Moral Dilemma

Issue 1 - Spring 2021


You have an agreement with your roommate not to attend large gatherings because she is severely immunocompromised. Your roommate has been adamant about your upholding this agreement. Your best friend (who is not your roommate) calls you in distress at a St. Patrick's Day party and tells you that she has just received an email notification that she has tested positive for Covid-19. Her only options to get home are to take the crowded bus (which lacks adequate ventilation) or to have you pick her up. You and your roommate have no housing options other than your shared studio apartment. Do you choose to pick your friend up, breaking the agreement with your roommate, or do you choose to let her get on the bus, potentially infecting dozens of strangers?

Response 01 - Winner of Moral Dilemma Prize
Written by Andy Han, Pomona ‘23

    Since a major distinction between this and the nearly intractable Trolley Problem is the addition of promises, I will focus on the role that they play. At first glance, you don’t seem to be breaking your promise to your roommate if you give your friend a ride. After all, you’ve promised not to go to any large gatherings, and you and your friend in your car isn’t a large gathering. But this facile way of escaping between the horns of the dilemma seems wrong—your roommate would justifiably be upset with you if you gave your friend a ride. On further reflection, our intuition leads to the idea that we’re breaking the spirit of the promise. The natural question is therefore what that spirit is.

    Why would your roommate be upset if you gave your friend the ride? It seems that what you’ve really promised is something like “I will not put myself in non-essential situations where I’m at some level of risk [r] of contracting the Virus, so long as I live with you” (this is, of course, imperfect, but my argument doesn’t rest on it entire). Now, large gatherings have moderate risk r. If you’ve promised not to expose yourself to moderate r, then surely you have also promised not to expose yourself to even higher r—such as giving a known infected person a ride.

    It is also important to note that you probably have some sort of implicit promise with your friend that you’ll help her when she needs it, if you’re able. (If you don’t have an implicit promise with your friend, then it’s difficult to see why this is a question at all. While we can have duties without having corresponding promises, these “natural duties” are due to everyone.1 And therefore your friend asking you for this favor would be the same as a stranger asking you, which you are well within your rights to deny.)

    So: first, you have a promise to your roommate that you would be breaking if you give your friend the ride; second, you have a kind of implicit promise to your friend to help her. Now I will give a proposition which drives my argument that you should not give your friend a ride: all other things being equal, it is worse to break promises of a type that causes harm to the promisee when broken than to break promises of a type that doesn’t cause harm to the promisee when broken.

    Imagine that someone has entrusted you with ten dollars, and you have promised her not to spend it. Suppose that you’re out with (another) friend, and he asks you to buy him lunch. It would be impermissible for you to spend that ten dollars on him (although you could, of course, spend your own money). Now, let us consider a different situation: imagine you’re trying to be more careful with your money, and you have promised someone (an accountability partner) that you wouldn’t spend your money on unbudgeted things. Suppose you’re out with that same mooch from above, and he asks you again to buy him lunch. If you do, you would be breaking the promise—but it seems preferable to break this promise than the one previous.

    The only relevant difference between these hypotheticals is that, in the first, breaking the promise means pecuniary harm to the person to whom you have promised (the promisee), while in the second, breaking the promise does not mean pecuniary harm to the promisee. It may be objected that the second case is still bad, because (while you aren’t causing pecuniary harm) you’re still causing harm to the promisee by breaking their trust. In reply, I say that first, I’m not claiming that either situation is good, but merely that the first is worse than the second; additionally, you cause that same trust-breaking harm to both promisees, so it can’t affect their relative merits.

    Back to the problem at hand. In the car case, you would be breaking a promise of a type that causes severe harm to the promisee (your roommate). In the bus case, you would be breaking an implicit promise of a type that doesn’t cause (physical) harm to the promisee. (Your friend could suffer all sorts of harm on the bus, especially if it’s an LA bus, but this is outside the scope of this discussion.) There is much empirical uncertainty here that prevents us from clearly seeing whether the ceteris paribus holds: e.g., how many people would be infected on the bus? How many of those are severely immunocompromised? In want of space to deal with these contingencies of fact in a more systematic way, I have but recourse to statistics. The Mayo Clinic has preliminary (non-peer-reviewed) results from a study that show a less than 0.5% risk of infection at even one foot if both people are masked. 2 Further, severe immunocompromisation is relatively rare (although there are no comprehensive statistics on the matter). Without hard data on the makeup of the bus riders, it is difficult to categorically say that ceteris paribus, but these statistics show at least that things are not too disparate—the greater number of people on the bus may be cancelled out by the unlikelihood of severe immunocompromisation. And I haven’t even touched the distinction between action and inaction (or, commonly, killing and letting die). If one accepts the distinction, as many philosophers do, the balance tips even more in the bus’s favor.

    While there are clever ways to escape from the dilemma—such as putting your friend in the trunk, or lending her a(n electric) bike, or calling a paddy wagon with a Plexiglas barrier—if we accept the dilemma on its face, the most ethically sure path is to do nothing and let her ride the bus. The best we can do is to deliver to her a fresh pack of masks and the bus fare, and to follow behind to make sure she gets home safe.

Endnotes for Andy Han’s response

1. In one system, Kant’s, there is little allowance for special relationships between moral subjects; indeed, he says in the Metaphysics of Morals that while “human beings have a duty of friendship… if one of them accepts a favor from the other, then he may well be able to count on equality in love, but not in respect; for he sees himself obviously a step lower in being under obligation without being able to impose obligation in turn” (4:469-470). The primacy of respect in Kantian ethics means that this loss of respect is something grave.

2.  We should cancel out the first addition of 0.005, as you in the car run the same risk. This is also assuming your friend actually is infectious, which may not be the case if she had just been infected today. It also assumes everyone is wearing a mask on the bus, but if they aren’t, that’s not your problem.

Response 02
Written by Joshua Suh, Pomona ‘23

    While it is safe to say you made an agreement with your roommate that should be honored, I argue that you also made an agreement or contract with society in general. This contract entails ensuring the well-being of your community with the expectation that other people would be doing the same as well. If there were no such contract, we would just do whatever we would like, with no guarantee of safety. People who do not follow this contract run the risk of endangering their own lives as well as the lives of others in their community. By ensuring the well-being of your society, you are guaranteeing your safety, as well as others’, in the long run by curbing infection rates, flattening the curve, and allowing doctors to be able to handle the wave of Covid patients. Thus, while your friend should, and is, getting punished by receiving the Covid virus, other people, such as those in the bus, should not get punished because of your friend’s actions. This is to ensure the well-being of the community as well as to not deal any unneeded punishment to those who do not deserve it.

    Some may argue that the people in the bus made the conscious judgement to ride it and should be accountable for     their own health, since they made the judgement that transportation outweighed risk of infection. However, it’s to shift the moral burden away from you to argue that, since people made the judgement to take public transportation, they are automatically willing to get Covid. They’re doing the best they can given their varying scenarios and circumstances. Because you know your friend has Covid, letting them ride the bus is almost a guarantee that some lives on that bus will get it. You, in essence, would have given those people Covid, because you had the ability to step in and stop your friend from boarding the bus. Inaction is action in this case. As well, it’s far more likely to see that people riding public transport (now more than ever) are those that need to because they genuinely don’t have other options. Even if one person in the bus is in the same boat, it’s morally irresponsible to let them get Covid, as they have no choice but to take public transportation and aren’t breaking the contract by their own liberty.

    There is a cop-out that fixes this whole dilemma in the first place that I would like to acknowledge. It’s that you can quarantine in your car for two weeks after picking up your friend, completely precluding the event of your roommate getting the virus in the first place. But doing so would undermine the whole point of the debate, as you can absolve all responsibility by simply saying your friend won’t end up getting it, making it the clearer choice to make. In actuality, the debate really is about you and your friend potentially getting the virus or people in the bus potentially getting infected.

    The catch is, we don’t actually know the true impact of what will happen if your friend rides the bus; therefore, it’s a lot more risky of a decision. If the people on the bus get Covid, they can spread it to their friends and colleagues and you might end up doing a lot more damage than expected. Ultimately, because we don’t necessarily know the true impact of this decision, we need to take responsibility and be careful in understanding that there could be a chance that this situation will bring us grave consequences.

    Even if one person dies due to the Covid incident in the bus, that’s still substantial. That’s still a person—a person with family and friends. But if you disregard that one life on the bus in favor of your not breaking the agreement with your roommate and potentially taking their life, at what amount of deaths does there need to be for you to change positions? At 5? At 20? At 100? The argument here lies in the fact that if you choose to dehumanize or lessen even just one life in the bus, it automatically puts you on a darker path. Yes, your roommate’s life is important, yes, your agreement is important, but the people on the bus as well as the agreement you made with society to ensure the general well-being of the community is just as, if not more, important. It’s similar to the classic trolley problem, except that the trolley problem doesn’t account for the fact that if the people on the bus end up as proverbial lambs to the slaughter, more people who come into contact with them have the potential to get and carry the virus. It’s tempting to be philosophically lazy to deny those lives on the bus, but I think people should hold themselves to a higher standard and take responsibility for the lives that will be potentially affected. We don’t know the true splash zone and impact of what can happen and thus need to acknowledge the true potential weight of the action to let our friend ride the bus.

    Moreover, there is a factor that makes it a drastically better choice to pick up your friend. It’s the fact that the probability of you (and in essence your friend) catching Covid is a lot less likely than the probability of the people in the bus getting it. You have the ability to minimize your friend’s infectivity if you choose to pick them up. You can double up on masks for both you and your friend, you can open the windows to ensure steady ventilation, you can sanitize your seats and door handles, and you can have your friend sit in the back seat furthest away from you. On the other hand, while you have some control over what your friend does on the bus—as you can tell them what to do over the phone or drive over and bring them masks, due to the lack of ventilation and crowded nature of the bus—it is almost guaranteed that some people on the bus will end up getting the virus. Since it is a lot less likely that you will get Covid over the bus riders, and because you don’t know the true impact of what happens if your friend does ride the bus, it’s a more responsible choice to pick up your friend. It’s a decision between either putting you and your friend at a slight risk or letting a bus full of people get Covid. By accounting for the well-being of your community, you’re helping others as well as yourself in the long run and ultimately following suit with the contract between you and society. That’s what this contract entails, because if you aren’t going to ensure the well-being of your community, then who will?

Response 03
Written by Sarah Chen, Claremont McKenna ‘22

    You should allow your friend to get on the bus. The first reaction to this dilemma may be some basic form of utilitarian calculus: your friend could potentially infect one person rather than dozens of people, and therefore you should take the other option and pick up your friend. However, utilitarianism is not simply considering the amount of people affected, it is also considering the severity of impact. To borrow from Bentham’s analysis of pleasure and pain, there are six categories to consider: intensity, duration, certainty, nearness, fecundity, and purity. Using this framework, we can see that your roommate should win out in this utilitarian calculus, as their suffering will be:

  1. more intense (immune-compromised likely also means they will experience a worse case of infection and the mental stress upon knowing their living environment is compromised)
  2. longer (the people on the bus will not know they are infected until tested, while your roommate will have to suffer through knowing they could be compromised)
  3. more certain (it is more likely your immuno-compromised roommate will be infected than strangers on a bus)
  4. nearer (your roommate is closer to you than strangers, and the mental stress and infection would be sooner)
  5. higher fecundity (your roommate’s broken trust will lead to more pain and loss of friendship in the future for both of you)
  6. purer (as a direct result of your actions, this situation will only worsen)

         There are general obligations that you have, as a human being, to not cause harm whenever possible. However, there is an obligation of loyalty, one that may need to be prioritized over a generalized obligation of no-harm. You have promised to not expose your friend to COVID-19 because they are immune-compromised. Therefore, when you break your promise, you are creating a dual-harm: they could get infected, but you have also inflicted an intangible harm. Your roommate now faces emotional harm from a broken promise and loss of trust as well as psychological stress from infection or potential infection worries. You have also harmed yourself: you are now someone who breaks promises.

         Or, take an entirely surrealist approach: the world is a simulation, you are the only person that actually exists, and everyone comes into being only upon interaction with you, or a realistically-selfish one: the only world that matters to you is the one that is in front of you. In the former instance, you should prioritize your roommate because the other people don’t exist for you and never will. In the latter instance, you should prioritize your roommate because the strangers are so far removed from ‘your perception of your world’ that they will exist in the peripherals rather than in your daily life like your roommate. Strangers matter less to you than your roommate. Now, your best friend may matter more than you to your roommate, in which case, this is an entirely different case, one that can be easily answered by ‘deservingness’: you do not have the right to make your roommate suffer for the actions of your friend just because you like your friend more. (Unless we are speaking about these two edge-scenarios mentioned, in which case, the ‘correct’ option is whichever one makes you and your perception of the world happier because you are the only one that matters. Reduction of any emotional pain or guilt you inflict on yourself for taking either option should be your deciding factor.)

         Ultimately, you have no obligation to pick your friend up because she is her own free-acting agent, responsible for her own actions and consequences and because picking her up would shake up the perception of your world (through potentially infecting you or your friend). You do hold some responsibility not to cause harm in the world (to the strangers on the bus), but, while you are not absolved of this responsibility, it is understandable that you can choose the ‘less worse’ option of protecting your roommate.

Response 04
Written by Lauren Song, Scripps ‘23

    Say my sister wants a cup of water. We have plastic cups and glass cups, and although both are readily available, my sister chooses a glass cup. If my sister drops it on the floor and it shatters, I’m not responsible for cleaning it up. It’d be nice of me to do that, and it might save her a little bit of blood – but I didn’t shatter the cup. I don’t have to risk slicing my feet open on the glass, and I don’t have to help clean it up. I didn’t make the mess. In the same way, I’m not responsible for my best friend, either. If my best friend decided to go to a party in a pandemic, and if the consequence was contracting Covid-19, she has no one to blame but herself. I don’t have any obligation to put myself at risk because of decisions she made. Would it be nice if I picked her up and helped her out? Sure. But fundamentally, I’m not responsible for any decisions but the ones I make myself. Her decisions led to her having to find transportation independently or hope that I’ll agree to pick her up, and since I don’t have to take any responsibility for her, she will have to find her own transportation. If that means a crowded bus, then it means a crowded bus. If there are further consequences, it won’t be anyone’s fault but hers. I’m not obligated to get in the way of whatever domino effect she causes.

    It might be argued that this is not a good solution because it doesn’t provide the best scenario for the greatest number of people. After all, isn’t it better to only risk myself and my roommate rather than risk the numerous strangers on the bus? Less people contracting Covid-19 is objectively better, isn’t it? But before even considering whether infecting dozens of people or two people is better—even earlier in the timeline of events—it can’t be ignored that my best friend put herself in a position where she could contract Covid-19 and put herself and others at risk.

    Furthermore, there are many problems where we operate only off of who is responsible for the consequences. With children, for example, we teach them to apologize when they make a mistake. We don’t teach them to apologize when someone else makes a mistake, even if apologizing for something they didn’t do will make ten other kids feel better. If I rear-end someone in the parking lot, it’s my responsibility to cover the car damage. I’m not going to ask some witness to pay for the repairs, and I’m not going to tell the person I ran into that they should pay for the repairs if I’m the one at fault. If we are to operate off of the idea that we should be responsible for cleaning up the messes we make and dealing with the consequences of our own actions, then it should also be the case that we are not responsible for the messes we don’t make, and we are not obligated to deal with the consequences of the actions of other people.

Response 05
Written by Gabe Udell, Pomona ‘21

    The correct course of action in the moral dilemma “A Covid Conundrum” is to find a solution other than the ones presented in the question. The scenario as presented leaves room for problem solving. As long as there is a possibility of my best friend getting home without potentially infecting dozens of strangers or forcing me to break my word and seriously endanger my roommate, I have a moral obligation to pursue that possibility.

    Even if we were convinced that picking up the friend poses no risk to my roommate, it would still be a huge breach of trust and may make my roommate feel unsafe living with me. That said, the impact on my roommate’s mental health is not as important as the potential impact of my actions on the physical health of my roommate and others. The damage that will be done to the roommate relationship would be significant, but this is more of an inconvenience than it is a huge ethical concern (except in the ways it impacts my roommate’s mental health). I will break my promise if absolutely necessary, but first I should problem-solve with my roommate! If my roommate agrees to a plan that technically breaks the promise, there is no ethical problem.

    My roommate’s immune condition (and our agreement) means she likely works/studies from home. Since she doesn’t have other housing, she is almost certainly home or nearby. Given my similar context, I am also likely nearby. If we are both near home, we’ll talk in person; otherwise, I’ll call her. If I do something which technically breaks the agreement but doesn’t significantly endanger my roommate, discussing it beforehand will resolve any ethical qualms I have.

    If my friend drove to the party, she should go to her car and wait there until she is sober enough to drive home on her own. That way, nobody is at risk. I can assume my friend didn’t carpool or get dropped off by someone else, because then I wouldn’t be presented as her only option. So the scenario I need to deal with is the one in which she took a bus to the party.

    St. Patrick’s day is March 17th, so, in most places, it won’t be too cold to be outside; since my friend is apparently willing to wait for a bus, she can probably be outside safely for a while. If the area surrounding the party is packed with people, then my friend could pose a danger to people around her. However, she is somewhere where buses run, so she is almost certainly in a sufficiently urban area for there to be a parking structure/parking lot within walking distance. Since the walk will be outdoors and my friend will wear a mask (or a makeshift mask), this won’t endanger others too greatly. Parking structures often provide some shelter from the weather, are often essentially outdoors, and are never so crowded that it’s impossible to maintain social distancing. This means that my friend should be able to wait for me for a while without endangering others. This gives me and my roommate time to prepare.

    Since my roommate is probably home or near home, I will get her help. She is almost certainly either working/learning from home or is unemployed. In any case, it’s very likely that either she is not working, can take a few hours off, or I can wait until she is finished with work.

    Since we live in an area with buses and St. Patrick's day parties, it must be sufficiently urban for there to be a rental car agency around; maybe not close, but somewhere. Renting a car is expensive, but if it might save a life (and I’m wealthy enough to own a car in an area where there are buses), then it’s worthwhile. My roommate and I will drive together in my car to a rental car agency. We then rent a car and drive separately (I take the rental car and my roommate takes my car) to the parking structure where my friend is waiting. My roommate and I get back into my car and drive home while my friend sits in the rental car until she is sober enough to safely drive home. Once my friend gets home, my roommate and I drive together to my roommates house and we drive separately to the rental car agency where I return the rental car and we drive home together. No promises broken, no crowded buses potentially infected.

    So what do I do if I made a bad assumption and my plan isn’t feasible? Maybe my roommate or friend are uncooperative or can’t be reached. I will continue trying to problem solve and asking others for help until the last possible moment. If it becomes clear that there are no other options, I will pick up my friend in my own car with the windows rolled down. Since I have access to a car, I can live out of it for a few days while I get tested for Covid-19. If I test positive I will move in with my best friend, and if I test negative, I will move back into my apartment. There may be some risk that even that plan fails and it turns out that I took so long planning that my best friend got on a bus and infected people around her. This is a risk I find myself ethically obligated to make. As long as I have a reasonable chance of finding a solution that has a low probability of hurting people, any ethical system (from consequentialism to virtue ethics) tells me I have to try. This is the only human solution.

    I’ve presented my solution for most reasonable variants of the scenario, but what if I was faced with an unreasonable variant? What if, when my best friend calls me, she says that she is very drunk, feels unsafe at the party, is unable to make it to a safe location, and will take the bus if I don’t come immediately? If I have an N95 or I can move in with her (yes, possibly exposing myself to Covid) or even live in a tent for a few days (I must know someone with a tent!) I will pick her up and drive with the windows down to somewhere close by where she will feel safe, where we can work out a way forward. If I can’t mitigate risk or problem solve (highly unlikely), I’ll let her take the bus. Here, deontology points out that by riding the bus, the bus riders have implicitly accepted risk (in sharp contrast to my roommate whom I have a duty to), and consequentialism notes that my roommate is more likely to die and people on the bus may have antibodies.