Well it’s 4:30 am again, and once more an issue encountered right before bedtime has pushed me into insomnia.
I wish I could blame Philip Galanes, as it was a question in his advice column Social Q’s that got my ethics alarms ringing, but I should have been thinking about this one as soon as the pandemic response entered the social isolation phase. It’s not only a difficult ethics issue but an important and a classic one.
In “The Diary of Anne Frank,” we learned that the four member Frank family hid from the Nazis in a two floor secret annex in Otto Frank’s office building. Soon after going into hiding, the group almost doubled with the addition of three members of the van Pels family, and still later, a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, called Albert Dussel in the diary, was admitted to the group. Pfeffer was a stranger to the Franks, but the family dentist of Otto Frank’s employee Miep Gies (the heroic caretaker of the Franks and their secret ally) and the van Pels. Adding Pfeffer strained the food supply and the living arrangements as well as increasing the risk to all, but nonetheless, the group accepted him.
An inquirer asked Galanes,
A couple of weeks ago, before Covid-19 exploded in New York, a close friend asked if she and her husband could leave Manhattan and stay with us at our home in Bergen County, N.J. It was a tough question to have asked of me, but I decided it was the right thing to do. I told my friend they could come. For other reasons, they didn’t. Now, she’s asked again. They’re really scared! I’m not sure what to do. My husband has asthma, they would have to share a bathroom with my cranky 19-year-old son, and I am helping my elderly mother who lives nearby (contact-free). Any advice?
His advice was to keep her out, and to expect the friends to be hurt by the decision.
There are missing details here, like the size of the house, which could make a huge difference in assessing risk. Some might ask other questions, like “Exactly how good a friend is this?” That would lead inexorably to other questions: “Would the answer be the same if it was a relative? An ex- lover? How about someone to whom the questioner owed a debt of gratitude? What if she offered to pay a lot of money? Would the same answer be as justified if the couple want to send only their child? Two children?
Shouldn’t the answer be the same no matter who the human beings begging for help are?
Sure, the threat posed by Nazis and their final solution was greater and more terrifying, but that’s #22 on the Rationalizations List: “It’s not the worst thing.” If someone is trapped in a human Petri dish like New York during a contagion, there is sufficient reason for fear to justify a plea for help.
Many fictional stories involve variations on this ethics conflict, notably recent Netflix film “The Bird Box,” in which some unexplained things made people become suicidal and homicidal when they were seen. A group in lockdown in a house is faced with deciding whether to allow desperate individuals banging on the door, pleading to be allowed in and swearing that they are uninfected to join their group, knowing that there is a risk that the suicide or murder urge has already been planted. “The Walking Dead” has also explored this problem multiple times. In that zombie apocalypse show, admitting others to a safely isolated group usually works out badly, which doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t the most ethical course.
The Golden Rule is awfully unforgiving here: wouldn’t you want and expect your friend to take you in if you were desperate and felt your life was at stake? Kant would ask if you would make rejecting such a request a universal principle–would you? The problem points to a utilitarian balancing of risks and outcomes as the most ethical solution, but that process is so polluted by unavoidable biases that any decision could be easily challenged and rebutted.
In addition, we can be sure that consequentialism will raise its stupid head one way or another. In the Social Q’s example, let’s say the inquirer’s family says no and the couple eventually catch the virus and die. In the alternative, let’s hypothesize that they allow the couple to move in, take all possible precautions, and the asthma-inflicted father becomes infected and dies.
Worse still, what if the couple is accepted and moves in, and then beloved family members in New Orleans make the same request? Do you turn them down? Do you throw the first couple out? Can you throw the first couple out?
There is no absolute, ethically-unassailable answer to the question posed to Gallanes, or the issue faced by the inquirer. But if the consensus answer is “Sorry, family comes first, your problem is not my problem, and you can’t make it my problem,” then stop mouthing the slogan (and yes, I am sick of hearing it, and this problem is one reason why) “We’re all in this together.” We’re not, if the prevailing ethical standard is “Everyone for themselves!”