Moral dilemmas in the time of a pandemic

The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has instigated dramatic social and behavioral changes across the globe, and with them, new problems and debates arise, some of which present difficult moral choices for policy- and decision-makers.

Azim Shariff, associate professor at UBC and director of the Centre for Applied Moral Psychology, whose research mainly focuses on the applications of psychological theories in understanding and solving real-world problems, shares some of his insights on the moral dimensions of the pandemic.

Triage and trade-offs

In this pandemic, where ethics sometimes clash with utilitarianism, “the trolley problem” – a classic moral thought experiment on whether to kill one person in order to save five – finds its parallel.

“The very explicit issue would be who gets the ventilators if there is a shortage, and the softer and broader issue involves trade-offs all over the place,” says Shariff.

He adds that despite many bioethics research papers approving the use of triage, as seen in Italy, many people don’t like the utilitarian approach in reality.

“There are a few poll results that came out recently where people said that no you shouldn’t take into account age and chance of recovery, even if it means fewer people will survive. People don’t like utilitarianism when a cold rational calculus is used for something that is sacred,” he says.

Shariff admits that the broader issue is much trickier when it involves balancing interests among different groups.

“The people who are most vulnerable to the virus are the elderly, but the economic shutdown is particularly bad for the young people. They have the least money and are potentially supporting young families. This is already a trade-off on some level. It is an intergenerational conflict,” Shariff says. “Extended social isolation also has significant long-term health costs, for both mental and physical health. All these need to be factored in.”

He believes the next six months will be all about trade-offs as our government decides when and how to reopen the economy.

“We are redistributing risks among different people, not everyone is going to agree on that. We are already seeing the fervent debates in the US. People think reopening the economy is a heartless trade-off between people’s lives and making money, but there are people’s lives on the other side too. It is such a difficult calculus because we don’t have perfect data on this,” Shariff explains.

Tragedy of the commons and policy effectiveness

Shariff says the pandemic also presents the classic “tragedy of the commons” problem, where the crisis requires people to curb their immediate self-interests in order to serve the collective group interests.

“Everyone is tempted to do the thing that would be a drop of water in the bucket for the group but makes a huge difference for the individual. But if everyone does that, it becomes a big collective problem. There is a lot of psychology on what makes it work to get a critical mass of people to withhold their self-interests,” he elaborates.

Azim Shariff. | Photo by Danielle Cosme

Based on research by cultural psychologist Michele J. Gelfand, Shariff says that two factors, culture tightness and government efficiency are possible predictors on how successful a country is dealing with this pandemic.

“A tight culture is where there is not a huge tolerance for deviance, such as East Asian cultures or Muslim majority cultures. If you are not a conformist, you get punished, even if not by the state, the social disapproval is a very effective punishment,” he says. “On the other hand, Canada and the US are very loose cultures. Loose cultures tolerate deviance and diversity and they even applaud it.”

Loose culture can be functional and desirable, according to Shariff, as it allows for risk-taking, creativity and dynamism, which works well when one is in a relatively safe state, but not in a crisis situation.

He says that the cultural tightness factor partially explains the different outcomes we are seeing between some eastern and western countries.

The ongoing crisis has also escalated tensions between nations and people, which also has an underlying psychological explanation. “The situation has brought out the best and the worst in people. The tendency to scapegoat the out-group is especially a concern when there is not an identifiable enemy,” says Shariff.