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Covid’s greatest byproduct could be a shared ethical stance

Finn McRedmond: Wearing masks for each other’s benefit was not a hard message to grasp

When we talk about the lingering impacts of the pandemic, a few topics have remained consistent: the various merits of remote working, and whether we ought to return to offices at all; the future of international travel, and the potential long-term pivot to increased domestic tourism; wage inequality, and how we fairly remunerate those in care worker roles.

Important though these questions are, they have become tedious in their ubiquity. And, this hyper-focus on the immediate material consequences of the pandemic – such as where we work or where we holiday – has revealed a laziness in our thinking. For every hour of our lives spent thinking about the propriety (or not) of working from home or forgoing a trip to Spain, perhaps as many ought to be dedicated to the abstract moral questions coronavirus has forced us to consider.

Philosopher Timothy Scanlon’s seminal thesis, What We Owe to Each Other, written in 1998, was prescient. In it he interrogates the duties of honesty, trust and consideration that exist between people. And he argues that the fairest societies are ones that are founded on interpersonal respect, not simply top-down policy intervention. Scanlon starkly “illustrates why moral philosophy should matter”, wrote Mark Kingwell in the Globe and Mail. Perhaps the greatest byproduct of this terrible global tragedy will be revisiting these ideas.

We can see it all over. Most recently vaccine passports, and how we treat the unvaccinated, have been the locus of high-octane-air-borne-disease-induced debate. The question is a simple one: can we impose a sort of two-tiered society that grants privileges to those who have been vaccinated while denying them to those who – for whatever reason – have not?


Our answer, however, will fall short if we dwell only on the tangible, economic ramifications of seeing a faster return to indoor dining, for example. Instead, the debate should invite us to consider our relationships with one another: what obligation do we have to protect the health of those around us? And what individual sacrifices must we make for the communitarian project of pandemic management?

Shining a light

It is in these fundamental considerations that coronavirus has shone a light on how our society works. Because if the past 18 months have taught us anything, it ought to be that navigating an epidemiological crisis cannot lie solely within the remit of government and policy wonks, but also with an acknowledgement of the responsibilities we have to our fellow citizens, whether they are strangers or not.

As we learned more about the virus, and saw its effects trickle through all aspects of our lives, the careful balancing act between our individual rights (the right to travel freely, to gather with one another, to earn a living) and our communitarian duties (to keep each other healthy, to organise society to the benefit of the most vulnerable, to ensure livelihoods are not sacrificed at the altar of selfishness and myopia) became clearer.

We see the duty of care most possess for others play out in mask wearing too: a practice that offers little protection to the wearer, but is designed for the collective benefit of everyone around. Compliance with mask wearing in Ireland has remained high, according to research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). And even as mandatory mask wearing in the United Kingdom ends, they still remain ubiquitous on public transport and in supermarkets. It seems the message that we wear masks for each other’s benefit was not a hard one to grasp.

And though the government can issue mask-wearing directives all it likes, it cannot easily engender a sense of comity that sees people continue to wear them even when they do not have to. A roster of rules backed by the threat of sanctions can get us some of the way there, but it seems at the core of all of this is a shared ethical standpoint. That is something no cabinet could ever legislate for.

Moral universe

But the pandemic has not created this moral universe in which we all operate. Rather, it has revealed something that has long been true, but something we have never had to think about so deeply. And though Covid-19 has seen us interrogate these notions with renewed vigour, they belong not solely to a public health crisis, but permeate everything we do.

Director Michael Schur sought inspiration for his hit Sitcom The Good Place from Scanlon’s book. He told the New York Times that he loved not only the thesis, but also its title: “It assumes we owe things to each other… It’s not like: Do we owe anything to each other? It’s like: Given that we owe things to each other, let’s try to figure out what they are. It’s a very quietly subversive idea.”

Schur may be an idealist, but we needn't scoff. Coronavirus has wreaked untold havoc across the world, but it has served as a reminder of the central importance of Scanlon's thesis to all of our lives. It's not something we should dismiss lightly.