Ethical decision-making: when might we choose to continue wearing masks if the law doesn’t require it? Image by Julián Amé from Pixabay, used with permission

This is the next in a series of posts reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of the various ‘aspects’ of reformational philosophy. This week, I want to offer some tentative thoughts on the ethical aspect, which is concerned (in Roy Clouser’s words) with ‘norms that concern what is loving or beneficent’ in our behaviour towards others (The Myth of Religious Neutrality, p. 246). This aspect is closely related to the social aspect (concerned with broader societal dynamics and norms) and the jural aspect (concerned with the concept of ‘fairness’ and the role and limits of legal power), both of which also deal with interpersonal behaviour, expectations and the idea of ‘doing the right thing’.

All of these aspects are particularly relevant in the UK at the moment, as we stand at the cusp of a significant relaxation in the legal restrictions which have been operative here for the last 15 months or so. By July 19th, if all goes to plan, it will once more be legal for people to gather in public spaces without staying at least a metre apart, to shop or use public transport without wearing a mask, and even to sing together in church. Of course, the relaxation of legal restrictions does not by itself guarantee the removal of risk, even though decisions about these restrictions are taken based on various measures of that risk (above all, the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed by seriously ill patients). In reality, the proposed changes in the law come amid a new surge of cases, especially amongst younger age groups who have not yet been fully vaccinated. In fact, my wife was one of many in this age-bracket in the last few weeks who have been required (for the first time in the pandemic) to self-isolate following close contact with a positive case, which brought home to us the reality of these ongoing risks. (Thankfully, she avoided infection.)

Amid this tension – increasing legal freedom allied with shifting and unpredictable patterns of risk for certain sectors of society – governmental messaging is understandably focussing more and more on the idea of individual responsibility, the sense that we must each ‘exercise judgement’ for the sake of the collective good. In other words, we as individuals are being asked to place ethical concerns front and centre of our daily decision-making, to ask ourselves what implications our own attitude towards mask-wearing or social distancing might have on the health and well-being of those around us. This marks a notable shift from earlier stages of the pandemic, where such decisions were largely handled on our behalf by legislation or at the very least by strongly-worded governmental guidance (even if the rationale for such guidance was still ultimately built on similar ethical concerns). 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds the prospect of greater freedom quite scary, particularly when the broader situation continues to evolve so rapidly. For me this whole situation highlights above all the impossibility of separating out individual from collective decision-making: I can’t simply choose to take on additional infection risk for myself alone, since this necessarily carries increased risk for those around me. (And at the other end of the spectrum, someone who chooses to decrease their individual risk – by being vaccinated, for example – contributes to decreased risk for society as a whole). Thus, making an ethical decision – choosing to act in a way that shows love to those around us – necessarily requires us ‘to balance our self-interest with the interests of others’, as Clouser puts it (The Myth of Religious Neutrality, p. 246). Jesus’ call to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31) implicitly acknowledges this interconnection between our own wellbeing and the needs of those around us.

If the relaxation of restrictions does proceed as planned, I think there will be many people in the coming days needing to have quite careful conversations with one another (within workplaces, churches, even families) about what levels of risk they can accept individually, about what activities they consider to be more or less ‘safe’, and ultimately about what it means to ‘love your neighbour’. In what situations, for example, is it more loving to make close social contact (a hug or a long conversation over a cup of tea), or to stay at a ‘safe’ distance and show your care and concern in other ways? When might we choose to take on more risk sacrificially for the sake of others, and how might we manage the possible onward implications of this choice? I’d really welcome your further reflections on this issue, because it’s one I’m certainly going to need to carry on mulling over in the coming weeks.

Mark Hutchinson
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Mark Hutchinson

I studied music at the University of York to doctoral level, specialising in composition, contemporary music and music analysis, and oboe and piano performance. My book 'Coherence in New Music: Experience, Aesthetics, Analysis' (Ashgate, 2016) uses creative metaphors and ideas taken from a variety of different disciplines to analyse recent music from the classical tradition. As a lecturer at York my teaching focusses on piano performance, contemporary music, and modules focussing on the intersection of music, society and philosophy. I'm really excited when I find contemporary music and art which reflects on the realities of the modern world in a way that honours God's gifts of creativity.