The scariest part of America's reckless reopening
The great 'can' vs. 'should' test
There is a useful metaphor in ethics about a ladder. It can be thought of a few different ways, but I like the version paraphrased from ethicist Christopher Gilbert by Quartz the best: "On the lowest rung, you think only of yourself. Past the middle rung, you're thinking of the decision's influence on some. And on the highest rungs, you're wondering how every choice impacts all affected by it."
It seems intuitive that, under normal circumstances, we should strive to reach the highest rungs of this ladder whenever we are able. But we are not living under normal circumstances: even as the United States careens toward overtaking its previous coronavirus peak, the country is throwing caution to the wind. Movie theaters, hair salons, amusement parks, and restaurants are fast on their way to reopening — if they haven't already. And with discretion left largely up to the consumer, it is on us, then, to decide if, just because we can access these luxuries, we should be enjoying them. The answer, largely and discouragingly, seems to be yes; while Americans continue to express fears about the disease to pollsters, cases are nevertheless ballooning. In failing our "can" versus "should" test during the nation's reopening, Americans are proving that ethical consumption at all might be a pipe dream — because if we can't even care about our own imperilment, how will we ever care about other's?
Let's go back to the ladder for a moment. When Gilbert, the ethicist, was describing it to Quartz, he was using it to explain how we ought to weigh the repercussions of how we act as customers. The lowest level represents, for example, people who buy what is cheap, convenient, and coveted without a second-thought as to why it is so cheap and convenient. A more ethical individual would resist buying from places like Amazon or Walmart, thinking of the low-income employees who are being exploited. On the highest rungs of the ladder, that thinking might expand to encompass, say, the sweatshop workers who make the product we've ordered, or the detriment the order has on local, struggling small-business owners selling similar products. Of course, not everyone has the freedom to act on that thinking: lower-incomes and different physical needs mean many people don't have the option of being idealistic in their spending habits. But on the whole, and whenever possible, it is laudable to weigh how, and with whom, we are spending our money.
In practice, that can be very easy. I disagree with Chick-fil-A's history of political spending, but I don't go there anyway because I'm a vegetarian. It becomes trickier when we have to consider the consequences of things we want to do: say, travel, despite airplane emissions contributing significantly to the climate crisis, which experts say could result in more than 143 million refugees by 2050. It's also a lot harder to care — as terrible as that sounds — because the consequence (people being displaced and dying) feels so remote from the action (buying a plane ticket to go to Disneyland). But if the coronavirus pandemic has proven anything, it's that caring about others is a very difficult thing to convince people to do, especially when it requires even the most minor lifestyle adjustment. And again, the consequences feel so distant that you don't have to imagine them at all; you might never learn who you infect or kill.
What's particularly worrisome, though, is that at this juncture, Americans appear unwilling to care even when the consequences are not remote: when they are, in effect, as intimate as they could possibly be. While consumer activists have long tried to prompt citizens to be mindful about their spending — to hop up to the second or third rung of the ladder — it is starting to seem like even the first rung is too big an ask. With the coronavirus shutdown lifting, Americans are proving unwilling to alter their habits, seeking out opportunities to have their hair cut, or eat in a restaurant, or see a new movie regardless of the stakes. Trailers for Christopher Nolan's Tenet, which is still unbelievably slated to be released on July 31, ought to run with risk disclaimers the way prescription drug commercials do on TV: Side effects of seeing Tenet in theaters may include fever, shortness of breath, body aches, drowsiness, loss of taste or smell, an increased risk of leg and foot amputations, and may cause death. Talk to your doctor about if Tenet is right for you.
Still, it seems unlikely even that might stop people; there's simply a pervasive sense of it won't happen to me. You would expect that when a person's own life and well-being is what is in jeopardy, they'd finally be compelled to act differently. But seeing as that's not largely been the case, based on our rapidly rising numbers, it is daunting from an ethical standpoint to hope that the general public might ever take the next step. If we can't act in ways that are compassionate toward ourselves, how will we ever develop empathy for the strangers who our actions could — will — also hurt?
Therein lies the scariest part of the coronavirus pandemic. Not that any one individual might get sick, but that those individuals seem to be unmotivated by a greater responsibility to their community's health. The first rung of the ladder is just that — a step toward reaching the far more vital second and third rungs. Tragically, though, the coronavirus pandemic isn't a neat ethical metaphor about a ladder and consumer ethics; it's real life. But if there's a shred of truth to the correlation between the two, as I suspect, we still have a very long, and very difficult, year ahead.