By Nigel Dower

Note: this was written before the lockdown on Monday 23rd March, but the main concerns are still pertinent.

At the moment, a fundamental ethical question concerns the balance between legitimate concern for one’s own well-being, and one’s social responsibility to protect others and flatten the curve so that hospitals and other vital services can better cope.

But this question takes very different forms for different groups of people. For people over 70, there is a large measure of coincidence between their concern for their own well-being by self-isolating and contributing to the public good by so doing. Delaying their (our!) having a significant possibility of contracting the virus for a few months is definitely in that group’s interests. But for younger people, particularly without health issues, not taking social distancing too seriously may, from a purely personal point of view, seem worth it because they are likely to contract it in a milder form. So for them, the dilemma is serious.

In the case of all those working in vital service sectors such as food production and distribution, the maintenance of our energy supplies and continued water supply, the moral expectation if not legal obligation is that they should continue to work as best as possible even though this puts them in a category of much greater risk than for many others. This is as long as they do not fall into specific self-isolating categories, such as having been in contact with someone who’s contracted the virus. That they are expected to take higher risks is somehow a case of moral bad luck, but, as those of us not expected to take that risk, we need to applaud them.

In the case of those working in other sectors such as entertainment and tourism, the expectation is that they do not continue what they’re doing and should achieve ‘social’ distancing, or what should be more accurately called ‘physical’ distancing as we need to stay socially connected (albeit remotely). The expectation too is that responsibility impacts on their own interests in a negative way differently, because of the possibility of significant financial loss if not the loss of a job altogether. Even if they work in the delivery industry for firms like Deliveroo, they have clear obligations not to continue if they show signs of being ill or being in contact with someone who is, even though the temptation is for them to continue because they lose income.

But apart from the specific employment issues, there is the wider question about what counts as legitimate personal interest in the light of the public duty to reduce social contact. Going to a shop for food is one thing (which may involve a degree of social contact however careful one is), quite another buying a whole range of goods which we regard as contributing to our quality of life. It is now generally recognised that things like eating out in restaurants and going to pubs is a moral no-no (including, though not as widely recognised, doing much the same things by socially congregating privately). However, what about getting a new pair of shoes or item of clothing because what one has is regarded as needing replacing, or new books or bottles of alcohol to help ease the lonely evenings ahead?

Mental wellness is a crucial aspect of this, and self-isolation for some and serious physical distancing for everyone will have serious impacts on this for many people. Quality of life is absolutely crucial, but the question is how can we reconfigure our lives in such a way that we find quality in other ways – for instance in modern forms of communication like Skype, zoom and WhatsApp (not forgetting good old fashioned letter writing which we will have more time for now)!

The dilemma for individuals is curiously paralleled by that for nation states. States closing their borders may seem like a clear expression of the priority of national interests, but it may also be seen as an exercise in public global responsibility, since international travel has been and would continue to be a serious factor in its spread. But we should notice a corollary of this. The international trade in goods including, may also carry risks of contamination because of the way the virus lingers on surfaces for quite some time. Maybe there’s no significant difference in risk factor now for food that has been grown and transported within the UK compared with food from abroad. However, it may be a signal that an increase in food grown and distributed within smaller areas, and best locally, would be sensible as a future policy direction.

Access to food is one of the most important ethical issues in the current crisis – both for the 70 plus group who are meant to be self-isolating (many of whom have adequate finances to pay for it – whether delivered through friendly neighbours or online supermarket delivery – the latter at the moment not always available for many people who wish to have it), and for other groups whose financial circumstances are made even worse by the current crisis. Whilst food banks and charitable assistance remain very relevant, the issue is so important that it requires proper government support and intervention (to some extent forthcoming).

In the short term it is I think almost inevitable that the main focus will be on securing food supplies as best as possible, even though some of those food supplies and the way animals and workers have been treated in them may be contrary to what we ought to be accepting (and the Food Ethics Council is campaigning against). In a food crisis, ethical concerns about the sourcing of food may be marginalised and understandably so. How can we insist on organic, free-range eggs when supermarket stocks of all eggs are low?

If, as is likely, the food supply will be under pressure, it is I think understandable, and in the sense morally to be accepted, that the emphasis will be on maintaining that supply, whatever its source. Criticising a government or a food production system because it is not focusing on the issues that we in the Food Ethics Council think they should be focusing on normally, namely transforming the system onto a sustainable footing, could be seen as insensitive and counterproductive. However it is clear that we should not take our eye off the ball altogether of the longer term agenda, and should encourage that conversation to continue, since hopefully by the end of the year these matters can come to the forefront again.

I’m reminded of a small example from the war (which I know about because my uncle was involved in it) in which, several years before the war was over, extensive plans were being thought out for the development of what we know now as the National Park system. Although it was not in a sense directly part of the war effort, it was seen by those in government as crucial to the development of social amenities in the countryside for people once the war was over. I was once at a conference In the USA on consumerism and environmental issues. Aa speaker said to us ‘you environmentalists, get real – work with the grain not against the grain, and tap away at what governments can do here and now realistically.’ Many of us were disturbed by the one-sidedness of this argument – because the reality is that whilst some of us want to work with the grain to try and change government policies here and now, others want and need to work against the grain by challenging existing assumptions and presenting alternative visions. Perhaps at the present time there is less to do working with the grain – the focus of government is elsewhere – but we still have our vital task of developing the vision