March 3, 2021, Via Zoom
Ethics Society Board Chair Gordon K. Haist, former USCB professor of philosophy, and Hank Noble, former principal of Hilton Head Elementary School, delivered the program. They talked first about obligations to self and to community, then turned to the maze of ethical issues linked to the problems of mass vaccination against Covid-19.
Hank presented an outline with examples of relationships in family, fraternities, sororities, street gangs, charity boards, civic clubs and political parties to illustrate “Belonging and the Rules It Involves.”
He elaborated by explaining that humans naturally desire to “belong” to various kinds of groups. Each person then influences the groups to which he or she belongs and in turn is influenced by those groups. The primary groups serve an expressive function, involve emotion and usually are long-term. The secondary groups serve an instrumental function, are task-focused and limited in scope and time. The reference groups invite comparisons between individuals and others in the group, inviting attention to clothing, taste in art, use of free time, as examples.
Gordon followed with an outline of “Rules of Belonging and Ethics,” discussing conflicts based on the question: “To what am I obligated?” He then identified personal characteristics with varying degrees of usefulness in avoiding conflict between individuals or between individuals and groups: adaptability, cross-cultural intelligence; curiosity; empathy, self-awareness; the capacity to be non-judgmental.
He said his personal ethics sensibilities were tested when he and his wife visited family members living in somewhat isolation on an island in Scotland. “Bonds between family members should not be political but ethical,” he said. “Are we obligated to causes? Principles? Freedom? Happiness?”
Hank used his own life as a child to illustrate how violating the rules of a group (in this case, family) can bring pain. His parents’ rules required no sassing, no blame to others for his mistakes, consistent politeness and hospitality to guests, as examples. “There was a price to pay for not abiding by their rules,” he said.
Then he mentioned street gangs, for which disobedience might cause a beating or a fatality; sports fans, especially soccer fans from Europe and South America, who have suffered death in riots; political parties. He said he expected the Republican Party, for instance, to honor the party’s platform, and that he is now being called a RINO, Republican in Name Only, by many party members who pay no attention to the platform but instead use tactics that he dislikes, to try to achieve their objectives.
“Being a member of a group creates the concept of non-members, and that fact is highlighted by political divisions in the United States today,” he said.
On the issues of ethical and wise distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, Gordon offered two lines of arguments, asking which is valid.
Argument A is based on two premises: 1) Justice, meaning that the distribution of essential goods is fair; 2) Poor countries can be expected to be deprived of Covid-19 vaccine because they cannot afford it. Therefore, vaccine should be distributed among countries regardless of ability to pay.
Argument B is based on two premises: 1) Fairness, meaning that the first to come should be the first to be served; 2) Prioritizing means that some must wait despite the urgency of their needs. Therefore, prioritizing when people can get the vaccine is unfair.
Hank raised other questions linked to group membership: Can you be Jewish if you eat non-kosher foods? Can you be Catholic if you practice birth control?
“Picking up where Gordon left off,” he said, “Does charity begin at home? Is it OK to steal to prevent starvation? If your child needs medicine, to what extent can you ethically go to get it? Should you take care of your own or give to another in need? Should immigrants waiting to come into the United States be vaccinated ahead of US citizens?”
At the end of 2020, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom had ordered many more times the number of vaccines each needed to meet the needs of its own citizens while 200 poor counties could be expected not to get any. The World Health Organization warns that the world is on the verge of an international catastrophe. There are stark inequities. The shortage of vaccinations worldwide will prolong the epidemic by providing opportunity for the Covid-19 variants to spread.
From the audience:
Canada and other well-off countries ordered more vaccine than actually needed because of the doubt that what they were ordering would all be delivered.
If the governor of a state gets ample vaccine for that state’s population, should he or she send some of it to Mexico? Gordon’s response was that the rates of infection in the United States continues to be high; therefore, this country is not in a position to give vaccine away.
The Academy of Medicine worked on a system of priorities for vaccination, taking into account the limited supply going in, the fatality rates, the risks front-line workers face regarding their lives and their livelihood. There was never enough vaccine to go around so judgments came down to necessity and ethics, and there was no way to make them perfectly.
The vaccine manufacturing process is very complex, the supply chain is delicate and the distribution system is very difficult.
We belong to a group of people who need the vaccine; sometimes we need to set aside personal needs for the good of the group.
Much of our foreign policy is developed to benefit the United States. Poor countries are never going to be able to afford the vaccine they need. The Golden Rule might apply. We would benefit by helping them.
Gordon responded by saying that the measure of benefit personally would be hard to measure.
Hank responded that it would be beneficial to us to lend a hand to others and that he is “troubled by those choices.”
Gordon pointed out that in October and November, when the early planning should have been done, each state came up with a different plan, there were conflicts between science and politics, and the rollout of vaccinations became a “train wreck.”
Hank added that “bumps” were bound to happen as even best minds were thinking theoretically with 10,000 Americans a day dying.
Our sincere thanks to Hank and Gordon for their excellent and detailed presentations of a very complex topic. Thanks also to Betsy Doughtie for Zooming and recording our meeting and to Fran Bollin for her always excellent and detailed summary of our meeting.