You’ve been hitting us up with your COVID-19 ethical questions. We’ve been sending our ethicists into the philosophy lab to cook up some answers.

This week, we’re tackling how to deal with people who you don’t think are doing their bit to socially isolate and help restrict the spread of coronavirus.

How do I talk to loved ones who have a ’this won’t stop me living’ attitude to staying at home?

There’s a quote I’ve seen floating around social media lately that comes from British author, CS Lewis. It’s from his reflections on living in the age of the atomic bomb, but plenty of people seem to be seeing a link between it and the current crisis. It’s a chunky quote, but this part gets to the gist of it:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Lewis’ message is being shared as one of defiance: better to die on our feet than live on our knees. Don’t let the fear of a microbe stop us from doing the things that define meaningful life. I reckon some of your loved ones would happily share this quote on their Insta Stories if given the chance.

I’m also very confident that Lewis would be livid at the use of his quote in the context of the current pandemic. There’s a big difference between living through the threat of nuclear bombs – where you have little to no ability to affect what happens – and living through a pandemic where each of our individual actions make a real difference between life and death. I promise you this: if Lewis had thought there was something people could have done to stop an atomic bomb from killing them, he would have advised them to do that. Indeed, Lewis himself willingly lived on limited rations during WWII – not the kind of behaviour for someone who thinks we should live it up in the face of death.

But there is a way of reading Lewis’ quote that is helpful in the COVID-19 pandemic, and which might help you navigate your loved ones’ mindset. We should read Lewis’ quote as an encouragement not to let our external circumstances dictate our happiness. Rather than seeing ourselves as ‘waiting out’ the coronavirus, or living in fear of infection, perhaps it is helpful to keep living – just doing so indoors.

I’ve seen plenty of people suggest that they’ve cancelled screen limits on their phones so they can continually check live updates on the coronavirus issue. It’s tempting for it to be the only thing we talk or think about. It’s dominated most of my group chats for the last month. And here’s where we need to ask: is this really living? Wouldn’t it be better to go about our days as best we can in isolation, knowing we’d done all in our power to address the pandemic – and have made the most of life – rather sit in fear and anxiety?

Your loved ones need to get the message that nobody wants them to stop living: they just want to stop other people from dying. But the rest of us need to remember that life hasn’t stopped: there’s meaning, connection and value all around us – if we can just turn away from the fear and see it.

My flat-mate/parents/family aren’t observing physical distancing. I’m so worried, but they won’t stop. What do I do?

If you follow the advice of some politicians, you might consider reporting your flat-mates to the police. However, I’m not convinced that’s great advice for several reasons which I’ll come back to.

In situations where we witness someone else doing the wrong thing, it’s worth being aware of how our biases can kick in and cloud our judgement. We’ll often infer from someone’s behaviour the worst possible intentions.

Let’s say we see someone walk past a homeless person without even looking at them. It’s likely we’ll assume they’re callous or cold, rather than that, perhaps, they just didn’t see them. By contrast, if we did the same thing, we’d know whether or not we were being callous, because the only minds we can truly read are our own.

What this suggests is that you should begin by engaging from a position of curiosity. Do those not observing physical distancing actually know the rules? They certainly should, and ignorance isn’t an excuse at this point – being a good citizen and neighbour means knowing what we need to do to protect people – but if their behaviour is coming from ignorance, the solution might be easy: inform them.

Of course, there are plenty of people who know what they should do, and just don’t care. Here’s where things get tricky – especially if you’re outnumbered – because it’s very hard to persuade someone to be altruistic when they’re fundamentally motivated by self-interest. You’ve either got to convert them into a much more empathetic person or target their selfishness. The former is a long game; the latter is fraught with risk.

For instance, you might threaten to report them to the police if they keep flouting the rules. However, not only might that be a disproportionate response, it also robs your household of the community and solidarity that you’re probably going to rely on to get through isolation.

One possible solution is to leverage the power of shame. We’re social animals – desperate for inclusion and acceptance. If you can show these people how at odds their behaviour is with social expectations and norms, that will create a powerful impulse in them to self-correct. We don’t like doing things that might cause us to be ostracised – that’s probably the reason you haven’t spoken up until now.

But if you can harness the collective moral expectation for people to socially distance from one another, if you can show them that their behaviour makes them a pariah in the eyes of the community, you might find they change their behaviour on their own, and learn something in the process.

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