Survival versus Morality

How the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping our decisions

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The president of a powerful country allegedly claimed that it would be better not to have a lockdown because it would hurt their strong economy and that he would rather see the hundreds of thousands die than shutdown businesses. Now, on its face this would appear to be a moral issue. But was this president even considering the question of right and wrong here?

This pandemic’s global death toll is steadily increasing. But we must ask ourselves whether this fact really affect us? Consider the number of people who die in ongoing wars, or the lives taken by criminality or the frequency of fatal motor vehicle accidents. Did we even bother with news of this then? Many of us did not. And the reason is that we are far removed from them.

The plain truth of it is that most of us only care about an issue if it affects us directly. Some would disagree, no doubt. But we can reduce all issues to a simple question of survival. And Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the best theory that sheds light on how people are reacting to this pandemic.

Politicians want to be reelected so they will try to appear admirable to the masses by giving relief goods. But businesses also do not wish to go bankrupt, so they will pressure the government to lift the lockdown at some point. Wage-earners do not want to be penniless, so they violate the curfew. The instinct to survive is the most powerful drive. And if you are at the very bottom of this hierarchy, morality becomes a luxury you cannot afford.

Since the global lockdown has demonstrably lessened air pollution, there are now people saying that the pandemic is a good thing. Did they even consider the value of human life before saying this? Oh, maybe they said this because they do not personally know the people who have died and will continue to die. They are far removed and unaffected. But what if it was their loved ones who got sick? Can they still claim that this pandemic is a good thing?

The problem with morality is that it depends on the point of view you take. Are you in favor of the good of the majority? If you are, then you would agree then that the bombing of Hiroshima was the right thing because it supposedly saved more lives than the estimated 90,000 that were killed. Or are you Machiavellian? Do the ends justify the means for you? And if you believe in this then you would probably think that lying in order to cover for your friend is the right thing to do. There are far too many conflicting ethical positions. On the other hand, the motivation to survive is far simpler to comprehend.

We are now seeing news of recovering patients who are being prohibited by their communities from returning to their homes. Is this a moral issue, a legal issue, a political issue or simply a question of survival? Fear is an automatic emotional response when one’s life, health, family, property and liberty are threatened. And everyone is afraid of getting infected. When it comes to survival, human nature is predictable.

Going back to what was mentioned at the beginning of this article, I must now ask, will you be like the president of that powerful country whose position is morally ambiguous? A crisis can bring out the best or the worst in a person. What will this pandemic bring out in each of us? Will you be one of those who say it’s okay for people to die just as long as it’s not you?

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