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Ethical Decision Making in the Age of Corona

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

The current COVID-19 crisis raises many pressing ethical issues.

One is whether or when it is immoral to violate “shelter at home” laws and, when it is, how to get people to recognize that they morally should stay at home and how to get them do the morally right things—wash hands, avoid social gatherings, self-isolate, and share health messages. Will the most effective messages be about dangers to one’s own health or moral messages about dangers of infecting loved ones or strangers? What about messages that others in your society will morally condemn your acts and blame you if you go to parties or allow your children to play outside unattended while you work at home? Our research group at Duke (led by Jana Schaich Borg , Vince Conitzer, and myself) suspects that moral messages might be at least as effective as health messages, so we are beginning to test potential effects of accepting or ascribing moral responsibility for causing or risking infections.

Other ethical issues arise from the scarcity of medical resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. If only one ventilator is available, but two patients urgently need a ventilator, and it is not safe for them to share, then which patient should doctors give the ventilator to? In particular, if one but not the other is responsible for needing the ventilator, because that patient voluntarily exposed himself (and maybe others) to the virus, is this responsibility an adequate reason to give the ventilator to the other patient instead? These questions parallel our research on distributing scarce organs for transplant. Like all such triage situations, the best solution is to avoid scarcity in medical resources, but sometimes it is too late to implement that solution. Then we need to think long and hard about which of two imperfect options is morally best.

Check out ongoing work at the MADlab.


MADLab is a Kenan Institute sponsored vertically-integrated, interdisciplinary laboratory, co-directed by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Kenan, Philosophy, Psych/Neuro,  Law) and Jana Schaich Borg (Kenan, SSRI)

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. He has worked on ethics (theoretical, applied, and empirical), philosophy of law, epistemology, philosophy of religion, and informal logic.

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