The Scope of Personal Responsibility
It always intrigues me that the discussion of the coronavirus typically focuses on wearing masks because it is the responsible way to act and protect the public. No doubt, this is true. However, it misses out on many points about ethical behavior during the pandemic.
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow and the death toll mounts, it’s useful, from an ethics perspective, to use our experiences to date to evaluate our personal responsibilities to each other in this crisis. Why does this matter? Our society depends on communal efforts to improve the lives of everyone and this can’t be done unless we act responsibly, not take advantage of others, and look out for each other. We need to act for the common good. This is the essence of a civilized society.
Why do so many people refuse to wear masks and practice social distancing? Quite simply, they believe they have a right to do whatever they want to do, which is self-serving form of behavior. Does the law support this contention?
Although not completely on point, the U.S. Supreme Court in Crandall v. Nevada, 73 U.S. 35 (1868) declared that freedom of movement is a fundamental right. Moreover, the freedom of peaceful assembly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is the individual right or ability of people to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue, and defend their collective or shared ideas.
What this means is each individual has the right of free movement, which can be extended by saying they also have a right to wear or don’t wear a mask. What’s missing from this analysis is what might be expressed as, “Just because someone has a right to do something, that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.”
When rights are asserted the party doing so also has a duty to treat others the way they wish to be treated (The Golden Rule). Or do things that they wish others would do in similar situations for similar reasons. This is the essence of our behavioral obligations to others. Surely, those who do not wear masks wouldn’t want others to act this way when exposed to their children and spouse and other family members and good friends.
Bart Worden points out in his opinion piece, Despite social distancing we still need to live ethically with each other that," that “Ethical living is always a joint endeavor. It’s all about how we live together, how we interact with people, how we draw out the best of humanity in one another. Social connection is the vehicle and the fuel for living ethically. It’s how we learn and grow, and where the fruits of our learning and growth are realized.”
If we examine behavior during the pandemic, there is no doubt that we have failed to live ethically because all too many shun the mask. They seem to feel that it disrupts their ability to enjoy themselves without intrusion by the government.
My comments are geared toward individual behavior, not in organizations that most often do follow the CDC guidelines of safety. Perhaps it’s because mask wearing and social distancing are the dual responsibilities, along with hand sanitizing, to reopen their businesses.
Linn Vizard addresses the ethical responsibilities of people in general. He suggests we look at specific considerations in formulating a plan of action, which also serves as a useful guide during the pandemic.
We need to feel like we matter (autonomy):
- Can I make my own choices?
- Is anyone thinking about me and what I need?
- How can I express myself to the world within these constraints?
We need to feel effective (competence):
- If I make this sacrifice, will it make a difference?
- Do I have any resources, skills, or abilities that are particularly helpful right now?
- How do I avoid feeling like life is on hold?
We need to feel connected (relatedness):
- What is everyone else doing?
- How can I maintain my interactions over distance?
- How can I give and receive affection?
Keeping these in mind, we should be using our experiences to enhance people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This is how we can create the conditions of success for these behaviors to stick. It is nothing less than a guidepost to ethical and responsible behavior.
We should examine our responsibilities to ourselves and others from an ethical perspective if we are ever to learn to do what can slow the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S, and flatten out the curve of the number of deaths that just passed 200,000. This is the only way to show that we still are a society built on ethics not selfishness.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 24, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .