25 June 2020, The Tablet

In the harsh light of the virus

Legacy of Covid-19

In the harsh light of the virus

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Tokyo
Photo: PA/SOPA/Sipa USA, Viola Kam


A leading moral philosopher argues that the coronavirus has not posed new ethical problems, but it has strikingly illumined two major features of the social landscape that society and the Church usually prefers to ignore: race and class

Academics, living sheltered lives (and in the case of some of my colleagues, lacking access to what they refer to as “the televisual apparatus”), sometimes hear of events in the outside world only when they receive a PhD application. Keen young students, feeling that there may be no pressing need for yet another thesis on Pseudo-Dionysius, bring word to aged professors of developments and novelties of which they may be ignorant.

The proposal I received this week for a dissertation on the ethics of Covid-19 was the first I have received on this theme, but it did not constitute news, even for me. Word of this pandemic has reached even as far as Cambridge.

The proposal was keen to focus on the novelty of the situation – the novel coronavirus posed new ethical questions requiring new thinking and new answers. A jaded don, of course, is determined to find nothing new under the sun, though may just concede to the keen, young researcher that there may be some aspects of the current situation which present relatively novel problems, perhaps around the proprieties involved in testing a risky yet urgently needed vaccine, for example. But on this occasion the jaded don would be right. What is striking about the virus is not that it poses new ethical problems, but that it poses some very old ones with particular sharpness.

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