The number of corona cases is increasing again. Should we refrain from traveling or celebrating – it’s not forbidden? The risk ethicist Nikil Mukerji has answers.
In Germany, more people are getting Covid-19 again, and some are already warning of a second wave. It seems that many Corona have become tired and therefore no longer take the danger seriously. You travel to high-risk areas or attend parties with many people. Nikil Mukerji knows how to behave now. He deals with risk ethics, i.e. the morally correct action in situations in which the consequences of our actions are uncertain.
ZEIT ONLINE: Despite increasing numbers of infections, the applicable corona rules in this country are quite lax. In many places, for example, there are no longer any contact restrictions. Should we do everything that is not explicitly prohibited?
Nickel Mukerji: What is legally allowed is not automatically morally correct. Individuals have a moral responsibility for the success of disaster prevention that goes beyond simply following the rules. Because disaster still threatens us if the virus spreads again uncontrollably. Israel or Australia, for example, were able to stop the first Covid-19 wave at an early stage. Now the virus has returned with full force. This is also the case in some European countries, such as Belgium. We have to be very vigilant, and everyone has to do their part.
Mukerji: In a pandemic, everything you do should ask yourself: how important is that? Do I really have a legitimate interest that outweighs the risk of infection for others? An urgent business trip, which ensures the survival of your company, is to be rated differently than a pleasure trip. You also have to weigh up the risk to others that you create through your behavior. If you meet privately in the garden of friends, you run less risk than if you go to the gym. Finally, ask yourself how many people could be affected if something went wrong. We now know that superspreading events, in which many people are infected at once, play a major role in the spread of Sars-CoV-2.
ZEIT ONLINE: You talk about traveling. Is there something wrong with traveling now?
Mukerji: If you have a legitimate interest in traveling, there are ethical reasons why you should be able to do so. On the other hand, I consider pleasure trips that would be unnecessary, and then also in risk areas, to be ethically problematic. The freedoms that we have about to travel are part of a big cake. If you take a bigger piece, you take away a piece of freedom. As responsible citizens, we do not necessarily need state rules that regulate this in every individual case. But if too many show themselves to be uncooperative, then the state must act and tighten the rules so that the distribution is fair again and effective prevention is carried out.
ZEIT ONLINE: Does it matter where you travel?
Mukerji: Yes. If the infection rate in the target country is significantly higher or also lower than where you live, the trip is problematic from an ethical point of view.
ZEIT ONLINE: That sounds paradoxical.
Mukerji: But it is not. If the infection rate in the target country is significantly lower, you endanger the local population through your trip. If it is significantly higher, you endanger your fellow citizens at home.
ZEIT ONLINE: Health Minister Jens Spahn or RKI boss Lothar Wieler repeatedly refer to individual responsibility. What exactly does individual responsibility mean?
Mukerji: The term “answer” is in the term, and that is exactly what is important: if you act responsibly, you have good reasons for your actions that also stand up to ethical scrutiny. You can include these reasons in your answer when asked or asking yourself: why did you do that?
ZEIT ONLINE: That presupposes that I am informed. Is it morally necessary to be up to date with Covid-19?
Mukerji: There are two things that can be mentioned in our everyday morals. First: ignorance does not protect against punishment. Transferred to the pandemic that would mean that ignorance does not release me from responsibility. Second, strong shoulders carry more than weak ones. Of course, those who are educated and trained to take in and process information will find it easier to understand how the virus spreads than someone who has had little access to education. The first group therefore has a greater responsibility to inform about risks.
ZEIT ONLINE: How do we as a society manage not to get tired of Corona? How do you maintain the alarm condition?
Mukerji: In this country, many of us took the Covid-19 threat seriously only when we heard the terrifying reports from Italy. We should look abroad regularly to see the destructive power of this virus. Evidence now clearly shows that a disease is devastating to health and economics. And we can only contain the virus if we successfully continue the current – comparatively mild – measures. That is why everyone has to work to ensure that the mood in our society does not change. Those who abide by the rules, encourage others and argue well for it, make a very valuable contribution in this regard. It increases the likelihood that we will all stay awake and get through the crisis well.
ZEIT ONLINE: Let’s say I’m invited to three birthday parties next month. Does it make sense to cancel two and only visit one – that of my best friend? Or would I consequently have to do without celebrations altogether?
Mukerji: Again, you should ask what you can do without, how high the risks are and how you can reduce them in each case. The bigger the party, the sooner you should cancel. You should avoid celebrating indoors rather than outdoor gatherings. Where alcohol is likely to be drunk in the foreseeable future, party guests are probably less willing to comply with distance and hygiene rules. And why not be creative? Why not several small ones instead of one big celebration? This reduces the risk of a superspreading event and has the advantage that you can devote much more attention to everyone present than at a big celebration.
ZEIT ONLINE: My child goes to daycare, which means my family lives with a certain risk of infection anyway. Should I compensate for this risk to society in other areas of life?
Mukerji: If you have a higher risk of infection due to your family or work situation, you also have a duty to behave more carefully. On the other hand, parents and families are particularly affected by the crisis and deserve more understanding, support and freedom.
ZEIT ONLINE: In addition, it is also controversial how high the risk of contagion really is that comes from small children.
Mukerji: As far as this question is concerned, the data from different studies contradict each other. In terms of prevention, it would be unreasonable to simply assume that children have no influence on the infection process. The problem is that people tend psychologically to always use exactly what they prefer as evidence. So when I have children, I have a vested interest in being able to send the children to daycare or to school. And therefore I will selectively collect the data that confirm this. This is the so-called confirmation error, one could also speak of wishful thinking in this context. Usually this happens largely unconsciously. This explains why intelligent people also fall into this trap.
ZEIT ONLINE: Can there be moral blanket powers for people at risk? For example, is it okay if an addict visits his self-help group despite increasing numbers of infections?
Mukerji: An addicted person has a very legitimate interest in visiting a self-help group. Meeting the group is not a pleasure, but a health need. But there is no blanket power of attorney here either: Just because you have a good reason to do something that involves risks does not mean that you do not have the responsibility to exercise caution.
ZEIT ONLINE: Which moral-philosophical concept is the most helpful with regard to the corona pandemic? Is it Kant’s categorical imperative again?
Mukerji: The categorical imperative actually contains important insights that can be a useful aid to thinking in the current situation. It says: “Act in such a way that the maxim of your will can at the same time count as a principle of general legislation.” In other words and a little simplified: If I can’t imagine that everyone acts like me, or if what comes out nobody can want, then I shouldn’t do it. For example, one might ask: what would happen if everyone went on a vacation trip to a risk area this summer and then entered again without a care? Then the infection would slip away from us, and nobody can want that. However, ethical considerations in connection with risk situations cannot be reduced to a single principle such as the categorical imperative.
ZEIT ONLINE: What kind of risks were you dealing with before the Corona crisis?
Mukerji: I generally deal with risk and disaster situations. For example with climate change, artificial intelligence or the geopolitical conflict situation. I am interested in how people think about why it can lead to serious mistakes and how we can avoid them.
ZEIT ONLINE: The moral imperative to renounce also plays a major role in the face of the climate catastrophe. How are both problems comparable?
Mukerji: It is true that the basic problem is very similar. Individuals can say to themselves: If everyone else limits themselves, for example by staying at home, I can continue doing what I want: running around outside, sending the children to the empty daycare center and so on. It’s the same with climate change. If everyone else waives, I can go on vacation with a clear conscience. Because everyone can theoretically shift responsibility onto the other, you have to support individual ethics with generally applicable rules. Nothing else is the requirement to wear a mask on the train or in the shop.