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A doctor in Guwahati, India
A doctor in Guwahati, India
Carl-Johan Karlsson

One effect of the global pandemic has been to push perennial ethical dilemmas from the comfortable confines of university campuses and philosopher parlor games into the cold reality of everyday life. Facing a global shortage of respirators and ICU beds, medical workers are forced to make hard (impossible) choices on the fly about which patients are given priority and how to allocate scarce resources among their staff. In deciding when and how to loosen lockdown measures, national and local politicians are essentially weighing the risk of life A lost today to cause X against the risk of cause Y killing B tomorrow.

The question of how to value human life is of course not a province of only frontline health workers or political representatives. We are all — for the first time in a long time — compelled to ponder what is and should be the moral foundation of our societies.

Such questions can touch every part of our lives, and can span across time and space. Ethics were at the core of a piece this week by one of my colleagues about her grandmother and another one last week about the use of a smartphone application to track the pandemic.

Indeed, the fact that COVID-19 has hit in 2020, means that the ethical stakes in the coming months and years will largely play out around information technology and artificial intelligence. Javier Saade, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist recently noted how the pandemic has infused even more value into massive digitally-driven companies, from Peleton to Amazon to Zoom.

"Eliminating human agency has been at the core of innovation during the last four decades. Less human intervention in a call center, a hedge fund trading desk, a factory, a checkout line or a motor vehicle seems fine — but in cases of greater importance, humans should remain more active or we will, at best, make ourselves irrelevant."

Perhaps, out of all the ways in which this crisis is different from that of 2008, is the long overdue return of such existential questions to the public consciousness. It has been about pure economics and ideology for far too long. However terrible the reasons, being forced to consider what constitutes an ethical society is just what the (proverbial) doctor ordered. Indeed, if we can agree that impossible choices must be avoided at all costs, we have a starting point.

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