The Ethics of Epidemic

5 practical lessons from the coronavirus outbreak

George Santayana famously taught that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Friedrich Hegel less famously taught that the great lesson of history is that no one learns from it.

We are now living through possibly the worst pandemic in modern history. What lessons should we be learning? Here are a few suggestions.

#1 Everything you do matters

Authorities believe that the coronavirus originated from a wet market in China’s Wuhan province. These unregulated marketplaces offer a bizarre menagerie of creatures not conventionally found on the menu, including donkeys, foxes, badgers, bamboo rats, hedgehogs, and snakes, many of them traded illegally. This allows for easy transmission of viruses from animals to human hosts.

So here’s the question: if I want to go shopping to make bat stew for dinner, what’s wrong with that? I’m not hurting anyone else. Probably not… unless I unleash a global pandemic. Private actions can have very public consequences.

That’s why personal ethics and moral discipline are so important. If you don’t set standards for yourself, even in private, the fallout from your actions can seep into the world, and you may set in motion destructive events you never intended or imagined.

Conversely, the more you refine your personal conduct – especially when no one is watching – the more naturally you will make a positive impact on the people who share your world.

#2 Don’t expose yourself to unhealthy people

Jim Rohn observed that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Character traits transmit like viruses. You absorb attitudes from those around you until eventually, you become just like them.

Associate only with ethically healthy companions. That’s the best way to protect yourself from contracting debilitating moral infections. And preserving your own ethical health will help keep your work, family, and community environments healthy as well.

#3 What you don’t see can hurt you

Before Louis Pasteur discovered germ pathology, scientists refused to believe in anything they couldn’t see. Now we know better. But the danger to our well-being isn’t limited to microorganisms.

A cruel word, a thoughtless remark, or a disdainful glance causes real harm to those around you. Gossip, sarcasm, misinformation, slander – these are the pathogens of modern society that break down your ethical immune system and leave you vulnerable to the influence of immoral people. Just because we can’t measure how words affect us, we still have a responsibility to anticipate the impact they will have on us and on others.

#4 We need one another

The ease with which technology allows us to connect with strangers has left our connections shallow and unfulfilling. Now we are left with nothing else, as we’re told to keep our distance and self-quarantine.

We can’t live with others, but we can’t live alone either.

Retreating behind closed doors has created a whole new constellation of problems as commerce grinds to a halt and livelihoods are threatened by a paralyzed economy. Experience teaches that when we don’t appreciate what we have, it’s often taken away from us – and that includes genuine human relationships and interaction, as well as the economic health of our society.

#5 Don’t wait for the next crisis

We will make it through this. But the best way to prevent a future crisis is to learn from the last one. Aside from whatever medical safeguards we end up putting in place, we will serve our own best interests by learning the lessons of personal responsibility and discipline, surrounding ourselves with people of ethical quality, becoming more aware of how our words and actions affect others, and making time to preserve and deepen our relationships with friends and family.

In his Psalms, King David praises those who have clean hands and a pure heart. The actions that define our lives – the work of our hands – cling to us persistently and creep into our hearts, changing us either for better or worse.

We need more than soap and water to stay clean. We need genuine commitment to a life of ethical idealism. We need awareness that our moral health affects others and is affected by others. We need to know and believe with all our hearts that the world needs us to make it better, and that we benefit from living in a world we make better by leading ethical lives.

What steps have you taken to guard your ethical health?


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. I really appreciate your article because, in clear notes, it has stigmatized a thought that I have always supported.
    Everything, in my opinion, comes from education to respect others and rules. Which should make it clear how two behaviors (because in the end, we are talking about behaviors ) are connected to each other.
    Ethics, which dwells on man’s sense of existence, on his profound ethical-existential meaning, on the life of each individual and the universe around him. In summary, ethics, if associated with the community, defines the common morality that the individual should in any case follow. And the moral term, instead, that comes from the Latin word moràlia, and indicates the conduct directed by norms, the guide according to which man should act. In summary, morality is the relationship between behavior, values ​​and finally the community.
    So, Covid-19 should have taught us many things but, at least, to nurture a true and healthy respect for the rules and for the other.

    • Beautifully articulated, Aldo. For a long time I’ve been contemplating the difference between ethics and morality, and I think the distinction between Higher Authority and communal values holds the answer. More on that another time. Thank you for your thoughts!

  2. Thank you for these valuable nuggets, Yonason! At a time when people are frightened and stressed and depressed, sometimes all it takes is a reminder that we can all take steps to protect ourselves.

    Welcome to the BizCat community. I’m sure you’ll find much love here. I’m looking forward to learning from you!

  3. Welcome Yonason to a wonderful community! As a lover of history, your thoughtful article caught me at the first sentence with Santyana’s important reminder. As a lover of history, that is the facts, I did not know about Hegel’s sentiments. Thank you for your thoughtful essay.💖

    • And thank you for your thoughtful note, Darlene. It’s already been delightful being so warmly welcomed into this bright and inspiring company. All the best!

  4. Yonason – Welcome to the BC360 family. You will gain a quick following with this post – well written and great insights. I hope you find your fellow authors encouraging and the engagement thought provoking but respectful. And in the end, may this be a place that new friendships are made.