Moral progress after Covid-19

Roger Paxton thinks a better society is not just possible but likely.

Might Covid-19 result in moral benefits? World War II is the classic example of a national crisis that produced domestic moral progress: old class divisions were breached, the welfare state and the NHS were born and there was a new sense of caring, hope and unity. The standard counterexample is the aftermath of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis: the bankers who caused the crisis suffered no adverse consequences – the contrary in fact – and inequalities continued to grow. I think that moral progress – a better society – afterCovid-19 is not just possible but likely, and could even be substantial.

Moral psychology can help us to understand the social changes as we have adapted to lockdown, and to predict what is likely to happen in the future. In James Rest’s well-known four component model, moral decision-making proceeds through ethical sensitivity, ethical reasoning, ethical motivation and ethical implementation. The first of these, sensitivity, is the recognition of moral issues. Reasoning is the consideration of the issues from an ethical standpoint. Motivation involves reflecting on other motives impinging on the decision. Finally, implementation is the integration of reasoning and motivation to decide on a course of action and put it into practice. Applying the Rest model to the pandemic, is there evidence first of widespread ethical sensitivity?

An optimistic analysis
Many news items and comments provide evidence of widespread ethical sensitivity. A recent YouGov poll found that most Britons want health and wellbeing to be prioritised over GDP growth after the pandemic. There is also a new appreciation of the value of some jobs and professions, such as shelf-stacking and caring, together with the realisation of the risks involved in these jobs. We are now aware of the mismatch between the pay and social value of many of these roles.

We’re looking out more for our neighbours. We feel bad hearing about businesses likely to fold, with people losing their livelihoods, and we think it’s good that new government funding arrangements are mitigating these problems. People with gardens and spacious homes can’t help but reflect on the plight of those locked down in small flats, many also with lost or precarious incomes. It seems wrong. We’re appreciating the value of the natural world more as we have less access to it. In short, we’re more aware of what’s right and good in relation both to one another and the environment. This could all just be rallying round the flag, as people do in wartime (and wartime references are everywhere), but let’s allow some optimism.

Suppose next that people are moving on from this awareness to ethical reasoning. Many must be considering the tension between saving lives and saving the economy. People struggling to feed themselves and their families are probably eager to open up workplaces and restart the economy, whereas those with health problems and less pressing financial concerns prefer caution. But there seems a shared acceptance that the tension should be managed on the basis of both ethics and economics. Perhaps ethical reasoning is broadening – as we travel less, we reduce energy consumption and pollution. Lockdown is having a positive impact on the climate and we see that we could and should continue to do more for the environment than we have in the past.

Perhaps ethical reasoning is also looking further ahead – it’s clear now that the new normal, perhaps for years, will be very different from the old one. Many of us will be inconvenienced, but what about all those likely to suffer much more than inconvenience; the young people whose jobs and prospects have disappeared, and those who work in the hospitality, tourism and transport industries? Many people are engaging in longer term ethical reasoning; reflecting on the futures of these people and wanting help for them.

But not all of our thinking is ethical reasoning. If I’m young, healthy and sociable, or desperately short of money, why should I comply with social distancing? Most people who contract Covid-19 recover, and do so without hospital care, so why should I worry much? Many people must have been tempted. This is ethical motivation; acknowledging the other motives that pull us away from the moral course of action.

Choosing the moral course
Despite these pulls, the extent of compliance has been surprisingly high. The fourth component of the Rest model, ethical implementation, brings together ethical reasoning and motivation, and currently seems to be resulting in people choosing the moral course, despite its costs and inconvenience. Many others, especially those in the health and social care ‘front line’ are going further in ethical implementation, risking their lives to care for victims of the outbreak. The BPS and psychologists individually have contributed to this widespread choosing of the moral course. The BPS has responded rapidly and effectively with wide-ranging evidence-based guidance, and psychologists have been among the experts advising the government. It’s obvious that clear guidance can help with the balancing of morality with other concerns that ethical implementation requires.

What next?
But the most important question remains: will this new normal of increased altruism and care be sustained? Will the future be like the aftermath of World War II or the 2008-2009 financial crisis?

The first reason for optimism is that if most people are behaving morally now, why shouldn’t they continue during the year (or more) that this new normal is likely to continue? Probably a stronger reason is that, as several economic commentators have noted, now, unlike in 2009, it’s in all our interests to become a more caring society. Only collective, rather than individualistic or competitive action will deal with this crisis and prevent its recurrence. In terms of the Rest model, ethical reasoning and motivation coincide to support implementation of the morally preferred path.

But perhaps this is too optimistic: new problems are looming as we move from the first phase of the crisis to ending the lockdown. Inevitably the lockdown will be eased in stages, and the easing is likely to affect people in different regions and different demographic or occupational groups differently. Ethical motivation will be challenged not just by heightened anxiety caused by the unavoidable consequent increase in risk, but also by a reduction in perceived social support when we are no longer ‘all in it together’. Envy and resentment may arise as new influences in moral motivation. The psychological advice and support that seem to have helped so far will then be needed even more to maintain the ethical implementation that has been so impressive. It is more important than ever that psychological voices are heard.

Beyond the immediate future a stable new normal may be reached, but this new normal may be very different in terms of social contacts from the old one. Whether or not a stable new normal is soon reached, the very visible moral progress outlined here can and should be maintained and even developed further. Driven by public opinion, wider ethical implementation could follow. This crisis has emphatically highlighted the value and popularity of the NHS, belatedly demonstrated the similar importance of social care, and reminded us of our reliance on the legions of poorly paid delivery drivers and others in the service sector. We have become more aware of the natural environment.

Popular pressure resulting from this new appreciation could halt the erosion and underfunding of both health and social care, lead on to their integration, and begin to reduce the glaring inequalities that leave so many people struggling to survive. Much stronger and faster action on the climate emergency may become a vote winner, along with a continuation of the current expanded role for the state in delivering collective benefits. Psychologists can help to bring all this about; continuing to help people and organisations to weather the changes, demonstrating the many benefits of a new moral order and supplying evidence on how to achieve it.

- Dr Roger Paxton is BPS Ethics Committee Chair
[email protected]

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