Viral Ethics: How Will You Help?

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

20200501_135333That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: Food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.  We’ll report on the survey next week.