New ethical issues emerge out of pandemic

By John McClean
Convenor, Gospel, Society and Culture Committee

Life has changed, and many of the changes relate to questions of ethics. We are recalibrating our concerns and assumptions about how to live well.

Think about some of the new issues that have emerged on the individual level and as national and international questions.

How much space should I give someone in a line at the shops? How much economic cost is justified to fight a pandemic? How does a landlord and tenant negotiate a ‘fair’ arrangement when the tenant cannot pay? When does an organisation lay off staff, and how?

Should a government help a stranded cruise ship with multiple COVID patients?

Nations such as Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu donated to Australia during the bushfires — what do we owe them in this crisis?

Should the government provide for non-citizens who are trapped in Australia? How?

Should the police enforce stringent ‘do not gather’ laws? Does public health justify limitations on personal freedom? What will that mean for the future?

As we move our lives online, what are the privacy risks?

What are the risks to vulnerable from privation and violence when their usual supports are removed? How do I protect myself and at-risk friends and family members?

Should I buy more food for my family? How much more? What do I do about someone at risk who is will not protect themselves the way I think they should?

What are the risks of abuse and addiction as people move life on-line? How do you manage that for yourself, your family, your church or organisation? Who should get priority of treatment if medical resources are scarce?  Who is to blame for panic buying and shortages? Should the government have brought in harder limitations faster?

Is it acceptable to fast-track possible treatments and vaccinations by shortening the normal checking process? How do churches respond to limitations on gatherings? Should we do more than authorities require? Should I criticise the government? To whom? For what? When?

Do medical staff have a moral duty to face higher risks as they treat patients?

How much pay should executives give up? What if that make no real difference in how many employees lose their jobs?  Should children go to school or not? Should schools be open?

How much can drastic action be justified when there is not enough data to give good predictions?

Is it acceptable to blame people from specific ethnic backgrounds for spreading the virus?

How do I care for people I used to see daily but are now locked across the road or across the city?

Is closing churches a matter of religious freedom?

How much should I know and care about what is happening in the wider world?

What news do I share with my family? What should I share on social media?

How much space can I ask for when the whole family is restricted to the house?

I’m sure you can add to the list and there are more questions to come!

Every one of those questions is ethical. Each requires a judgement about what is the right or best. Most are recognisable variations of more traditional questions. Yet, each comes at us with increased force and new dimensions. No wonder we are feeling exhausted!

So, what do we make of this ethic onslaught?

Step one is to admit that life is harder to understand and navigate. Since everyone is in the same situation, we should exercise extra patience and kindness.

Don’t be surprised that people making surprising calls (including yourself). New complex questions shake up our usual patterns and surface assumptions that we have not previously recognised. While this can be disturbing, it can also be clarifying. Even ethics benefits from disruption.

Our society may start to recognise the shallow nature of most modern ethical discussion. The cracks in the foundations will start to show. That will open new opportunities for a Christian voice in personal discussions and the public square.

For Christians, new situations send us back to old truths. We know life is lived for God and fellowship with him is the proper purpose of every person. We rejoice in God’s faithfulness and compassion, so we can love those around us. We affirm the value of every person in every part of the world and aim to be generous to neighbours near and far. Hope grounded in the resurrection of Christ is the basis for courageous service. We pray for our leaders and seek to contribute to the common good. We see the blessings in God’s created order and embrace his gifts of family, friendship, bodies and creativity. We reflect God’s care for weak and vulnerable by protecting them — including older people, those with disabilities and refugees.

Those commitments do not offer simple answers. The current crisis highlights the fact that we often face situations in which there is no obvious right answer. Our world is always in moral chaos, it’s just that we get used to the normal version. The sudden shift shocks us with the complications.

That will take time and effort to see how old truths connect with the brave new world of Covid19. It is important to base decisions and assessments on accurate information — as much as we can get it; and to take time, if that is available, to understand it. It is easy to assume that an old answer fits a new situation, we need information and reflection to work out how much things have changed.

This is a call to think carefully and prayerfully, together. We will not all face the same questions with the same intensity; we will all face some. We will need God’s help; we have to trust his word and we will benefit from shared insights and encouragement. In this season, the Gospel, Society and Culture Committee will be working to identify and produce resources which can help the church face the onslaught of questions (keep an eye out for our material on In the ethical storm which we could not have imagined a month ago, Jesus will enable us to be the salt and light of the kingdom.

As published in The Presbyterian Pulse. Find it and more great articles.