The Current

Feeling exhausted during the pandemic? This philosopher says you could have moral fatigue

As COVID-19 upends daily life, many Canadians are having to make moral calculations that are well out of the ordinary, like whether or not it’s responsible to go to the grocery store or take a walk in the park. All those new decisions could be leading some to feel moral fatigue.

While humans are creatures of habit, everything is out of order right now. Michael Baur says 'slow down'

People may experience moral fatigue when they're barred from making the appropriate moral choice by existing rules or policies. While it has roots in healthcare, philosopher Michael Baur says it can be adapted to the current pandemic. (Panitanphoto/Shutterstock)
Listen11:29

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If you're feeling more tired than usual in the midst of this pandemic, that's normal, according to one philosopher.

As COVID-19 upends daily life, many Canadians are having to make moral calculations that are well out of the ordinary, like whether or not it's responsible to go to the grocery store or take a walk in the park.

All those new decisions could be leading some to feel moral fatigue, also known as compassion fatigue, says Fordham University law and philosophy professor Michael Baur.

It's a concept that has roots in healthcare. Moral fatigue takes hold when, for example, a nurse knows the appropriate moral decision to take, but is barred by rules or policies that go against it. But these days we're all facing heavily-weighted decisions.

"The sorts of things that we regard as normal and natural can no longer be treated that way, and so the framework is now in need of being rethought, revised, reworked," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Humans are creatures of habit, often turning to established practices and patterns. That's not entirely a bad thing — it helps us to be more efficient. 

Take typing for example: knowing where keys are located makes it easy to type quickly and frees up energy to think about writing. If those keys are moved around unexpectedly, however, every movement would requires the typist to think twice.

So with information and safety measures changing rapidly thanks to the coronavirus, the upheaval of daily rituals can feel overwhelming. 

Before physical distancing became a common phrase, stopping by the bakery on the way home from work was a regular habit. Now, under public health directives to stay home, it's a difficult decision whether to visit the store at all.

"Usually systems evolve gradually, institutions change gradually, but we are seeing a set of systems and institutions that have to change right away," Baur explained.

"Habits work well within a settled context. We don't have that luxury anymore."

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The right decision is 'no longer obvious'

Baur believes that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't just thrown habits into disarray, it's actually taken away some of our moral agency — the ability to make moral judgments for ourselves.

"It's no longer a question of 'What's the right thing to do?' That's no longer obvious," he said. "Now the question is, 'Am I in a position to know what is the right thing to do?'"

While many are eager to return to life as it was before the pandemic — when physical distancing didn't separate friends and family — Baur says now is the time for patience.

"It is possible to take this situation as an occasion to not be so mindless and habituated and to think twice about what really was necessary," he said.

He points to work meetings as a positive example. With offices forced to send their employees to work from home, people are now realizing that in-person committee meetings are "not so necessary." 

There are many ways to reach the same end goal, he added.

For those feeling as if things are a bit out of their control and looking for something to ease their anxiety, Baur encourages people to stop looking for rules or policies to follow.

"Be aware that it's the same way for everybody," he said, adding that everyone will make mistakes during this time — and that's OK.

"I don't want to be entirely stoic or existential about it, but there is an occasion here now for us to, as I say, slow down."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Jessica Linzey.

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