Opinion: people feel differently in their moral response to the same issue regardless of scientific facts

By Manus CharletonSligo Institite of Technology

When it comes to Covid-19, science deals in empirically verifiable facts such as the genetic composition of the virus, its effects on human organs and how it is transmitted. Morality, on the other hand, deals with values and principles to guide how we should try to behave towards ourselves and others in response to a range of acts, issues and situations.

But the evidence for what we should and should not do won’t be found in a lab. This distinguishes science, which deals with what is the case, from morality, which deals with how we ought to behave in response to what is the case. 

David Hume rocked ethics when he pointed out in Treatise on Human Nature that particular acts do not contain nuggets of moral matter that make them right or wrong. Instead, what makes an act right or wrong is the feeling of approval or disapproval it arouses in us. He asked us to consider why we find a terrible crime, such as wilful murder, wrong and to see where in it is the evidence that makes it wrong. Hume said we will never find it in the act itself, but in a strong feeling we have of disapproval for murder and of blame for the murderer. These moral feelings are facts of subjective experience, but they don’t make the act wrong as an objective fact in the way a virus’s genetic code makes it a virus. 

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ's Pandemic podcast, interview with Nicholas Christakis about Apollo's Arrow – The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live about human behaviour and how we are coping with Covid-19

Hume recognised that feelings are not the only element involved in forming our moral views. Facts and rational arguments help to clarify an issue and also the consequences of taking different courses of action. If we are open to persuasion, they can change how we feel. And they are essential components. He is critical of those who move imperceptibly from describing some act or issue to telling us how we ought to behave in relation to it, as if they have deduced the latter from the former and proved its truth. But how we feel towards an issue still remains the mainspring for our moral views and judgments. "Morality is more properly felt than judged." 

The National Public Health Emergency Team's briefings have been showing how science feeds into morality along with what distinguishes each from the other. They have been showing that, insofar as scientific facts can be established, they are valid for all, while how we respond to the facts is up to us.

At Nphet’s briefing on November 30th, the last before the lifting of level 5 restrictions for the Christmas period, the statistics for infection rates were higher than desired. This prompted advice on what our response should be. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said "just because you can do things tomorrow doesn’t mean you should". Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan added that office parties "shouldn’t be happening" and crowds should be avoided. They were clearly indicating that the response to the scientific evidence is a moral one that depends on us.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Health Correspondent Fergal Bowers discusses the cost of Level 5 restrictions last autumn on our economy and health

People feel differently in their moral response to the same issue in many cases. Locating the mainspring for morality in feeling makes morals relative to individuals and underpins acceptance of moral pluralism in society. For the coronavirus, many feel priority should be given to public health and they support a strict lockdown until the virus is eliminated. Others refer to the harms restrictive measures cause to the economy and society and they feel some measures should be lifted to allow for "living with the virus". 

Speaking on RTÉ's Prime Time last November, journalist and Irish Times columnist Mark Paul referred to "the moral case" for allowing shops selling non-essential goods to open straightaway with social distancing restrictions so owners and staff could benefit from the Christmas trade. On the same programme, genetics professor Aoife McLysaght argued that public health concerns had a stronger call on us since the virus is known to spread among people gathered indoors. A small minority also feel the state is not justified in imposing measures that restrict the core value of individual freedom.  

Hume’s account suggests there is a divide between the 'is' and the 'ought'. A statement of factual knowledge about what is the case for some situation is categorically different from a statement about how we ought to respond to it. But there has to be some element to a situation itself, at least by association, that distinguishes it as one which requires a moral response as distinct from situations that are innocuous and make no moral call on us. It is the virus, after all, as much as our feeling about it, that instinctively draws us towards how we ought to behave.  

In practice, we experience a particular situation through having feelings towards it that contain inklings of facts and reasoned arguments occurring organically in the same response. These are facts and arguments we can then make explicit. The pandemic has made apparent just how central this kind of moral response is to finding a good way to survive and do well individually and collectively.

Manus Charleton is a former lecturer in Ethics, Politics and Morality & Social Policy at Sligo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ