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Year 11 - R&S - Unit 2: Religion and Ethics: Pandemic Ethics

Catholic moral theology

As the world faces the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, thorny moral questions are arising. 

From every level and sector of society, people are asking: What is the right thing to do?

From mundane issues such as how much toilet paper is too much toilet paper, to the life-and-death decisions being made in hospitals in northern Italy, ethical dilemmas abound.

Joseph Meaney is the president of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, and he told Crux that the Catholic moral framework is “centered on willingness to make sacrifices for others.”

Crux: First of all, this is probably the most drastic international event since World War II – with huge sacrifices being asked of people. Are these sacrifices justified?


In a word yes. The Catholic moral framework is centered on willingness to make sacrifices for others. There are many people whose lives can be saved by taking extraordinary measures. These strong measures are justified and even necessitated by the real potential for overburdening the health sector, especially intensive care capacities, in various countries.

It has to be said, however, that effectively shutting down huge sections of modern economies comes at a tremendous cost. The ethical analysis of what we should do as societies needs to take into account the potential for more deaths resulting from the loss of employment and the economic hardships and potential civil disorder that will result from an extended disruption of the normal activities of nations.

One of the problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is the large number of hospitalizations which – as we see in Italy – can overwhelm healthcare systems. This leads to major ethical questions, primarily: Who gets help? What must be taken into consideration when making these decisions.

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What responsibilities do I have when exercising my human rights during Covid-19?

All human rights come with responsibilities; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “everyone has duties to the community” (Article 29). 

This means that we all have a responsibility to respect each other’s rights and not do things that endanger the rights of others. 

This is a central principle for liberal democracies. The philosopher John Stuart Mill called it ‘the harm principle’: that people should be free to act however they wish unless their actions cause harm to somebody else. 

Some examples of the responsibilities of individuals when exercising their rights include:

  • The responsibility to not discriminate against others (Article 2 ICCPR)
  • The right to freedom of expression comes with ‘special duties’ including respecting the rights and reputations of others, and not endangering national security or public health. (Article 19, ICCPR)
  • The right to peaceful assembly can only be restricted in limited circumstances such as to protect public health and to protect the rights and freedoms of others. There is a duty when exercising this right to not cause harm on this basis (Article 21, ICCPR)

Governments worldwide have imposed duties on individuals in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing face masks in public when exercising the right to freedom of movement. This is an example of limiting individual rights in the interests of everyone. The Commission considers this is a legitimate balancing of rights that can be considered a “duty to the community”.

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Individual right vs collective responsibility

Covid 19 and human rights

What are human rights?

  • Human rights are the ground rules for how we should treat one another: with dignity, respect, equality and fairness.
  • Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, for no other reason than that they were born human.
  • They set out basic standards for how people should be treated, including in emergencies.
  • They help protect vulnerable people from the worst impacts of crises. 
  • Human rights are for everyone, everywhere, every day. 

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Human right and COVID-19

Responsibilty to community