Free To ≠ Morally Neutral

“It’s a free country,” the bully declared when his classmates pushed back against him harassing one of them. Some adults, it seems, are stuck at the same level of moral development. If they are free to do something, that makes it morally neutral.

The second highest ranking member of the US Senate said President Trump was free to aggressively disperse peaceful protestors in front of the White House so he could show how tough he was and clear the way to get himself a photo op in front of someone else’s church and then hold up a Bible to the cameras. He was free to do that. The Senator said that as if to declare that Trump’s actions were morally neutral and beyond question. This, while the bishop of that church was outraged by the sacrilege of the President’s actions.

We all to often hear the same reasoning about following best practices for dealing with the pandemic. People say store employees are free to wear masks or not; it is their choice. And if you don’t like it, you are free to shop elsewhere. When these people go out in public, it is there choice whether they do social distancing or not. That is as far as their moral reasoning goes.

The idea that what is legal is morally neutral has led to the breakdown of community trust. When neighbors are unwilling to take others’ safety into account, neighbor has no meaning. We must address this position wherever it occurs, or it will only get worse.

What I say when faced with this attitude is where you see right, I see obligations that we have to others. Someone tweeted to me that I needed to start thinking for myself instead of just blindly following the experts. But I’m not trying to think for myself, I’m trying to think like Jesus.

The Lesson in the Pandemic: Choice or Obligation?

Fill in the blank as many ways as you can: “I owe it to my community to_________________.”

While some of us will have many ways to complete the sentence, others will balk at the suggestion they have any such obligation.

NY Times columnist David Brooks is rightly impressed with the good pandemic judgement of the vast majoring of Americans, regardless of political leaning. The exceptions are dangerous when it comes to COVID-19.

When asked by a reporter whether it wouldn’t be good modeling for the President Trump to wear a mask it public, the White House press secretary replied by saying it was his choice. Too bad the reporter didn’t respond by asking whether it is his choice to urinate in a public pool. Her reply about individual choice is meant to put a stop to the discussion. Too often, it does. It is important, though, that this not be the last word, as it would return us to the Wild West – people spewing viral bullets wherever they choose.

Surveys suggest that a huge percentage of Americans suspect that the pandemic happened for a reason, to teach the human race some kind of lesson. It is certainly an opportunity for just that. But we can’t just think of it as a lesson for other people. It looks like one of those lessons is to give more weight to the well-being of others in our decisions. This is all about moral judgment and self-control. The other lesson is how to effectively deal with those who are willfully reckless toward their neighbors. Doing nothing does not move us forward as a species.

People talk about a new normal that will follow the pandemic. Hopefully, that will include more neighborly norms for our behavior that take others’ well-being into account, not just personal choice. We each have a role to play in that, in our own choices, and in how we respond to the choices others make.

Dangerous Thoughts

“I think it will be all right. It seems safe enough.”

The Surgeon General of the United States is concerned about the next couple of weeks determining our ability to flatten the curve and relieve the pressure on our emergency services. He is asking for greater compliance with the best practices they have established for our mutual safety. This means following them consistently, even when we don’t think we need to. Masks are the latest requests, with compliance not so good. So, it is timely to refresh our understanding of what leads us to make exceptions and not follow best practices, especially when they are being imposed on us. Many of us rebel against that.

While there are several lines of reasoning that tempt us to not comply, they all lead to the thought, “I think it will be alright. It seems safe enough.” We can listen for that thought, and ones like it. When we think like that, we are trusting our own judgment instead of people whose judgment is based on far more data than we have.

“I thought it would be alright.” Painfully, as a psychologist I have heard this expressed by many professionals who knowingly did not follow professional boundaries and best practices. They thought things would be alright because that is what they wanted to believe. But things went bad and out of their control. People got hurt.

“I think it will be alright” has led to many disasters that would not have occurred if people had followed guidelines instead of their own judgment. Lest we think we are immune to this kind of thinking, among the disasters due to not following guidelines was the Space Shuttle explosion. These were intelligent people. So also, were the people who died on Mt. Everest from not heeding the 2pm rule of the mountain, to turn back toward camp at that time regardless of how close you are to the summit. Some of the climbers convincing themselves and each other that it would be alright. There hadn’t been bad weather in a long time. An unexpected snowstorm came up and many people died. Others were put at risk to try to rescue them.

Tragically, a community choir recently encountered unnecessary illness and death. They thought it would be safe to get together and sing to lift their spirits because there had been no reported cases of COVID-19 infection in their county. “It hasn’t happened around here. I think it will be alright.” This is called distance bias. Even though it has happened elsewhere, if it hasn’t happened around here, we don’t take the threat as applying to our location. That was there; this is here, the reasoning goes. Well, it did happen to this choir. With this virus, it can happen anywhere.

Of course our minds will want to find exceptions to make things easier, get us what we want or not make us look foolish wearing a mask, for instance. Let us be vigilant, recognize when these thoughts when they occur and not follow them. Thank others for doing the same and encourage those that don’t.