Morality in your face

The COVID-19 pandemic has felt like the time of my life when morality has been most obviously part of my day to day choices. I took some philosophy courses in college, but they were mostly topics like “The Philosophy of War,” that, although interesting, weren’t likely to come up.

With COVID it’s different — and even the questions are complicated:

  • People view risks differently. If consenting adults voluntarily get together indoors for a party, knowing that they are all at risk of catching COVID and judging the benefits of the party to be worth the risk, is this wrong?

  • If some people have decided that the benefits of interacting in a masked but otherwise normal society is worth the risks of catching COVID outside the home, at what point, if ever, are these participants morally obligated to consider the well-being of those who are not a risk tolerant and are suffering at home and excluded from a society too risky for them?

  • My mental health is important, and getting a chance to go out to a restaurant for a date with my wife is a big help. Even outdoors, though, this introduces risk. To what degree should I be obligated to take 2nd and 3rd order effects into my decision making?

In many of these questions there is a tension between what’s good on balance for me or my family according to my judgment, and what may be good on balance for others.

It’s good for me to go to a bar and have a drink, because it’s enjoyable, and the risk of contracting COVID, although present, is still relatively low, and the risk of any serious long-term effects from COVID, hospitalization, or death, are very low for me based on what we know about the disease. But if that series of low probability effects occur, and I end up in the hospital, then it’s an additional burden on hospitals, society, and medical professionals. I may take hospital resources that could have been used to save someone else’s life. So is that trade-off worth it? I don’t think the answer is simple.

It’s tempting, at least in public, to always side on the choice that reduces risk from COVID, because it’s always safe ground to advocate for saving lives. Should you go to a bar? No, and neither should anyone else, because bad outcomes might occur. Should you travel? No, and neither should anyone else. Etc, and so on. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because life is not risk-free, and never has been. So it’s dishonest to pretend that any life lost to COVID is worth saving any cost.

None of this has led me to any answers. I guess it’s just a new experience to have the moral implications of my own decisions, my neighbor’s decisions, and our policy decisions so clearly in my face.