Review: Ethical Dilemmas

Review of our March meeting on ‘Ethical Dilemmas’ by Hester Brown:

Our annual ‘ethical dilemmas’ session, when each of us puts forward a moral conundrum for discussion, is usually held in the convivial surroundings of the pub. How would it work on Zoom?

We need not have worried. Zoom actually allowed each person to be heard in a very democratic way. Having a chair – as ever, ably filled by Sam Becker for ethical dilemmas – is probably essential, because people wait to be called before speaking. It meant less interruption and less chance of extroverts pushing to the front. Less heat, more light.

What unfolded was fascinating. The opening question was deceptively simple: Is vaccination nationalism acceptable? Isn’t it the duty of a government to look after its own people? And then layer after layer of implications dropped down like a venetian blind. When countries like the UK are sucking money out of former colonies in the form of oil and other raw materials, don’t we owe something back? If we don’t help all countries to vaccinate, covid will come back to bite us. And with new, worse strains that our vaccinations may not be able to stop. 

There are further ethical implications to what a nation does with any spare doses. The Israeli Prime Minister was reported to be planning sending thousands of vaccines to countries in return for diplomatic support, having withheld them from Palestinians.

The next dilemma examined the idea of whether you can put a value on a human life. Former judge Jonathan Sumption was not alone when he said that he valued the lives of his children more highly than his own because they had more of their lives left to live, and therefore he would rather they were protected from covid than himself. Some older members of the group felt they were living on borrowed time and had no desire for extra protection, while others felt they had as much right as anyone to vaccines and other protective measures. Isn’t it the start of a slippery slope, if you identify one group in society as having less value than another? What about people with disabilities, people who are unemployed, immigrants? Ah but. “Valuing” human lives equally can lead to residents in nursing homes being kept alive when they would rather be dead and – over the past year – cruelly lonely and cut off from loved ones. Doesn’t quality of life matter? 

One of the issues here is the difference between personal choice and public policy: an individual may choose to protect a younger person over themselves, but should government policy enshrine that? It really isn’t easy, because policy can restrict personal freedom as well as extend protection, eg right to die.

An economist pointed out that we do put a value on lives all the time, based on their wealth and access to resources, and that this is problematic! An older white man pointed out that people like him stand for election, get elected and make policy for people like them. We could have gone on all night.

Then a playful question: “Is it ever acceptable to be cannibalistic?” Well yes, in a plane crash on a snowy peak… Ie it entirely depends on the situation. “What if the person was not yet dead, just languishing?” Several people felt they would rather starve. Someone mentioned Moby Dick and we were back in the discussion about the worth capitalism ascribes to people and the racism it fuels. But we ended this discussion with a joke: Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other, “Doesn’t he taste funny to you?”

There were several more excellent questions but you get the gist: it was a thoroughly interesting and entertaining discussion.