The Pandemic and Moral Dilemmas
The first movie I saw with my friends as a teen was Planet of the Apes. I will always remember my surprise at the final scene when Taylor completes his journey, falling to his knees in front of a buried Statue of Liberty, swearing, and condemning humanity for destroying the earth. That ending was a huge “reveal.”
In the U.S., we are in the midst of a huge non-fiction reveal. Covid-19 and the economic collapse it has caused have laid bare how connected our problems are. While prior to the pandemic some Americans saw the matrix of connected issues, I hope that more people will pay attention to the ganging of moral dilemmas made evident by the pandemic and our nation’s responses.
Here are the most evident moral problems I see:
- Wealth and income inequality. For decades, some observers have warned about a Grand Canyon-sized wealth gap that has opened in the U.S. since the 1970s with devastating negative consequences for the middle and working classes. In addition, “essential” workers today—such as grocery and convenience store employees, delivery drivers, lab techs, nursing home caregivers—are paid less (many far less) than a middle-class living wage. (This income inequality also implicates the relationships between employer, employee, and consumer, for we all participate in a value exchange where workers are on the short end.)
- Health care tied to work. I understand the policy desire to incentivize work. But the pandemic has created an economic sinkhole (who knows how deep this crater will go?) into which hardworking individuals and solid businesses have fallen. Conservatives can’t claim workers did this to themselves. There always was a social fabric cost of bundling health care with work, as if the only incentive a society has for a person keeping healthy is to be gainfully employed.
- Racism. The consequences of infection are more severe for people of color than other populations, especially those persons living in ZIP codes where the life-expectancy is significantly lower than average. Asian ethnicities are targeted with verbal assaults, insults, and worse.
- Disposable populations. We’ve heard stunning statements from lawmakers about the elderly. We have systems that create mass incarceration. We pay people in service industries as if they are cogs in a machine, one that can be replaced for another.
- Are our health care workers also a disposable population? The inability to outfit everyone with personal safety devices would suggest an unsavory “yes.” Consider, too, the levels of post-traumatic stress—both current and coming—among health care workers, first responders, funeral home workers, and coffin trench diggers who have been seeing death in war-zone levels. The psychic, soul-cost among these workers will be staggering. Will good-enough help be made available to them?
- Environmentalists have warned for more than a half-century that an ever-expanding, consumption-based economy is unsustainable, for humans in particular and for life on the planet in general. Now that economy is comatose, the planet is taking a breath, and the economy-driven cost in human misery is high. So, what are the alternatives to an unsustainable economy on which we all depend and which is bringing us to the cliff of a sixth mass extinction event?
- What kind of government and governance do we need, and at what levels? For the last 40 years, public rhetoric has been infected with the fiction that government is necessarily inefficient and ineffective and private business, governed only by the jungle rules of the free market, is the opposite. Please. The denigration of government, often by the very people we’ve elected to govern, has eroded public trust; that erosion of trust, compounded by a dumbfounding distrust of experts and science, is killing us now. Really killing us. How about, after we are through the first critical phase of the pandemic, switching the argument to what size government do we need, to do what, and at what levels? What will it take to build trust sufficient for the work of governing? This is a monumental moral dilemma.
- “We are all in this together.” We’ve heard that claim frequently. It is a fine claim, a fine aspirational claim. It may even be a claim that most of the American public affirms, regardless of political identity. But hoarding is counter-evidence to the claim, as is price-gouging. Doctors pleading for supplies and being outbid by another state or by the federal government is more counter-evidence. The White House’s self-contradictory messages have done harm to the claim. Refer also to the points above regarding disposable populations, racism, and inequality. We should see ourselves as all in this together, and we could make that aspiration more real. But we are not there now. And the gap between “is” and “ought” is even greater when we broaden the aspiration to all humanity, in all nations. Are we really all in this together?
- What is the role of religion in this society? This is a complex question. I have just one response here: it is immoral for religious communities to claim a First Amendment right to assemble when assembling can lead to disease and death. Ethics 101: First, do no harm. The partisan political stance in which religious liberty is being claimed as the first of all liberties, whether regarding public assembly or right to discriminate, has led to the immoral conclusion of some pastors and congregants that the government never has a compelling interest to say “stay at home.”
Now, where can we converse, argue, debate, discuss, imagine, and deliberate about these and other moral dilemmas that stick out today like Lady Liberty’s torch on a fictional post-apocalyptic beach? The answer to that question may imply another moral dilemma.
IMAGE CREDIT: Image “My Planet of the Apes” by Tony Hoffarth. The “Planet of the Apes” starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall was shot at the Fox Movie Ranch and Point Dume Beach in Malibu. The final scenes take place in what is known as Pirates Cove at Point Dume in Malibu. This is my creation of the final shot from the movie.
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