A philosopher answers everyday moral dilemmas in a time of coronavirus

Who should get the groceries? Alex Potemkin/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Like a lot of people, we here at The Conversation are facing ethical decisions about our daily life as a result of the coronavirus. Here ethicist Lee McIntyre answers some of our editors’ queries. If you have a question you’d like a philosopher to answer, send it to us at us-ethicalquestions@theconversation.com


I’m 65 years old. My son, who is 32, has offered to pick up the groceries. But he has asthma. I’m in a quandary as to who should go?


One of the leading ethical theories is “utilitarianism,” which says that moral decisions and actions should be made on the basis of their consequences.

Although this idea stretches back to antiquity, it was 19th-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who articulated the most developed form of this theory, arguing that ethical judgments were a matter of assessing “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

In balancing risk, you are anticipating likely consequences, which is a very utilitarian thing to do. But, as an ethicist, I would urge you to be careful.

Please consider whether you have all of the relevant information. It has now been shown that although at a much lower risk, younger people too can become dangerously sick with COVID-19. And with asthma as an underlying condition, that raises the stakes for your son.

You must also take into account your own risk profile: age, underlying health and other factors.

But, according to the utilitarian, you’ve still got to deal with another issue. Your son may be younger than you, but that means he’s also got many more life years to enjoy. According to utilitarian theory, if something were to happen to him, it would be a greater tragedy than if it happened to you, because he has more overall “utility” at stake.

Perhaps you could hire Instacart and have someone else’s son or daughter, presumably without asthma, deliver your groceries? But here is where it gets tricky. According to the utilitarian, you cannot prefer your own or your son’s happiness over that of a stranger.

It’s all about the “greatest good” for all concerned. If you think the ethical thing is to maximize happiness, then it shouldn’t matter whose happiness we are talking about.

Utilitarianism offers a method for thinking through this problem, but not an answer. You’ll have to think through each outcome – taking everyone’s happiness, health, age and risk into consideration.


I have a renter in my house who isn’t obeying social distancing rules and goes out all the time. What should I do?


As the renter lives in the same house you do, his or her behavior is endangering your health, which warrants some action.

Ethical egoism – which says that the ethical thing is that which brings about the greatest happiness for oneself – is a relevant ethical theory in this situation. You might think that your renter is an egoist, because he or she is presumably only concerned with his or her own welfare.

But that might open the door for you to claim that you are an egoist too. If you believe that it’s ethical for someone to care only about himself or herself, then perhaps you are justified in evicting the renter. But first you might want to check why he or she is going out. Perhaps it’s to take care of someone else.

So, first I’d have a talk with the renter and point out that – in a communal environment, especially in times of a public health crisis – everyone’s actions affect everyone else.

If that doesn’t work, you might guiltlessly embrace egoism as your own moral philosophy and say to the renter “if you don’t stop endangering my health, there will be consequences … for you.”


I don’t have a car and I have flu-like symptoms. Should I take a cab or Uber to go to the hospital?


Absolutely not, unless you plan to tell the driver in advance what you are doing. Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the guiding principle behind ethical behavior was to follow the “categorical imperative.” This says that everyone should act as if their behavior could form the basis for a universal law of human conduct.

So just ask yourself: What would happen if everyone who likely had COVID-19 just thought of themselves and took a cab or Uber? The disease would likely spread, which would be disastrous for many people beyond just you. The utilitarian too would agree.

A better course of action might be to call the hospital and ask for their help in arranging how to get there. If that fails, you could always call an ambulance. You might balk at the expense, but the alternative is to pass that expense, in the form of a life threatening illness, on to others – without their consent. And according to Kant, that is not an ethical thing to do.

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