Dear Coronavirus Ethicist,
I’m a dog owner in Washington, DC, who makes a salary of around $60,000 a year. Since my company has instructed all of us to work from home on account of the coronavirus, I’ve discontinued my dog-walking service because I can do it myself. But now I’m torn. This is the dog walker’s full-time job, and as more of his customers–like me–no longer need his services because they can do it themselves, he’s going to really struggle financially. At the same time, however, with all the economic uncertainty these days, I may need that extra money myself. What should I do?
Daniel P. Sulmasy, MD, PhD, acting director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University: Novel viruses raise novel ethical questions. I am a medical ethicist and now being asked sexy ethical questions such as how to allocate ventilators should the Intensive Care Unit be overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients and we don’t have enough to go around. But day-to-day ethical questions like the one you ask will affect everyone.
Let me start by congratulating you for even thinking about your dog walker. That’s a sign that you understand that the ethics of a pandemic call for everyone to be concerned about the common good. “Everyone for themselves” will not get us through this. We all have ethical duties. At the very least, we need to minimize the chance of spreading infection (e.g., self-quarantine if you are sick; change the way you greet others). Social isolation is one of these practices as well. Yet the economic and social side effects of social isolation will be spread unevenly. You can work from home, but the busboy in your favorite restaurant may be laid off. The dog-walker case is another example. If we are all to share in the benefits of social isolation by containing the spread of the virus and thereby decreasing the chances that any one of us will become sick, so, as a matter of justice, we ought to share equally in the burdens. You would not be violating any of the rules were you just to suspend your dog-walking service, but to the extent that you can afford it (and it seems as if you could), the best ethical choice is to continue paying for the service. In general, the more normalcy we can maintain during a time of national crisis, the better off we will all be. Don’t be foolish, obey the rules, but, to the extent possible, keep calm and carry on. That would include paying your dog walker.
If you have a question for the coronavirus ethicist, email firstname.lastname@example.org