About doing the good, in time of corona

This article is written, thinking of what the good can be, in these corona-times.

Here is no quick answer, – since it is not possible within ethical thinking per se – but to contribute to some ethical thinking tools, is useful. Never – since World War II – has this been more necessary for the whole world than now. These can help clarify confusing thoughts, as the situation in (Norway and) the world community, is unclear in the shorter and longer term.

Cyclical return of 'Black Death': Scientist considers 430 BC ...
Plague in Athens 430 BC. Athens were at war with Sparta. They kept their gates closed, for freedom. They lost 1/3 of the population. Image: Wikipedia.

To do the good
In these times, we are together to do good, following the advice and orders of the political leadership. We are encouraged to be strong, solidarity and loyal. We participate in a national campaign to prevent infection that can kill the weak and sick. We are asked to do good.

“Man can only do good,” said philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ironically for approx. 60 years ago. In these times, the quote gets its full force. Politicians have become leaders in the ethics of society. When deciding on people’s lives, you have to know what you are doing. The only task of politicians is to work for the best for society, in the short and long term.

“Doing the good” does not mean knowing what is good. Doing the good can involve doing bad, or harm. This sounds illogical. How can the good be bad?

An example from daily speech that contains this ethical contradiction is that “the goal sanctifies the means.” Those who make the greatest spirit of virtue do so, in silence. The goal sanctifies the means. Some must suffer for others to live. Is it that simple?

Especially in democracies, knowledge should be the basis for the choices we make and the developments we create. Now the politicians are the responsible philosophers, the medicine practitioners of the good, while the people are passively awaiting. As time goes on, we can now ponder a bit on the theories that lie in the ethical basket, and which one can choose from, in the search for the good.

Ethical theories

Virtue ethics: Good people do good and right. Those who do good and right are virtuous. This is a thinking that originated with the ancient Greek thinkers, that a man who knew right, also did right. Right knowledge and insight lead to right and good action. The person was virtuous.

Duty ethics: This is an imperative ethics; “you shall!”; The 10 Christian commandments are examples of conscientious “commandments.” You shall save lives! You shall refrain from actions that may involve (some) risk to others.

Altruism: This is a compassion of ethics. Good people are loving; one is sacrificing for others. No need to think that they should do the same for you. It is immaterial.

Purpose ethics: You want to do good. It does not matter how the action and goal achievement go according to the good intention. The action is good because it is wanted good.

Consequence ethics: This ethical assessment is proportionate to the consequence. It does not matter what was wanted, but only that the result is good.

Utilitarianism: This is called utility ethics. It falls under the consequence ethics. Here it is the consequence that determines whether an action is good and that it should apply to as many as possible. For a specific sum, it should help as many people as possible. Taking care of the state’s financial balance for the future falls under this ethic.

This is the ethical tool at Norwegian hospitals, at the UN, and WHO, where it is decided that, based on a sum of money / budget, it should contribute healthily to as many people as possible. Government, doctors, committees and those who donate money decide on consequence utilitarian principles and perspectives. An example of such an ethical assessment in Norway, is that young people over 18 years with Spinal muscular atrophy do not receive the health-promoting medicine spinraza, because it is too expensive. This bring people unnecessary into wheelchair and early death.

Discourse ethics: In the perspective of discourse ethics, we discuss the good and right solutions. This is democracy’s most obvious method of finding the best ethics. For democracy, this method and practice is also a goal. Namely: Being in debate and discussion about what is good, it is an ongoing realization of the very purpose of democracy. It is the best guarantee that what one does is right, because affected groups and parties are allowed to speak.

So, what to do?
The challenge is about what should weigh most. Should one continue with an altruistic (because the population participates in), duty (according to Christian-cultural duty ethics), mind-set ethics, or are the societal short-term and long-term consequences to count? Not having space and culture to discuss is far from democratic thinking and practice, and excludes discourse ethics.

The economy in society is deteriorating, with mass unemployment, poorer health services, and generally less money for social welfare in the future.

To have a democratic culture, it is very important that we get a good debate on this, where it is the knowledge-based statements that should apply. This means respecting each other’s feelings, perspectives and judgments.

To achieve good development and as good solutions as possible, the means is to maintain a democratic culture of openness.