Ethics in the time of Corona — a philosopher's take
As humanity is faced with increasing global emergencies, now more than ever, we must all contribute to solutions: for good, and for the good of all people. In the Wits Impacts For Good podcast series, Eusebius McKaiser engages in conversation with Wits Originators, forward-thinking researchers from Wits University, interrogating problems and seeking robust and impactful solutions, backed by leading research.
Meet Lucy Allais — the Wits professor whose research around philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theoretical philosophy seeks to confront the ethical dilemmas faced by healthcare workers on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How can philosophers help us get through our pandemic panic amid everything else happening in the world?
Philosophers are not in the front line of the pandemic but they have an important role to play in answering the difficult ethical questions facing healthcare workers in the call of duty.
As demand starts to exceed capacity, essential healthcare workers in the care of critically ill patients are having to make life or death decisions amid ventilator shortages in hospitals.
The limited supply of ventilators has meant that healthcare workers have had to decide which patients have a better chance of survival with life-saving ventilator support and which ones to remove from a ventilator — a Covid-19 system that goes far beyond just the standard triaging of scant resources.
The current lived experiences of healthcare workers coupled with the conditions that workers are expected to tolerate in hospitals paint a grim picture. It is an ethical dilemma that philosophers, as it appears, is essential in navigating frontline workers through during this difficult time.
For this reason, hospitals are employing professional philosophers on their ethics boards.
When hospitals were getting full in Italy… the first thing Covid struck us with was questions about medical rationing and what are ethical ways of making decisions about that.Lucy Allais, Professor — University of the Witwatersrand
Can you put someone on a ventilator and take them off the ventilator again if you think they’re not going to survive but the ventilator could enable someone else to survive?Lucy Allais, Professor — University of the Witwatersrand
Are frontline workers expected to be selfless in the engagement of this invisible threat?
Setting aside the ethical questions plaguing healthcare workers around patient care — the looming prospect of contracting the virus from a positive patient has presented essential workers with another ethical conundrum. Healthcare workers are battling with whether to prioritise the critical care of patients over the safety of themselves and the families that they go home to after the end of their shift.
Much like philosophical sounding boards, interlocutors like Professor Lucy Allais are helping healthcare workers interrogate the ethical questions they face in the workplace.
What does ethicist Immanuel Kant teach us?
As a researcher in the ethical framework of enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, Professor Allais believes that the philosopher's principles could help guide healthcare workers in working through the moral and ethical implications of difficult decisions.
From a Kantian perspective, the removal of one critical patient from a ventilator to save the life of another goes against the categorical imperative which asks human beings to act in the collective interest, even if the opposite could lead to a greater good. Further to the question of morals — one of Kant's assertions is that, if healthcare workers perform their duties towards patients out of obligation, their actions are not deemed morally sound or worthy.
There are just a million things that philosophy has to bring to what we are going through at the moment.Lucy Allais, Professor — University of the Witwatersrand