we put forward ethical claims in good faith. With this in mind let us consider the words of Harvard philosopher T. M. Scanlon regarding the significance of a morally wrong action:
"When I ask myself what reason the fact that an action would be wrong
provides me with not to do it, my answer is that such an action would be one that I could not justify to others on grounds I could expect them to accept. This leads me to describe the subject matter of judgments of right and wrong by saying that they are judgments about what would be permitted by principles that could not be reasonably rejected, by people who were moved to find principles for the general regulation of behavior that others, similarly motivated could not reasonably reject. In particular, an act is wrong if and only if any principle that permitted it would be one that could be reasonably rejected by people with the motivation just described. (Scanlon, 1998, p. 4, emphasis mine)
Let us unpack this lengthy quote. First, I want to introduce a technical term. Scanlon’s basic view of what makes an action morally right or wrong is a contractualist view. Contractualist accounts of morality emphasize that the moral principles that regulate our behavior are for the purpose of enabling us to live with other people on mutually acceptable grounds. Hence, contractualism is a type of theory that originated from the social contract tradition of morality.
Let us now return to unpacking this lengthy quote. The gist of Scanlon’s view is that if one’s action is morally wrong this is because it gives other people who are affected by that action and who are interested in living with one on mutually acceptable grounds a reason to oppose it. Hence, a person with these motivations cannot reasonably be expected to allow me to get away with what I am attempting to do. When we offer a moral justification of our action to others we are more or less communicating to them that we are not giving them the short end of the stick, or at least, we are not doing so without a reason that they really should accept.
Perhaps some illustrative examples will help. Imagine someone is in the process of breaking into your house in order to steal your Iphone, computer, and other portable items with a high cash value. This person, let’s call her Sheila, may have many reasons for her actions. She might want to have more spending cash for the upcoming weekend, she might enjoy the rush of breaking and entering, or she might even wish to put the money to good use by donating it to charity. But, none of these reasons are reasons that can justify her actions to you. Hence, Sheila’s actions are morally wrong because even she would know that you are justified in opposing what she is doing. Similarly, if a corporation were to save on disposal costs by fouling the local water supply even they would know their actions are evil because they would know that the local residents were justified in forcefully opposing them.
Let us say a little moral about what makes a moral claim true. Moral reasoning is a species of practical reasoning (i.e. reasoning about what we should do) that is geared towards solving a specific set of problems. Scanlon and other contractualists have argued that the practical problem morality is concerned with is the question of how to live with others using principles that regulate behavior that nobody in the community could reasonably reject. True moral claims are the ones that enable us to accomplish this purpose. This picture of morality presupposes that we stand in relations of mutual accountability towards one another. Moral thinking is best thought of as a conceptual tool that we use to regulate our interactions so that all affected parties’ interests are taken into account. The force or authority which undergirds moral norms such as “do not lie, cheat, steal, or murder” is other persons’ reasonable use of criticism and force to oppose such actions. In the Sheila case described above, you would be reasonable in calling in the police to arrest her and ensure the integrity of your home and belongings. This reasonable use of force to hold Sheila accountable is what gives moral rules their authority. R. Jay Wallace refers to these mutual accountability relations as “the moral nexus.” (Wallace, 2019)
We can get a better grip on the nature and function of moral reasons by contrasting them with merely self-interested reasons. Many of our reasons for doing what we do are merely self-interested in the sense that they have little to do with justifying our actions to others. A subclass of merely self-interested reasons are selfish reasons. For example, if one lies during a job interview in order to gain an advantage they are acting on a self-interested reason that is not a moral reason because others have an interest in opposing their action, not supporting it. The point I wish to highlight by providing this contrast between moral and self-interested reasons is that moral reasoning is inherently social.
Having clarified the nature of moral reasons, at least as these relate to the realm of moral obligations to others, we can move on in our analysis of why it is often not particularly clear what our obligations to others are. Our obligations in response to the COVID-19 epidemic in Flagstaff will serve as our illustration.
Flagstaff in the time of Covid-19
So what can we reasonably expect other people to do and refrain from doing? This question is especially pressing in times of crisis when significant levels of sacrifice are called for in order to prevent harm to others. It is appropriate to look at this question at the city-level because the effects of our decisions in relation to this particular crisis are primarily local. In our last section we detailed how the contractualist explains our duties to one another. We owe it to others to either behave in a certain way or refrain from behaving in a certain way only if such an action can be reasonably rejected by the person affected by it.
With this in mind it is easy to see how genuine moral dilemmas originate. Because we are discussing public decision making at the city level, we will discuss policies for acting instead of individual actions. Policies with the following two traits tend to generate moral dilemmas:
- If a policy x were to be enacted, someone affected by it would have good reasons to object to the results.
- If that same policy x were not enacted, someone affected by it would have good reasons to object to the results.
Policies with this feature are ubiquitous in the context of COVID-19 as these policies inevitably convey heavy economic costs associated with economic collapse, and/or health costs associated with increased levels of death and suffering. For example, if the seating capacity of restaurants are limited or eliminated altogether for health and safety reasons then many restaurants may go out of business. Criollo, a restaurant that was one of my personal favorites, recently suffered this fate. Yet, if we collectively decide not to shut down or limit public meeting areas such restaurants, then this would likely lead to higher transmission rates.
At first glance, you might think that death and severe illness is worse than economic loss (even collapse), and hence you might think that our policies need to address health concerns over and above economic concerns. The problem with this line of thinking is not that it is simply implausible, but that it is oversimplified. This line of thinking often rests on the utilitarian assumption that a policy is correct if and only if it minimizes suffering of various sorts and maximizes various types of well-being in comparison to competing policies. Utilitarianism simply is the view that the right action or policy is determined by determining which policy maximizes good consequences and minimizes bad ones. Different schools of utilitarian thought offer competing conceptions of what good and bad consequences consist of, but suffering and death are clear-cut types of negative consequences.
The reason why a utilitarian is likely to favor health over economic issues, is because death is often the worst thing a person can suffer. This is because a deceased person misses out on all future goods she otherwise would have had. In order to see why it is implausible that we must always act in such a manner that maximizes good consequences over bad ones for the public at large, we must take into account two dimensions of morality.
The first complicating factor is that we bear greater responsibilities towards some people than we bear to people at large. Philosophers refer to the higher levels of responsibility generated by various types of social relations “special duties.” For example, being a parent generates special duties to one’s children. Parents have a much greater responsibility to secure the well-being of their own children than they do to secure the well-being of other people’s children. If I fail to feed and clothe my own children I deserve to be criminally prosecuted. If I fail to donate to the local food bank in order to feed other people’s children my actions may still be criticizable, but not nearly to the same degree. Being someone’s friend is another good example of a relationship that generates higher levels of expected commitment. Consider the various forms of aid and claims on your time a friend may reasonably demand of you that a perfect stranger or mere acquaintance could not reasonably demand of you.
Let us focus on these special duties that parents have towards their children. All parents have an obligation, one that is very difficult to override, to shelter and clothe their children and provide them with an adequate education and health care if they are able. Many parents in Flagstaff are in the unfortunate position of being employed in a profession in which contact with the public and other colleagues is necessary. A large subset of these parents simply cannot afford to take any time off of work and continue to pay for their families’ mortgages, health-care bills, groceries, and other expenses. Hence, many parents would be justified in opposing any policy that prevents them from working in their profession even though this involves a lot of contact with other people.
Yet, there are people in our community who have good reasons to oppose any policy that allows non-essential businesses that involve a lot of interpersonal contact to remain open. Our doctors and nurses who treat infected persons at the Flagstaff Medical Center fall into this group. As health-care professionals, they have a special duty to existing and potential patients to support measures that would significantly reduce the number of persons contracting COVID-19. They are also justified in pushing policies that make their job safer as well.
A similar tension holds between parents who cannot afford childcare if their kids are not going to school for much of the year and teachers who are quite appropriately concerned about their own health and safety and the safety of children at large and the families these children belong to. As a group, children are pretty safe from harm, but they can act as carriers who transmit the illness to their teachers and older persons in their household who are more likely to be harmed. Hence, we have a moral dilemma. Many people have good reasons to oppose a policy that entails relatively few restrictions on the conditions under which labor can proceed, and others have good reasons to oppose a policy that entails more restrictions.
Moral duties and the separateness of persons
Another morally relevant fact that bears on just how much we owe to other people is what philosophers such as Derek Parfit have referred to as “the separateness of persons.” (Parfit, 2011, p. 330) The basic idea is that I am intimately acquainted with my own pleasures, joys, pains and sufferings in the sense that I experience these directly. Similarly, other persons are intimately acquainted with their own joys and sufferings in the same way. We are also deeply affected by how those we care about are faring in life. But, we are all affected much less, and sometimes not at all, by the joys and pains of strangers and mere acquaintances. This fact gives rise to many dilemmas that are similar to the ones that arise from the fact that we have special duties to some people. Why is this?
Consider Jay and Sherri. They own a local restaurant. They have invested a lot of time, money and energy through the years getting their restaurant up and running. Jay’s and Sherri’s restaurant will simply fold if they are not allowed to provide dining on the premises with suitable spacing between tables. Jay and Sherri are of the view that they shouldn’t be compelled to accept a policy that prevents them from providing this service. They are as informed as the rest of us regarding the spike in cases that will occur when restaurants and other public spaces open up. Their argument is that it is not fair to demand of them a large monetary and vocational sacrifice when the following is the case:
- It is likely to be strangers, who have never performed such a sacrifice for them and will not do so in the future, that would benefit.
- Neither the strangers who benefit, nor anyone else, would sufficiently compensate them for their losses.
(1) and (2) rest on a common foundation. One determinant of what I owe other people is the demands of reciprocity. If a person or group is willing to sacrifice for one’s well-being in tangible ways this gives one reason to return the favor. But, if one has good reasons to think that one’s own sacrifice will not result in any kind of roughly equivalent future aid or benefit from the person one is sacrificing on behalf of, then one will have a good reason to reject the claim that aid must be given or that a relevant sacrifice must be made.
How does this tie in with what we have labelled “the separateness of persons”? I am the one who experiences my own suffering and you are the one who experiences your own suffering. Hence, we both have a reason to be more concerned with how a policy affects us individually, and by extension those we care about, than how it affects the public at large. Hence, if society is going to demand a large sacrifice on the part of persons such as Jay and Sherri then we owe them compensation for losing a significant part of their life’s work. Of course, there are mechanisms that have been set up to help the Jay’s and Sherri’s of the world. These include increased availability of forgivable loans designed to enable business owners to keep paying their workers, small business grants and other mechanisms. Yet, it is also the case that these mechanisms have not prevented local restaurants, such as Criollo, from shutting down.
The other half of our dilemma is easy to set up as well. Many people simply can’t remain isolated as a means of self-protection either because they are health professionals, or because they live in a crowded environment and cannot afford to do otherwise. These people have very good reasons to favor policies that restrict the economic activity of people like Jay and Sherri in the public sphere.
Conclusion: the least we should do
In this concluding section I want to make three points. The first one has already been established and I just want to connect some dots. Any public policy established in Flagstaff that concerns how restricted our public economic activities should be will generate a group of “losers” that have good reason to oppose the policy. This is because any policy will put people at risk for losses that they will not, and in some cases could not, be compensated for. In illustrating this fact in relation to both the special obligations or duties we have, and the fact of the separateness of persons, we have shown that Aristotle’s famous proclamation that ethical reasoning often does not deliver a clear and decisive result is correct. Yet, it does not follow that ethical reasoning sheds only neglible light on what we should do, nor does it follow that ethical reasoning cannot make us aware of the various trade-offs that must be taken into account when considering a variety of policies.
The second point I want to make is that some policies would generate more losers than others. For example, placing zero restrictions on people’s public interactions would simply catapult the number of infections and deaths upwards, and instill in people a fear of public spaces that would undermine restaurants and bars in any case. Hence, the argument of section II is not an argument for a kind of lasseiz-fair libertarian approach to these matters. We may simply need to adopt some member or other of the set of policies that generates relatively few losers because we can do no better.
The third point I want to make is that many sacrifices, even for fellow residents of Flagstaff that are strangers, are such that we have good reasons to make them and insufficient reasons to avoid them. The most obvious is wearing masks in public and standing six feet or so apart. These are trivial sacrifices to make and hence it is justifiable to criticise those who fail to make them . A second obvious sacrifice involves working from home, or at a distance, if one is able to without severe loss. Coconino Community College has decided to put their Fall 2020 offerings online insofar as this is possible from a teaching and learning perspective. This move is arguably morally mandatory because the fiscal loss to the college and its employees is probably going to be low (or low enough), and the health costs of opening to students and faculty is probably high. Many of our students are from the Navajo Nation, which is the single hardest hit group of people in the country. Therefore, one does not want to make too much of the fact that we are beings that are experientially distinct from one another. As fundamentally social creatures we all must make moderate sacrifices if we are to live in a society that promotes our collective well-being.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2019. 3rd ed.. translated by Terence Irwin. (Indianapolis, IN:Hackett Publishers)
Center for Disease Control. “Risk for Covid-19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death by AgeGroup. Accessed on 05/21/2021.
Darwall, Stephen. 2006. The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
Donofrio, Craig. 2021. “Best and Worst Unemployment Benefits by State.” workandmoney.com Accessed on 05/21/2021.
Korsgaard, Christine. 2008. The Constitution of Agency. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)
Parfit, Derek. 2011. On What Matters: Volume I. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)
Scanlon, T. M. 1998. What We Owe to Each Other. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
Wallace, R. Jay. 2019. The Moral Nexus. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)