The Ethics of Emergencies



I write this in the midst of a global pandemic. As a life-threatening virus goes around the world, institutions and businesses have closed their doors, people including myself are working from home, “social distancing” is the phrase of the day, and an increasing number of governments have declared a state of emergency. Measures become more drastic by the day, raising questions about whether there is a special ethics of emergencies—one, that is, that differs in principle from an ethics of everyday life. I believe there is and will try to outline it here.

What I have in mind is an ethics that can be grafted onto other ethical conceptions, whether it’s utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, postmodern ethics, or whatever it may be. I’ve defended a hermeneutical ethics elsewhere, but in the case of this or any other philosophical ethics, it’s doubtful that such ideas are quite up to the task when we meet situations that are extraordinary and extreme. Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of the Other has its appeal, as does Foucault’s care of the self and Aristotle’s morality of the virtues; maybe every philosophical ethics has some value or point to it, but I’m not convinced that any such theories are capable of helping us in the face of extreme circumstances where a kind of disconnect can emerge between, on one hand, ethical conceptions that are sometimes excessively formalist or aspirational and, on the other, the real world of decision making, especially when circumstances are tragic and heart-wrenching. For my purpose here, I’m going to take an agnostic view on ethical theory as it bears upon everyday life and the kinds of decisions and situations that such theories may or may not be able to cope with, and I’m going to outline an ethics of emergencies that is capable of attaching itself to more or less any ethics of ordinary life.

By an emergency I mean a situation in extremis, where a moral agent—whether a person, a government, or what have you—is compelled by circumstances beyond their control to take action in an extreme situation, where the stakes are extraordinarily high, sometimes involving the loss of life, and the available options are few and most or all of them are undesirable or worse. Some action needs to be taken, and it’s not obvious what the proper course is because by the standards of everyday life the options are all dire. At present, many governments, including my own, have declared a state of emergency and taken extraordinary measures from closing borders, enforced closures of institutions and businesses to stay at home orders, with no reliable predictions at the moment about how long this is likely to continue or the long-term consequences this will have on our society. Should we worry that our freedom is being taken away when governments resort to these kinds of extreme measures? I worry constantly about our freedom, and I don’t recommend taking politicians at their word when they reassure us that we live in a free and democratic society. In my opinion, we do and we don’t, in about equal measure. Anyone who shares my worry might worry more about such government responses, whether it’s to war, the current pandemic, or any comparable emergency that governments have faced. If a loss of freedom is what we’re concerned about, I actually worry less about the kind of government actions we are currently seeing than the piecemeal curtailments of freedoms that have been occurring for decades now in a great many countries, typically with benevolent intentions and in exchange for some small utility. If an established constitutional democracy were to abandon its freedom, it’s far more likely to do so by a thousand cuts than by any large gesture such as might be invoked during a state of emergency, the effects of which are easily perceived and usually also temporary. It’s the thousand small cuts I worry about, and the little utilities that they purchase. They elude our attention in the way that nickels and dimes do.

The question of ethics, especially political morality, is always “what is to be done?” and in the face of a real emergency the options are typically few, all of them undesirable and usually painful. The key concept here is moral necessity, and it’s an idea that we find in ordinary common sense. Common sense isn’t always a reliable guide to ethical decision making, being hard to dissociate in many cases from religion and ordinary public opinion. Common sense morality also tends to be internally conflicting and implicated in other popular ideas that can be hard to justify in any philosophically adequate way. But what we might call sheer moral necessity—one does what one needs to do—is justifiable on the grounds that it is the least undesirable or least harmful among the options available. It’s not a straightforward utility calculation, where we are quantifying net happiness or unhappiness, but something less methodological and formulaic. We are choosing the least bad among a host of bad options, and where there may be no exact standard as to what makes them bad and where they are unlikely to be bad in the same way. In an emergency, sometimes the only ethical reason for taking a particular course of action is because it needs to be done—and not in a way that’s likely to be universalizable but that applies to a particular case and possibly only that case. A rough synonym for “bad” here is harmful, although we should not be too quick to limit the concept of harm to human rights violations. A stay at home order violates our liberty—and it also needs to be done, as a temporary and measured response to an extraordinary situation. Ethics in the usual course of life is about identifying and pursuing what is good, but in the cases we’re speaking of there’s precious little good to be found, only options that are injurious and our question is how best to deal with them in a way that is proportionate to the situation and will get the least harmful results within it.

Finally, when we face situations of this kind, it matters not only that we do what is right under the circumstances but also, and perhaps equally important, that we do so on the right emotional register. We are forced to make a decision that is difficult and maybe heart-breaking, and we have done what we needed to do, but we do it, as Kierkegaard liked to say, in fear and trembling. Attitude here really matters, and more so than in the usual course of ethical decision making. Courage, decisiveness, matter of factness, and old-fashioned intestinal fortitude are called for here, but this is a resoluteness that must face up to and sometimes stare down a situation that is grim, and it gives us no joy. The phrase “in fear and trembling” is Abrahamic, of course, but we can use the phrase without being drawn into religion. You can do the right thing in the wrong way or with the wrong attitude of mind, and the attitude that’s called for in an emergency is more like grim determination than kindness or the kind of attitude that we usually associate with ethical conduct.

In the face of an emergency, we apply the surgeon’s scalpel, knowing the pain it will cause, but doing what we need to do because of the consequences of doing otherwise. It is no virtue to keep your hands clean while the world goes to hell. Doing what’s right sometimes means getting blood on your hands, and individuals and governments who are tempted to preen themselves on moral purity by refusing to apply the scalpel when it’s necessary deserve no praise.

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