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Ethical Thinking: Making Ordinary Decisions in Extraordinary Times

Jun 26, 2020
For Professor Jarrett Zigon, chair of UVA's department of Biomedical Ethics, relationships are the heart of all ethical decisions
Dan Addison

You’re shopping for groceries when you get an unexpected phone call from a loved one who lives alone. Do you stop in the middle of the narrow store aisle and take the call? What about in the middle of a pandemic when taking the call would make it impossible for others to keep a safe distance? 

The question might remind you of the unusual scenarios you wrestled with in a philosophy or ethics course — scenarios where no answer was a good one. Chances are, you don’t normally wrestle with ethical conundrums every day, but during a global pandemic, even everyday decisions can take on life or death consequences.

Jarrett Zigon, Director of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Bioethics Program, William & Linda Porterfield Chair in Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Anthropology shared his thoughts on how ethical thinking can help make sense out of life when it’s turned upside down.

Q: Could you tell me a little about the Undergraduate Bioethics Department at UVA?

A: What I do and what the program is trying to focus on are the political and social underpinnings of ethical questions and the ways in which political and social relationships are central to ethical questions and decisions. For the last 40 years in large part as a result of some of my predecessors here at UVA, the focus has been more on biomedical ethics, but now you see bioethics turning to larger questions of life like environmental questions or questions of human and artificial intelligence, for example.

Q: What are some of the most important ethical problems we face today in the time of a global pandemic?

A: As everyone by now knows, the public health word of the day is social distancing, but I would say that is perhaps the most unethical thing we could do, and I certainly I don't mean not adhering to this public health directive and guideline. Certainly we should maintain distance and keep our physical bodies away from one another — six feet or more is just good, sound public health guidance, but that's physical distance and not social distance. And the difference matters. The difference is an ethical difference.

For 15 years, I’ve done research on addiction and written several books on addiction and one of the primary ways that addiction is often times described as a disease of loneliness, and with the directive of social distancing there is a real risk of increased loneliness which is going to have an effect in the long term. It might prevent me from getting the coronavirus, but it might lead to other things that are perhaps equally if not more unhealthy, so I would say that one of the biggest ethical crises that we have right now is how do we maintain our relationships in a time when we need to stay physically distant from one another. To me this is really at the heart of all ethical questions.

Q: What’s the connection between ethics and relationships?

A: For me, ethics is about relationships. It’s not about tallying up your score of being good over a lifetime; it's about how in every instance, in every moment, we are responding to others in a way that maintains and cares for those relationships.  Then who I am is never a solitary, isolated individual but a product of the kinds of relationships that I have cultivated over my lifetime. And part of that necessitates that we see ourselves as vulnerable beings. The fact that I am as a human and, in a sense, reliant on others to respond to me in an ethical and caring manner entails my vulnerability to others, just as someone in a grocery store is vulnerable to a person on the cell phone. That kind of that mutual entanglement makes us who we are and makes ethics not only necessary but, I would say, the primary way that we are in the world all the time.

Q: How do we recognize when we’re faced with something that rises to the level of an ethical challenge?

A: It’s always about situational sensitivity. We often think of ethics as these universal prescriptions such as “Thou shalt not kill,” but most of us are never in that situation, and most of us probably never will be. Most of the time we're dealing with rather mundane kinds of ethical issues. Talking on a cell phone, most of the time, is not an ethical issue, but situational sensitivity today is not just knowing the big picture, it’s about recognizing your immediate context and specifically those others who you have an obligation and responsibility to. When ethics is about caring for others and having a responsibility to others rather than adhering to preconceived principles or rules or laws then something like standing in the middle of a narrow grocery store aisle talking on your cell phone in the middle of a global pandemic is an ethical situation that one has an obligation to get oneself out of. If the phone conversation is that important, go out into the parking lot.

Q: Coping with a pandemic means that many people are struggling with everyday decisions that may now have profound consequences, do you think a crisis like this will make the study of ethics more important?

A: Students today already recognize it as important. I’ve yet to see any official recognition of this, but all indications strongly suggest that it’s the largest minor at the University other than Spanish. Students recognize how vulnerable they are and they know that the increased vulnerability that they feel is in large part a result of the social and ethical consequences of policies which have left many people feeling isolated and uncared for.  Part of what I'm trying to do with the bioethics program is to provide students with an ethical approach to understanding not only the situation that they find themselves in but perhaps some possibilities for moving into the future.

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