A moral crisis arises when the expected outcome of all choices will contravene a moral principle, a personal value, or a social norm. COVID-19 presents such a problem – choice between ethically unpalatable options.
Choosing a mitigation strategy over a suppression strategy strikes a particular balance between expected loss of life and maintaining economic activity. Accepting the real possibility of a greater loss of lives than otherwise might occur has a ‘dirty hands’ feel about it – an example of the challenge of ‘governing innocently’ in a crisis.
The broader lesson for leaders and institutions is the need to prepare themselves not only for rapid action but also for the opprobrium that will come from confronting moral dilemmas.
Governments will face many more unavoidable ‘dirty hands’ type decisions.
Martin Wolf focuses on the choices decision-makers face, writing that COVID-19 is not just an economic challenge, it is an ethical one. Discussing the debate between suppression and mitigation strategies, he asks ‘Could a health calamity that is unacceptable in China be acceptable in the UK or US?’
Seeping faintly through the pronouncements and policies of some government responses to the coronavirus pandemic are the vapours of older belief systems; a whiff of utilitarianism, the scent of social Darwinism, and the fetid reek of eugenics.
Closer examination of the UK government’s ‘herd immunity’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that it’s not too farfetched to connect contemporary politics with these ostensibly outdated ideas.
The capacity of governments to respond appropriately to crises has never been more important. How will they respond to greater crises? Where will they find their moral moorings?