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Moral fatigue: Making decisions when there is no right answer

Tuesday 21 April, 2020
by Cris Parker, Director, The BFSO and Head of The Ethics Alliance

A senior executive starts making out-of-character decisions that reflect his personal fears. Teams are frozen in indecision as the ground continually shifts beneath them. Days become punctuated with emotional meltdowns from people you have always relied upon in a crisis.Woman daydreaming in park

At home, you might be disagreeing with loved ones about the right response to Covid-19. Is the situation as serious as officials claim? Or are people exaggerating the risks? What is the right amount of physical distancing? Why should the whole of society bare the costs for the sake of a few? Is this even a fair way to frame the question?

These are some of the signs that the prolonged impact of Covid-19 is causing moral fatigue in the people around you.

Moral fatigue occurs when the “right thing to do” is unclear. You need to protect your business, but this means throwing good people out of their jobs. You want to take care of your elderly parents, but visiting risks infecting them with a virus that could turn deadly.

It can be exhausting to make decisions in this kind of ambiguity, day after day.

Michael Baur, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Fordham University and an Adjunct Professor at Fordham Law School, says moral fatigue comes from situations where attempts to do good also result in “destroying a good”.

“People have often referred to the idea of moral fatigue as compassion fatigue or moral distress,” he said on a Zoom call from the US. “What we have in the current context is a situation that makes it increasingly difficult to understand if I'm doing the right thing. It's no longer possible to assume that the good that I'm doing is unambiguously good,” he says.

It could be dangerous to keep running a business, for instance, if it means employees are in danger. “There’s a real conflict there. And there are no rules.”

Why people panic

Usually, as people go about their normal lives many actions are performed on "autopilot". Typing on a keyboard, for instance, is a habit ; the decision of which keys to hit doesn't excersise mental exertion; one's fingers 'do the work'. Baur says a crisis such as Covid-19 “jumbles” the keys on the keyboard. It changes the rules and you don’t know what those new rules are. And, those rules can change minute-by-minute.

“It's really disorienting,” says Baur. “People go back to what they know is safe, and they become more infantile, more self-protective and defensive.”

This is the kind of response that decreases our capacity to make good decisions. It leads to the hoarding behaviours we have seen in supermarkets, anxiety about money and the focus on individual survival.

Slow down and be more forgiving

The more you think about ‘just getting beyond this’ assumes a future state where the problem no longer exists and everything is the same as before. It’s too simplistic to suggest we will all be ok, many of us won’t be unless we adapt.

A common result of moral fatigue can be impatience. When we try to think through frameworks that no longer serve us well we can become increasingly impatient, the more we do so, the more mistakes we make – leading to even more frustration.

Baur likens our situation to the raft analogy – whereby you are building the raft at the same time that you are using it to survive. He says, it's okay to make mistakes because we're all trying to refashion this raft, even as we're stepping on top of each other on the raft. So, mistakes will be made. 

“You're not alone. Everybody feels the same way. We have to be more forgiving of others and I think individuals have to be more forgiving of themselves in the sense that it's okay to be freaked out. Everybody is.”






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