The Moral Challenge of COVID-19

Humans are a species that thrives on disaster. Beneath the patina of our carefully curated lives, we are all animals with primal instincts easily activated by risk and threat.  The fact that we exist and flourish by constructing and managing complex societies with built environments, material comforts, and virtual realities to occupy our time and talents attests to cognitive capacities honed by millennia of adaptive learning in response to relentless, ubiquitous threats to our survival. 

And here we are, facing another pandemic threat.  What will we learn from it and how will we adapt?  Of course, there will be new technologies – vaccines, architectural advances, and redesigned spatial configurations to minimize and perhaps even eliminate the threat of the coronavirus – but what about adaptive refinements in our moral capacities and practices?  For that matter, what do we mean when we talk about our moral capacities?  Human evolutionary hardiness attributed to the human brain is not simply about rational intelligence. Our moral capacities may be a singularly defining trait for fueling human adaptive learning.  What if the adaptive moral challenge of the coronavirus is to find a way out of a dead end to a more life-giving path for our future?  

Over the past couple hundred years – the blink of an eye in evolutionary time — we progressed quickly toward a new pivot point in our history. We’ve focused our collective intelligence on building a world we can no longer live in:  A contaminated, collapsing biosphere of dying species, intolerable climate, toxic air and water, disrupted economies, resource scarcities, regime failures, and technology-driven, capital-dependent material and social infrastructures, that leave billions of overwhelmed people unable to provide even the most basic necessities for themselves and their families.  And now another pandemic with promises of more to come when global travel bounces back to ensure the quick, lethal spread of another virus.

What if the adaptive moral challenge of the coronavirus is to find a way out of a dead end to a more life-giving path for our future?  

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call – devastating, certainly – but a deadly threat is hardly a novel phenomenon in human evolutionary history. What is new is our arrival at – or perhaps more accurately, our creation of – the Anthropocene, a much-debated evolutionary point in geohistory when the impact of human activities on the Earth has begun to outcompete natural processes (Crutzen, 2006).  The Anthropocene imposes new, unprecedented moral challenges that most of humanity’s wisdom traditions were not designed to even contemplate, much less resolve (Jenkins, 2013). 

The current pandemic is the latest point in humanity’s moral evolution of adaptive response to moments of urgent threat that have tested, expanded, and defined our character and moral capacities as a species.  Rather than falter under the moral burden of the coronavirus threat and its consequences, we can lean into the challenge as an opportunity to refine our moral understanding and expand our moral capacities to take on even greater challenges that threaten the future of humanity and the planet.  This is an opportunity to stretch our moral horizons by taking responsibility for the urgent moral challenges we have created – perhaps unwittingly – and inventing new ethical frameworks and tools that will lead us to new moral understandings and solutions to the moral challenges we face.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced millions of people to experiences of moral distress usually encountered only in high-risk jobs – emergency and intensive care clinicians, first responders, police officers, fire fighters, and combatants – who suffer guilt and despair when they are unable to fulfill duties of care for the wellbeing of others (Rushton, 2018).

Moral distress looms in the pandemic-induced debate over protecting lives versus protecting livelihoods, exposing and illuminating deep fissures in the fabric of the global social order.  We dread reckoning with moral failure but don’t know how to avoid it.  How is it that the toll of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality weighs far more heavily on already disadvantaged people and communities?  Why were governments in wealthy nations so ill prepared to protect their citizens from a threat that had been predicted by public health officials for years?  Why did it take a pandemic to notice that local business ecosystems crippled by globalization were powerless to produce needed goods for their communities? How can people who feel betrayed by their leaders and institutions regain trust in government, business, and the economy? Will we ever feel safe again?

Rather than falter under the moral burden of the coronavirus threat and its consequences, we can lean into the challenge as an opportunity to refine our moral understanding and expand our moral capacities…

As nations and cities struggle with decisions to reopen businesses and markets, moral distress will take on a more urgent tone in the dilemmas or individuals, families, and communities who fear their inability to fulfill their immediate moral obligations:

  • How can I return to work if my baby’s daycare is closed?
  • How can I send my child to school and protect her from the coronavirus?
  • How can we let Grandpa suffer and die alone in the hospital?
  • How can I ensure that my employees are safe?
  • Should we pay our furloughed employees or pay our rent?
  • How do we prepare for the next pandemic wave?
  • Can we afford to retire with devalued portfolios?
  • Should I close my business or try to rebuild it?

As painful as it is, these untenable situations of moral adversity invite resilience. Rather than succumb to moral failure, we can absorb, utilize, and even grow from it by developing new skills and strategies in responding to moral distress and the conditions of moral urgency (Rushton, 2018). We can work to repair the damage already done and work even harder to prepare and strengthen ourselves for an uncertain future. Margaret Walker defines morality as practices of responsibility with special attention to the obligations that vulnerability places on society and people who are less vulnerable. (Walker, 2007).  If the coronavirus teaches us anything, it is how much we as humans need to lean into our responsibility for the vulnerable people among us and for the Earth that is our home.  Leaning into the moral challenge of responding and adapting to the coronavirus, we have the opportunity to build a world of business, government, and social practices that align more closely with values of care, justice, and fairness that we espouse as a modern community of nations and we can hold one another and our global and local institutions accountable for practicing these values (United Nations, 1948).