In University College Dublin, Philosophers Tackle Ethical Problems Posed by Covid-19

Silvia Panizza decided to head home to Casale Monferrato in northern Italy for a short break just before St Patrick’s Day.

The day after she arrived the country was plunged into total lockdown due to Covid-19, which lasted for almost two months.

She says that as the days and weeks dragged by she started to realise what was really important to her.

She could live without wifi, she says. “What I need is to be in nature, to have physical contact with the ones I love and to be able to move.”

Panizza, a teaching fellow in the school of philosophy at University College Dublin (UCD), wants to shake off the idea that philosophy is an elitist or academic pursuit, she says.

So together with colleagues she launched “Ask a Philosopher”, which is inviting members of the public to raise philosophical or ethical issues that have arisen for them during the Covid-19 crisis.

Some of life’s great dilemmas can’t be answered easily, but if you fill in a survey, the professional philosophers at UCD’s Centre for Ethics in Public Life will create a video in response to the issues you raise.

Ethical Dilemmas

So far, the philosophers have issued about 20 responses to questions from the public.

At first, contributors were asking questions about ethical issues, like how medical staff should decide who gets treated if there is a shortage of ventilators.

Professor Rowland Stout explored questions submitted on that topic over a video posted on YouTube. One of those outlined a scenario where the 42-year-old Taoiseach and a 35-year-old drug dealer both needed a ventilator but there was only one left.

Should the decision be age-related? Or based on the perceived value of one’s contribution to society?

If the hospital has a policy on how to handle it then the medical professional is lucky because it has already been decided for them, says Stout.

If not it is impossible to say, he says. “There are some questions that you can’t answer,” says Stout. “If you have one ventilator and two people there may be no good ethical answer to that question.”

What the philosopher will do is break down the components of the question, though.

“Sometimes it is about thinking about the problem in a different way,” he says. “Giving you a few tools to work through the situation more humanely.”

People also wondered whether the trend of shoppers stockpiling groceries shows that human beings are intrinsically selfish, says Panizza. “We also have examples of people who were very courageous and generous, so we shouldn’t focus on the bad necessarily,” she says.

It is good for us to reflect on what human nature is, she says. “Whether it is something primal or whether it is something that we can shape, through reflection.”

For Panizza, lockdown caused her to reflect on her personal relationships. “You quickly realise which relationships you miss and the ones you can live without too,” she says.

Covid-19 has given rise to some extremely difficult personal dilemmas, says Stout. What if a loved one dies but there are more people in the family than are permitted to attend the funeral. How do you decide who goes?

“If you are a funeral director and too many people show up – what do you do?” he says. Do you go ahead with the funeral, ask someone to leave, call the police?

Most people are facing ethical questions during the lockdown. Stout has teenage children, one of whom is going out with friends in breach of the rules. “There is a personal ethical dilemma as a parent,” he says.

It can be tough to know when to intervene in someone else’s business, too. You might challenge someone for dropping litter on the street, he says, but what if there are a bunch of people drinking outside who aren’t socially distancing, should you intervene?

What about neighbours partying in breach of the rules? What would you do?

People get really annoyed if they are restricting their freedom to keep to the rules and witness others flouting them, he says that’s why many people had such a reaction to political advisor to the British government, Dominic Cummings, breaching the lockdown.

A Trade-off Between Freedom and Health

Panizza says she wonders whether politicians should always disclose information to the public. “What if they know something that could create panic unnecessarily?” she says.

Recently some questions have come in as to whether we can trust the government to hold our data for contact tracing, says Panizza.

Some people are nervous about all their data being available to the state, says Stout, while others trust the state and aren’t worried about that.

Stout says he is surprised that there is so little discussion about the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions on civil rights, including the increases to police powers. “It is extraordinary how people aren’t worrying about that as much as you would expect them to,” he says.

Often temporary measures introduced in times of crisis, like increased police powers, remain long after the situation has ended. “People should be ready to pressurise their government as soon as there is any suggestion the crisis is ending,” he says.

Political philosophers constantly discuss and weigh-up the trade-off between freedom and security, he says. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, we have to examine the trade-off between freedom and health, he says.

The Town Square

Panizza says her central goal is to reinvigorate public interest in philosophical reflection. “We really want to be engaged with public discourse,” she says.

The philosophers at UCD want to open a dialogue with people about the impact of lockdown and the pandemic, says Panizza.

In ancient Athens, great philosophers engaged with people in the town square. No schooling was required and those debates were open to everyone.

They cannot promise to resolve your issue but will give you the tools to help you unpick the problem, says Panizza. “You are halfway there if you can take a question apart, find out what underlies it and what follows from it,” she says.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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