How to ethically navigate the pandemic's new normal as restrictions begin to lift

Throughout Canada, physical distancing restrictions are lifting and more people are venturing out and visiting friends and family. But trying to be a good person in the new normal can be challenging and disorienting. Philosopher Alice MacLachlan and moral psychologist Azim Shariff offer some ethical guidance.

‘We're not always able to assess exactly what the risks are,’ philosopher Alice MacLachlan says

People are silhouetted while taking in the sunset at English Bay Beach in Vancouver. The city asked those coming to the park and beach to maintain a distance of two metres between one another due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Originally published in June, 2020.

As coronavirus restrictions were being cautiously lifted across Canada and the world, some philosophers wondered what it means to be an ethical and good person in the new normal of the pandemic world. 

Alice MacLachlan, associate professor of philosophy at York University, said one of the scariest parts about life during the pandemic was the "moral risks" involved with "doing everyday, normal things," because our actions could now put other people in harm's way.

We're not always able to assess exactly what the risks are or where they are. What that means is a lot of the moral codes and rules that we're used to following, it can be hard to apply them well.- Alice MacLachlan

"Even by being the best people we can and being careful, many of us are going to find ourselves in situations where there are no good options, or it's not clear if there's one right thing to do,"  MacLachlan told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Alice MacLachlan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at York University. (Alice MacLachlan)

The challenge for many is trying to figure out how to balance the desire for "our own autonomy" and "living our own life's plans" against "our responsibility and commitments to other people." 

"We're not always able to assess exactly what the risks are or where they are. What that means is a lot of the moral codes and rules that we're used to following, it can be hard to apply them well."

Azim Shariff, associate professor at the University of British Columbia and Canada 150 research chair of moral psychology, said because of psychological biases we tend to ignore or not realize what kind of outcomes our behaviours produce. 

"They can get in the way [and] lead us to think in emotional ways which end up, upon reflection, to be rather irrational," Shariff told Hynes.

Compassion fatigue is a prominent example of these biases. The crux of the idea is that humans tend to care more about one person than we do about 100 or 1,000 people, he said, adding that this has been observed in people from "Mother Teresa to Stalin."

"When you start adding even just one additional person, our compassion starts to fade." 

Virtuous thinking encouraged

While MacLachlan said her field of philosophical study "isn't so great at concrete answers," she pointed out that there are a number of helpful ways to think about this ethical dilemma — one being the ability to "turn to the language of virtues." 

Azim Shariff is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and Canada 150 research chair of moral psychology. (Submitted by Azim Shariff)

"Virtues are what we call thick terms. They describe something that we're familiar with. So even when we don't know what the right thing to do is, most of us can think what the brave thing to do is or what the generous thing to do is."

Another way virtuous thinking can help is by encouraging us to become courageous, generous and compassionate in how we think and go about the everyday little practices and habits we engage in, thus making the behaviours "second nature to us."

"There are five qualities of character or virtues that are going to be especially useful for navigating these complicated, risky and uncertain times and choices," she said." The ones I've picked out are what I'm calling moral attention, compassion, responsibility, sacrifice and grace."

MacLachlan said a then recent decision where she applied virtuous thinking was around the desire to take her children out further afield in the city to give them something new to do; however, she decided against it because of her home's backyard. 

"I've been thinking that since I'm lucky enough to have a yard, maybe I ought to stay in it so that other people who don't have a yard, who live in apartments, can go to the parks or the lakeshore. I had to hold back voluntarily from something that normally would seem like an obviously permissible action — going to the park." 

Another ethical issue people face is dealing with outrage toward behaviours that could be perceived as flouting newly formed social rules, such as the situation in early May when thousands gathered in the downtown Toronto park of Trinity Bellwoods, she said. 

Thousands of people packed Trinity Bellwoods Park on May 23rd, violating the city's physical distancing measures. (Laura Howells/CBC)

MacLachlan said that the thing to do in those moments of anger is to "look deeper" into what's underneath your own outrage and what's underneath the other person's actions. 

"The question is how do we respond to it? Grace is not the same thing as saying, 'Nothing matters. Nothing is right or wrong.' Grace is when we say, 'Yeah, that was the wrong choice. How am I going to choose to respond to that wrong choice?' 

"And I think the temptation is to seize on the delicious righteousness of judgment and savour it. [While] I feel so much pent up frustration, anxiety and fear … I think when we resist that, we are able to have a better understanding of our own reaction." 

'Ugliness in our society'

The pandemic has exposed the "ugliness in our society" and part of that unveiling has caused disorientation to some people who are now coming to realize that many aspects of the old normal are "hugely problematic," she said. 

One of the major issues arising out of the pandemic is the potential for allowing restrictions to be lifted too early for the sake of the economy, igniting another COVID-19 wave.

Shariff said this hits at a core conflict between sacred values, such as the worth of a life, and secular values, which concern more material things like money. People tend to become outraged or disgusted in situations where these two values are traded off against each other. 

"In those situations, people feel tainted by the fact that you'd have a decision where something very important, meaningful, is being exchanged for something, which seems profane," he said. 

MacLachlan said if we can learn to "expand our circle of awareness and concern," then treating these societal dilemmas can become second nature. 

"Once we've expanded it, we can fall into habits where it's no longer exhausting and arduous and confusing to care for our neighbours." 

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Arman Aghbali.