Contextual Ethics in a Global Pandemic

My main area of teaching and research is in the discipline of social and ecological ethics. The simple definition of ethics is “thinking about morality” – in other words thinking about the moral decisions that we make in our everyday lives and attempting to understand what lies behind those decisions and what might help us to make our moral decisions in more appropriate ways.

The particular approach that I most often take to ethics is called the contextual approach. Contextual ethics rejects the notion that there are moral absolutes that can be applied in every context or situation. Rather than adhering to moral absolutes, contextual ethicists ask themselves this question – “What is the most fitting thing to do in this particular context or situation?” They look at all of the ingredients of a moral situation – the choices that present themselves as possibilities, the values for both human and non-human beings that are present in the situation, the obligations that we might have to others in the situation, and whether there may be some helpful moral principles that can give us guidance in the situation – that is looking at what the wisdom of the past might teach us in making moral decisions in the present.

Contextual ethics is based on a realization that we are moral agents who have to take responsibility for understanding our situation as best we can and making the most fitting and most responsible actions within the context in which we live and act. We cannot simply point to a moral absolute that will apply all of the time. Life and morality are messier than that. Life and morality are more nuanced and complex than that.

As we continue to face the context of a global pandemic, a context that is indeed extremely messy, nuanced, and complex; what are the most fitting, the most responsible ways for us to act and be in community with another? This is perhaps one of the most important questions that we need to be addressing at this time. In this post, I will focus on this question in three different ways – the first approach I will take will be in the form of a parable – the inspiration of which is the Good Samaritan. The second exploration will be a contemporary rewriting of what are known as the Beatitudes in the Christian tradition, but the beatitudes I will share are specifically inclusive and non-sectarian in nature and apply directly to the context of a global pandemic. The third exploration I will make is related to literature, specifically the work of Albert Camus in his novel titled The Plague, with a special focus on one particular character whose deeply troubling reaction to the plague may be helpful in keeping us from having a similar response in our real life experience of a plague today.

First the Parable:

A woman went down to the grocery store where she had to work as a cashier during the pandemic to support her family. She encountered persons who did not respect the risk that her job posed to her, who stripped her of her dignity, mocked her for wearing a mask, and left her each day in danger of possible death.

Now it just so happened that an evangelical Christian was going down the same checkout lane, and when he saw the woman at the register, he crossed over too close to the woman, inside the distance of six feet while not wearing a mask, and said to her, “it’s too bad you have to wear that silly mask so I can’t see your pretty smile.” He paid for his groceries, spraying droplets on the credit card reader as he spoke, and went on his way.

Likewise, an evangelical minister came by that same checkout lane, saw the woman cashier, and crossing inside the distance of six feet and also not wearing a mask invited the woman to come to his church next Sunday because unlike so many other churches who continued to have online services, his church had decided to reopen a few weeks ago. He paid for his groceries, spraying droplets on the credit card reader as he spoke, and went on his way.

A Muslim woman with a head covering and a mask, who was also shopping in the store, came to where the woman cashier was. But when she saw her and the way the people in front of her had treated the woman, she was moved with compassion. The Muslim woman stayed at least six feet away from the cashier, thanked her for her help, and wiped the credit card reader with disinfectant after using it.

Then she noticed that the mask the woman cashier was using was rather tattered and did not fit her well, so she placed the groceries in her basket and told the cashier that she had something in her car for her. In the next few minutes, the Muslim woman returned into the store with box of new masks and gave them to the cashier, thanking her again for her help in allowing her to come and purchase food for her family.

What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the woman?

And now the Pandemic Beatitudes:

Blessed are the mask wearers, for they help keep persons of sacred worth from dying alone and scared, separated from family and friends.

Blessed are those who care for the sick and comfort the dying, for they are the presence of Beloved Community.

Blessed are those who mourn the dead rather than minimize their death, for they will retain their humanity.

Blessed are the scientists searching for treatments and vaccines, for they are bearers of hope.

Blessed are the food providers for those who can and cannot pay, for they are sustainers of life.

Blessed are those who keep their distance, for they allow our beloved ones to remain close.

Blessed are those who refuse to profit unjustly from the pandemic, for they bear witness to justice and common decency.

Blessed are employers who keep workers safe, for they value life over profit.

Blessed are leaders who make compassionate decisions based upon knowledge and evidence, for they forge a wise path.

Blessed are the truth tellers, for they provide the best information possible to keep all of us safe

Blessed are those who do not use the pandemic to divide us, for they work for the common good of all.

And finally a reflection on Camus’ The Plague and his portrayal of a priest named Father Paneloux who reacted to the plague in his town by seeing it as a form of God’s punishment of the wicked. After a month of the plague spreading, Father Paneloux calls the people of the town into the Cathedral and they pack the cathedral in the middle of a plague. Paneloux preaches to them about the plague and how it is a punishment of God for those who are not righteous. Not surprisingly, larger numbers of people are stricken by the plague likely owing to the gathering in the cathedral called by the priest, and the situation becomes more and more desperate. A few months later Father Paneloux dies in agony shortly after witnessing the suffering and excruciating death of an innocent child even though he cried out for God to save the child, his simplistic moralistic theology unable to sustain him any longer.

Turning to today, as we see many political leaders and religious communities in the context of a global pandemic who are wanting to get things back to normal and pack their churches, businesses, and entertainment venues before all are fully vaccinated, may we hope they will reconsider and that they will do the fitting thing for the common good of all persons.

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