Be Selfless for Others?

The ethical dilemma of navigating our different values during the coronavirus outbreak

By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

Be selfless for others.” 

Appeal from Dr. Deborah Birx, US Coronavirus Response Coordinator. 

Be selfless for others? What would be our ethical motivation for doing so?

Dr. Birx and government officials plead with the public daily to practice “social distancing” to guard against the spread of the Coronavirus and to protect the lives of others, especially society’s most vulnerable.

Dr. Deborah Birx, U.S. Coronavirus Response Coordinator
Andrew Cuomo, NY Governor

The videos of college-age students frolicking on the Florida beaches and enjoying the freedoms of spring break have been played across many media platforms. We have heard Governor Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, lecturing people — young and not-so-young — for playing in the parks like “nothing is going on.”

“It’s a mistake. It is insensitive, it is arrogant, it is self- destructive, it is disrespectful to other people. And it has to stop and it has to stop now. This is not a joke.” 

New York Governor, Andrew Coumo

It’s not a joke, it’s very real, but is it an ethical responsibility? Do we have an ethical obligation to be “selfless for others?” To be “our brother’s keeper?” To behave in a manner that puts the needs of others in front of our own, especially if the “need” is to preserve life?

When values conflict

How do we ask or expect a generation of young people to suddenly put aside those values that are appropriately relevant for them: autonomy, independence, and freedom? There is nothing quite like the youthful exuberance of being independent for the first time, able to make decisions for one’s self, unencumbered by the sets of rules that have been dictated by adults since birth. And yet, this generation of “young people” is being asked to think not of themselves, to think not of exercising their freedom in a way that brings great joy, but instead to put aside those freedoms for the value of safety and the well-being of others. It is perhaps more difficult for the young adults of our society who are newly independent. This is particularly relevant in a time when we have become an increasingly multi-generational society, with each generation living their values that sometimes seem at odds. 

Whether young or old, are we all responsible for the well-being of others, especially in a time of a global pandemic? One might assert that the urgency for maintaining public health and safely trumps all other individual values and rights. From an ethical perspective, one might be motivated by the moral obligation to preserve life, and sees this a duty, binding and obligatory, that each person must obey. Another might emphasize the consequences of NOT being socially responsible, as it would result in the sickness and potential death of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Does the motivation or intent – whether social distancing out of obligation, intent, or consequences — even matter?

I think it does.

What motivates us to do what is right?

I have noticed that most people are complying with the order for social distancing. At first, I thought that people were complying with these daily admonitions out of their sense of duty to each other, in order to preserve life at all cost, even if that means the letting go of personal values or rights. I was inspired by the altruism of so many, considering the needs of others as important as one’s own. One might consider this virtuous, an action that is considered ethical based upon the intent of the individual. Virtue ethicists emphasize a person’s character rather than a rule or consequence. Certainly, altruism and empathy speak to a virtuous intent. 

But then this idea of virtuous intent was challenged. I was walking in the park the other day, keeping my distance of six feet from others. A young woman ran by me, and, as she did, she dropped a glove. I called out to let her know, and she stopped and came back to get the glove. Out of reflex, I picked up the glove to hand it to her. She went nuts, questioning why I had picked up her glove, exclaiming that she would now need to wash it. I found myself apologizing and slightly shamed for picking up the glove.

And then I realized that perhaps people are complying to the call for social distancing not out of concern for the other or altruistic intent, but out of fear for oneself. Fear of getting sick. Fear of getting “it.” FEAR of giving it to their family, their children, their elderly parents, or even their pets. Fear of causing the death of someone else.

Different Motivators: Fear versus Altruism

Is there a moral or ethical difference between an intention to adhere to the rule of social distancing if done out of fear rather than altruism? If the impact is the same — stopping the spread and eradicating the virus — does the intent even matter? It’s the classic question of judging the morality or ethicality of an action by either the intent or the outcome. The consequentialist, who cares about the outcome and not the intent, will say that “as long as the result is that the greatest number of lives are saved, it doesn’t matter if people do it out of fear or altruism.”

I believe this is an opportunity for each of us as human beings to not base our ethical actions in this situation solely on the consequences. Instead, this is a chance to rediscover what it means to be empathic, altruistic . . . human. COVID-19 does not discriminate. It has driven us into the solitude and isolation of our own lives, our own humanness . . . to contemplate our purpose, our motivations, and our values.  

In the moment of this crisis, focus not only on the future outcome, but on the present benefit of practicing virtuous, values-based intent. Ultimately, the greatest benefit to society will not only be how we defeat the Coronavirus, but also in how we learned to treat each other again, as human beings, living a common humanity, finding the courage to put fear aside and discover what it means to be “selfless,” — looking out for ourselves and for one another in a manner that will ultimately produce the best outcome . . . even after the pandemic is over.