Two men in masks chat on a bench on North Charles Street in Baltimore on Saturday evening, May 23, 2020.

Two men in masks chat on a bench on North Charles Street in Baltimore on Saturday evening, May 23, 2020.

As pandemic restrictions begin to loosen in the Washington region, questions emerge not only about what’s safe, but what’s right.

Even though you might be able to go to a restaurant, should you? Who are you helping if you go? Who might you be putting at risk?

And though you’re desperate for a haircut, does a trip to the beauty parlor or barbershop push any ethical boundaries?

What about that stimulus check? For those of us who can afford to give it away, is there any moral obligation to do so?

We’re calling in philosophers — and moral philosophers in particular — to help us answer the big and small ethical questions the pandemic presents to all of us.

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • David DeGrazia Professor of Philosophy, The George Washington University; @GWtweets
  • Karen Stohr Associate Professor of Philosophy; Georgetown University; @Georgetown


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For months now, decisions about whether to go to work, the park or to get a haircut were mostly made for us. In an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus, government authorities basically said if you're not an essential worker, stay home. But now, in phases, parks, beaches and various categories of businesses will be allowed to open. This presents us all with more decisions about how we will conduct our lives, decisions which are, at heart, ethical ones.

  • 12:32:33

    KOJO NNAMDIFor many, once-mundane questions like, should I go to the gym have become thorny moral dilemmas about keeping ourselves and others safe. Over the ages, philosophers -- and moral philosophers, in particular -- have grappled with the issues underlying these dilemmas. Joining us to help figure out how we too can meet the ethical challenges before us is David DeGrazia, professor of philosophy at George Washington University. David, DeGrazia, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:02

    DAVID DEGRAZIAThank you. Good to be here, Mr. Nnamdi.

  • 12:33:05

    NNAMDIGlad you could join us. And Karen Stohr is an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University who writes the Ask the Coronavirus Ethicist column for the Washingtonian Magazine. Karen Stohr, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:19

    KAREN STOHRThank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.

  • 12:33:21

    NNAMDIGlad you could join us. I'll start with you, Karen Stohr. Before we get into the particular ethical questions that living in a pandemic presents, let's talk about moral philosophy. What is it, and how can it be helpful to us?

  • 12:33:33

    STOHRSo, moral philosophy, or ethics, we might think of as sort of the study of how we ought to behave both in sort of the broad sense, and also in our day-to-day decision making. And that's the place where I think moral philosophy can be useful to us, in helping us think through those decisions and take into account all the considerations that really matter, both for ourselves and for other people.

  • 12:33:54

    NNAMDIAre moral philosophy and ethics different? And if so, how?

  • 12:33:59

    STOHRI think that philosophers tend to use the terms interchangeably, but a lot of people do think of ethics as being more practical or more applied to specific situations.

  • 12:34:09

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia, you and Karen Stohr both talk about two major schools of philosophy which represent differing approaches to moral decision-making. What are they and what famous philosophers are identified with each?

  • 12:34:23

    DEGRAZIAWell, I would actually think of three main traditions, one being consequentialism, including -- most famously -- utilitarianism, which focuses on expected consequences of our behavior for a way of evaluating what's right and wrong. Deontology is a big, technical term. It also focuses on right action, but rejects the idea that this is to be determined just in terms of expected consequences. And then a third tradition is the tradition of virtue ethics, which focuses less on right action and more on what a morally good person is like.

  • 12:35:06

    NNAMDIKaren Stohr, let's try and apply philosophy to real-life questions. During this pandemic, one of the more vexing decisions for many people is about whether and when to wear a mask. Why is this a moral issue?

  • 12:35:21

    STOHRSo, I think it's a moral issue primarily because of the way in which it prevents us from exposing others to harm, which, I think everybody would agree, we have a moral duty to do. Wearing a mask is a way of saying to people that you and your health matters to me, which is why it's an ethical issue. Because showing people that they matter, that you care about their wellbeing is a really important, ethical imperative.

  • 12:35:49

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia, there are people who say the government telling them to wear a mask or requiring one for entry violates their individual rights. What do moral philosophers have to say about that?

  • 12:36:03

    DEGRAZIAWell, this particular moral philosopher would say that they are mistaken. People have rights to freedom of movement and freedom of association, for example. But these rights, like most rights, are limited in scope by considerations to public safety and other people's rights, including the right not to be exposed negligently to harm or undue risk of harm.

  • 12:36:29

    NNAMDIHere is Chuck in New York City. Chuck, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:35

    CHUCKHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I'm a big fan of yours, even from New York. I wanted to know from your panel, that I'm hoping -- because I'm changing my habits when it comes to COVID-19, because of the food shortage and especially in the meatpacking industry. I'm hoping that -- can this be a time where we can actually as humans change our behavior to contribute towards climate change, especially when it comes to our food habits?

  • 12:37:00

    NNAMDIHow do you see that as a moral issue, Karen Stohr?

  • 12:37:05

    STOHRSo, I think Chuck raises a great question. You know, the risk to the people working in the meatpacking industry are enormous. And one of the things that this crisis has done is expose that for all of us, so that we can see what the cost is, both to the humans who work there and also, of course, to the animals to.

  • 12:37:24

    STOHRAnd I think occasions like this are terrific opportunities for us to really think through what it is that we actually need, what we care about most. And the meatpacking industry and, in general, the issue of food supply and distribution is one that definitely needs a hard look.

  • 12:37:43

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Chuck. Karen, let's talk about social distancing. What some people consider a perfectly fine way to walk down the street angers others who wonder, why is this person so close to me and showing so little respect for my health? What's a moral philosopher's approach to social distancing?

  • 12:38:01

    STOHRSo, I try to move myself out of the way as much as I can. You know, I live in a relatively quiet suburban area, and so social distancing isn't as difficult as it is in more urban contexts. But I think the first thing you should do is do what you can to give the other person more space yourself. If that's not possible, then I think a polite request to the other to ease up a bit or to step back is perfectly appropriate in these circumstances.

  • 12:38:26

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia, you share that you had someone get uncomfortably close to you in a grocery store recently, and also that you felt you needed to reinforce social distancing rules within your own family. Would you mind telling us what happened in these situations and how you handled it?

  • 12:38:41

    DEGRAZIAWell, sure. Where I shop, most people are being very responsible. Everyone wears a mask, and most people are good about social distancing. But, typically, in any shopping adventure, there'll be a few times when someone walks within three feet of me, just walks briskly by before I can get out of the way. I haven't said anything yet, but I feel it and I don't like it, and I think I'd be within my rights to say something.

  • 12:39:14

    DEGRAZIAIn my own family, my daughter, who's a young adult, has seen her best friend a number of times. Each time, it's outside, and each time they practice social distancing, which is great. But, one time, after they had been talking for an hour or so and getting very comfortable, I noticed that they were reclining in their chairs, and at least their legs were no longer at least six feet apart. So I tactfully nudged my daughter. I said, hey, let's try to remember that distancing, because I didn't want them to get sloppy and actually put each other at some sort of risk. A little awkward, but maybe worth doing.

  • 12:39:58

    NNAMDIHow did they respond?

  • 12:40:00

    DEGRAZIAWell, my daughter gave me a snarky look, (laugh) but also a kind of loving smile afterwards. And her friend just laughed and seemed to accept what I was saying.

  • 12:40:12

    NNAMDIHere's Kathryn in Herndon, Virginia. Kathryn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:17

    KATHRYNThank you, Kojo, and welcome to your guests. I know that they're much better equipped to help me formulate this question than I am myself. The entire pandemic has made me question just how large our footprint is on this Earth. And I just think the ways that we live are untenable. It's really highlighted how tenuous our structure is, to me. And I thought maybe they could elaborate on that.

  • 12:40:57

    NNAMDIAre there larger moral questions -- I'll start with you this time, David DeGrazia.

  • 12:41:02


  • 12:41:02

    NNAMDIAre there larger moral questions that this pandemic is causing us to explore?

  • 12:41:07

    DEGRAZIAYes, I think so. We have to be concerned not only for our own safety and the safety of those around us, but we have to be socially responsible, not only for the present, but also for the future. The pandemic and, you know, the virus is focusing us more on the present. But as we think about issues like climate change, the issues there are just an extension. We need to be responsible stewards of our world for people in the future, and even for ourselves, in our own future. In any case, what's common to both sets of questions is somewhat of a tension between social responsibility and individual liberties.

  • 12:41:59

    NNAMDIKaren Stohr?

  • 12:42:01

    STOHRSo, I'm one of those people who spends half my life in the car, normally. And one of the big changes for me is realizing how nice it is not to be sitting on 270 in traffic. I think this experience has, for many of us, highlighted some of the things about our lives that we both love and hate. And some of the things that we hate may be things that we can work to change.

  • 12:42:23

    STOHRAnd the way in which we commute and the way we think about work and the way we think about relationships, some of those things will undergo some changes. And that is not all bad. People talking to their neighbors more, you know, recognizing the value of local communities. All of those things, I think, are going to be positive changes. Which is not to say there aren't negative implications of that, too. But I do think this is an occasion for all of us to think, what is it that I really miss? What is that I could do without and how could I make my local community better than it was before?

  • 12:42:55

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia, let's talk about those stimulus checks. Some who are securely employed wonder if it's ethical to keep that money. Should they?

  • 12:43:04

    DEGRAZIAGood question. Rather than focus on the check itself, I would go back to what those of us who are relatively advantaged owe more, generally. And I think those of us who are relatively advantaged have an obligation to contribute substantially over the course of our lifetimes to help those who are in need. Now, one fairly easy and concrete way of doing that is upon receiving a check, contributing exactly that amount or more to, you know, an efficient charity. But that's not the only way.

  • 12:43:43

    NNAMDIWas it moral for the government to give those checks to people who didn't necessarily need them?

  • 12:43:49

    DEGRAZIAComplicated, I'm not certain of the answer, but I think part of the reason was not just to help people. But by giving what we got -- I was surprised we got anything, but what we got was in the form of a credit card, I think. My wife received it. And that encourages spending. So, there might be some interest in stimulating stimulus, so to speak, which can have some positive effects.

  • 12:44:17

    NNAMDIWhat about the undocumented in this country who are, like everyone else, suffering from the virus and who pay taxes, but they're not getting stimulus checks? What's an ethical approach to that issue?

  • 12:44:34

    DEGRAZIAThey're not getting checks. Well, I'm not -- I haven't thought about that issue before, but to the extent possible, I think we should treat them just as well as we treat those who are here as citizens and legal residents, and recognize their equal moral status and their needs as much as those of the rest of us.

  • 12:45:02

    NNAMDIHere is Lisa in Washington, D.C. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:45:07

    LISAHi, this is Lisa. Hi, David DeGrazia. This is Lisa Ecenwhiler. I'm so pleased to hear you having this conversation. I just wondered if the two of you might be able to say something about solidarity, in this context. It seems to me that it's a really important ethical ideal and practice that can really give us some guidance to this time both, you know, in thinking about how we're supposed to act collectively, not just as individuals, to protect our health.

  • 12:45:37

    LISAAnd also the importance of solidarity for people who are privileged in helping to protect the people who are most vulnerable. And that may mean taking some extra inconveniences, extra burdens upon ourselves to try to, you know, promote justice for some of the people who, for instance, aren't able to practice social distancing, or who are already vulnerable when it comes to access to healthcare.

  • 12:46:04

    LISASo, I just -- you know, that's a really important concept of my work, and I would love to hear what the speakers think about solidarity in the context of a pandemic and global health and public health, more generally.

  • 12:46:15

    NNAMDII'll address this to both of them. First you, Karen Stohr.

  • 12:46:18

    STOHRSo, I think Lisa's right, that solidarity is really important now. And it's also perhaps even harder -- you know, people are anxious. They're worried about becoming ill, they're worried about their jobs if they have them, or their businesses. And I think, in that kind of mindset, it can be tempting just to hunker down and think about just ourselves and our own families. And solidarity means that we turn our face outside and see what else is going on around us, especially with an eye toward people who really are suffering and who are more in need of our help than we realize.

  • 12:46:52

    STOHRAnd I think it's really difficult to do, but it's all the more important that we remember to keep looking outside our own little bunkers and outside our own little bubbles to see what we can do and how we can help people who don't have the kinds of privileges that many of us have.

  • 12:47:09

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia.

  • 12:47:11

    DEGRAZIAI agree with what Karen said, and I would add that sometimes solidarity is easier to feel when we feel attacked. It often happens -- it happened after 9/11, for example. Here, we're being attacked, not by people or agents, but by a virus. And I think there's an opportunity for fostering a sense of solidarity. But, unfortunately, encouragement of culture wars has tended to pit people against each other.

  • 12:47:46

    DEGRAZIAThis, I think, is not necessary, and it'd be better to foster a sense of solidarity and also to keep it, even when we're not in crisis because there's always need for solidarity. And in particular to be appropriately responsible to the most -- responsive to the needs of those who are most in need. And it shouldn't take an emergency or crisis for us to recognize how important that is.

  • 12:48:12

    NNAMDILisa, thank you very much for your call. David, you say a discussion of morality during the pandemic should address larger societal questions, like why are people of color dying of COVID-19 at much higher rates? And why weren't there enough masks in the first place? It's hard enough trying to be an ethical person. How do we address these questions of societal ethics?

  • 12:48:34

    DEGRAZIAWell, right. There are conditions in the background that get accentuated in a bad way in a crisis like this. So, for example, if people of color are dying at high rates, we should look at why that is. And we might, for example, figure out that, you know, poverty tends to lead to having smaller dwellings. And smaller dwellings tends to lead to more difficulty quarantining, if someone is sick, which leads to more spread. Medical comorbidities such as diabetes and respiratory conditions increase chance of dying. And so it so happens that a lot of people of color are starting with these disadvantages.

  • 12:49:25

    DEGRAZIASo, I think we should consider background questions of distributive justice. And I think there's a lot of room for improvement there. We should also consider the extent to which historical injustices taking the form of racism have led to some of these different starting points for a lot of people. These are enormous questions, but they're no less important for that.

  • 12:49:51

    NNAMDIHere is Paula in Germantown. Paula, your turn.

  • 12:49:56

    PAULAThank you, Kojo and guests, for a very worthwhile program. And I appreciate your certainly turning my attention -- sharpening my attention toward these issues. I happened to go grocery shopping this morning during the senior hour, up and down one-way aisles. And my question has to do with whether you consider it acceptable to pass someone in a one-way aisle when they are doing a very time-consuming perusal of all the different opportunities for whatever it is they're trying to buy. Of course, it's impossible to pass while still keeping a six-foot distance, but if you respect the people ahead of you in every single aisle, it adds an enormous amount of time to your trip.

  • 12:50:47

    NNAMDIBefore I have them answer, allow me to ask you, Paula, what did you do this morning when you encountered that situation?

  • 12:50:53

    PAULAI was very proud of myself for waiting for one woman, and somewhat ashamed of myself for passing her on the next aisle. (laugh)

  • 12:51:04

    NNAMDI(laugh) Allow me to have Karen Stohr, care to respond to that?

  • 12:51:08

    STOHRYes, Paula, I feel your pain. (laugh) I think one of the things that's really challenging for a lot of us is the alterations in our ordinary sort of norms of social interactions, and having to adapt to really new spaces and movements. And grocery stores are a prime example of this. You know, there's an old study in psychology, Darley and Batson did a study about good Samaritans. And it turns out that people are much less likely to stop and help others when they're in a hurry.

  • 12:51:36

    STOHRAnd I think one of the things that makes it challenging to move around grocery stores is that sense that we all just want to get our stuff and get out of there as fast as we can. But it also calls for more patience than many of us have, like me. Then we have to muster it. And so I think -- for me, at least -- one of the challenges is trying to get past my own “I want to get down this aisle,” and give other people space. And, for me, it's about self-control, as much as it is about anything else.

  • 12:52:01

    STOHRNow, that being said, I do think we have responsibilities to make sure that we're not taking excessive time or that we're not blocking aisles or other kinds of things. So, I think there's a lot of basic courtesy in this, but I think it points to that underlying issue that we all have to adapt to new ways of interacting with people in public space. And I think we need to cut each other some slack, because we're all getting used to it and we fall into old habits. But slowing down and trying to be in less of a hurry, I think, is one of the keys for many of us in trying to acquire that patience.

  • 12:52:31

    NNAMDIYeah, because in the aisle, you have to say to yourself sometimes, wait a minute, we're in the middle of a pandemic. Why am I in such a hurry? (laugh) But here is now Melissa in Fairfax, Virginia. Melissa, your turn.

  • 12:52:42

    MELISSAHi. I just would really like to hear some professional thoughts on the morality, as we reopen, of people going back to work, and oftentimes for very low pay, and whether we should be prioritizing the thoughts of them being safe and being home versus the idea of them being able to reopen an economy, spend more money.

  • 12:53:10

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia.

  • 12:53:12

    DEGRAZIAWell, both values are extremely important, staying safe and also having some economic activity and allowing people to work. I tend to think it's better to err on the side of caution in the sense of insisting on social distancing at work, use of masks and gloves if people are returning. Now, in some cases -- well, some people never left work, namely the healthcare professionals. And they can't maintain social distancing. So, that's somewhat exceptional. But I don't think we should hurry back to work. We should tele-work where we can. And where we can't, I think we better be very patient and maintain the safest practices we can.

  • 12:54:03

    NNAMDIKaren Stohr, we're almost out of time, but Aristotle is one of the philosophers you teach. Do you think he would have worn a mask?

  • 12:54:10

    STOHRHe would've totally worn a mask. Aristotle was very focused on the good of the community. And, for him, these questions about, well, nobody has a right to tell me what to do, would be sort of unthinkable. Because for him, because masks protect our community and make the health of our community a priority, I think for Aristotle, there's no question but that mask wearing would be a virtuous thing to do.

  • 12:54:34

    NNAMDIAnd, David DeGrazia, for listeners whose interest in philosophy has been peaked by this conversation, where's a good place to start learning more?

  • 12:54:42

    DEGRAZIAOh, about moral philosophy. “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” which is free and online, is a really great resource. I'm not going to recommend Kant, because he's so difficult to begin with, I think John Stuart Mill's works "Utilitarianism" and "On Liberty" are very good reading.

  • 12:55:08

    NNAMDIDavid DeGrazia, Karen Stohr, thank you both for joining us. This segment on ethics in the age of COVID-19 was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation with Dr. Leana Wen was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, what will tourism look like this summer, in the District? Plus, looking back at the Washington National's World Series victory with Washington Post reporter Jesse Dougherty and MASN's Dan Kolko. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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