Viral Ethics: Covid-19 Questions

I stopped writing the TalkingEthics blog shortly after the 2016 election. I didn’t see any way to continue without getting mired in the nastiness and hatred that characterized any discussion involving politics, and I wanted to avoid that (and still do). It was also true that the media started paying a lot more attention to ethics as the new administration pushed what were already questionable boundaries. Plus, I started writing novels, which gave me a different kind of opportunity to explore ethical

All of that is still true today, but the Covid-19 crisis raises some serious new issues, and I’m starting to see neighbors and friends discuss them, so I decided to jump back in. I’ll start with a few thoughts on a handful of issues and ask you to join in the discussion with your own views (details on how to participate below). Let’s start with wearing masks.

Is it ethical to leave your mask at home? Here in Maryland, masks are now required in grocery stores, pharmacies, and other places of business where it’s difficult to keep your distances, so no choice is involved. Masks are also recommended in other places if there’s a chance you’ll get too close to others, including friends and neighbors. This isn’t to protect yourself, though a mask may help with that. The main purpose is to protect others in case you are infected and don’t know it, as many people are. In my view, this makes it a no brainer. You owe it to those around  you to do what you can to protect them, even if you don’t care to protect yourself. So I vote for wearing a mask anytime you might encounter other people.

Should you keep paying household help? Those of us who are lucky enough to afford hiring help to clean our houses have mostly stopped letting workers do those jobs, both for our own safety and theirs. That raises the question of whether you are obliged to keep paying them. If you have a regular arrangement with them, written or verbal, I’d say the answer is yes if at all possible. Obviously if you’ve lost your own job and can’t afford it, that’s a different situation.  But is there a time limit on the obligation? What if stay-at-home orders go on for months? And if you feel you should continue to pay household help, why not keep paying the person who cuts your hair or does your nails if you’ve been using the same person for the job for years? If not, what is the fundamental difference?

Stimulus checks. Because of the need to get checks out quickly, Congress made no effort to apply a means test to the money sent to any American citizen making $75,000 or less. Obviously, there are millions of people who desperately need the money because they’ve lost their jobs. But what if you are still drawing a paycheck or you’re retired and on a fixed income and not being hurt economically. You may have seen your 401(k) or investment savings fall, but presumably that is temporary. So do you just keep the stimulus money?  I don’t think so. Anyone who isn’t financially hurt by the crisis should consider giving the entire government payment to a charity helping those who are being hurt. That’s on top of whatever else you can afford to donate, not instead.

Deliveries and online purchases. My wife and I are in a high-risk group, so we’ve been staying at home except for a daily walk and the occasional run to the grocery, relying instead on Amazon and food delivery services. We have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, we are asking other people to walk the grocery aisles or work in Amazon warehouses and risk getting the virus on our behalf. On the other hand, we are helping provide jobs they need. What’s the right way to think about this issue?  (The idea of hazard pay helps, but no amount of money can make up for risking a life.)

I plan to address each of these in a separate blog over the next few weeks and would love to include your thoughts on them.  You can share them by entering a comment below or by emailing me at  I’m also happy to consider posting guest blogs if that appeals to you.



4 thoughts on “Viral Ethics: Covid-19 Questions

  1. Mark, welcome back! I look forward to reading your thoughts on all the above. My only observation is that COVID has significantly changed the way we view things that we previously took for granted. I’m finding it’s most useful to look at things in shades of grey rather than get embroiled in arguments about issues that previously appeared as black and white. Bring on the dialog!

    Hope you are safe and well,


  2. I am looking forward to your more in-depth discussion of continuing to pay household help and how that differs, if it does, from the women who provide manicures. I was happy to pay my cleaning people the first month, but now I wonder how much I want to continue the practice. I y agree with turning over my government check to various charities, but I am less happy about turning the check over to the cleaning people. There are so many people in need right now, maybe half to the cleaners and half to charity? I just don’t know and am looking forward to your future blogs.

    • Yes, this is not an easy question. We expect a big company to keep paying employees (rather than paying dividends) with the cash they have, and we hope smaller companies will hold off firing people as long as possible. We, as individuals, may start with the same goal, but how long does the obligation last and what is the best way for us to make use of our limited resources? Charities may well be in a better position to help those who most need it. (More soon and would love to hear from others.)

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