I thought ethics had some certainty — but the pandemic demonstrates, even in modern times, ethics are negotiable
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
Leaders around the world have been struggling with their public response to the COVID pandemic — specifically, how to balance damage to the economy with the loss of life. I completely understand it’s nearly impossible to find the right balance. After all, how can you put a price on life — unless saving too many lives means a collapse of the world economy? As President Trump so eloquently put it;
This thorny dilemma has got me thinking lately about the ethics of profiting from death. It has suddenly brought into focus, just how many professions rely on death for profit.
Profiting from death ranges from everyday mundane business, like for-profit hospitals or insurance companies, to funeral homes that help us with messy end-of-life issues for a price, to the other extreme of professional soldiers, and mercenaries.
All of these professions profit from death, with varying tradeoffs of ethics and benefits to society. All of these professions are forced to reassess their ethical positions as situations change — Who gets the last ventilator? Should this insurance claim be paid or not? How expensive of a funeral can this family afford? Should we take prisoners or not?
My own ethics are also more fluid than I expected — and I’m having some doubts
I’ve professionally and privately invested for many years. However lately, investing in the stock market has become a strange paradox for me.
I’ve been waiting for years to get an ‘opportunity of a lifetime’. A chance to finally secure a serious windfall. The COVID flu took off early this year and I saw my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I sold every share I owned to cash.
After riding the bear market in 2008–2009, I was determined to dodge the next major downturn — knowing that if I timed it right, the next bull market would be my ticket to financial freedom.
I didn’t sell right at the peak, but I did finally sell everything at the first big leg down. I didn’t get the best prices for my shares (because I sold them as quickly as I could) but I still feel really good about it.
In 2008–2009, I freaked out every time the market legged lower and felt a combination of dread and relief every time there was a dead-cat bounce or bull trap rally. In 2020, I promised myself not to do the same thing. Honestly, I sleep a lot better knowing I don’t need to worry about more bad news.
Psychologists tell us we fear loss twice as much as we enjoy gains. Being in cash, I don’t fear losses — but I’m greedy. I want to see the market collapse a lot lower before I buy back in.
In fact — at least temporarily — I’m super happy every time the markets go lower. I want to see them go much lower. Once in a lifetime lower. So I can make that windfall profit — but here lies the root of my ethical struggle. If I’m correct and the stock markets fall a lot farther, my profit will come at a terrible cost — the suffering, financial distress, and the death of others.
Unemployment is spiking at a rate the world has never seen. Bankruptcies are going to spike, likely to levels we’ve never seen. Some weaker economies might go bankrupt — probably at a rate, we’ve never seen. People are going to suffer and people are going to go hungry and lots of people are going to die.
I’ve never bet against the future of humanity until today. I’ve always invested in disruptive technologies that I thought would ultimately benefit society — and now that I feel that I am clearly betting against humanity, the un-insured, and the working poor, for the first time in my investing history, I feel profoundly conflicted.
Every time the market gaps down, I feel happy for a minute or two, followed by guilt, and even fear when I think of how many people will suffer, will go without food, will be forced onto the street, and may ultimately perish. Economists suddenly seem to agree, we are going into a depression, or certainly something much worse than the great recession in 2008.
Perhaps even more troubling …
The gap between rich and poor has never been more obvious than during this crisis. Many in positions of wealth and power are taking advantage of this unprecedented event rather than focusing on the weakest and most vulnerable;
- The rich can get tested for COVID, the average person cannot.
- The wealthy continue making money working from home, while service industry workers are fired.
- Airlines get bailout money, while employees get furloughed.
- Corporate landlords negotiate with their lenders, while the blue-collar worker is currently looking at a very uncertain future.
- Hospitals desperately need ventilators, while Jared Kushner tells the world, ‘These are our ventilators’.
- Countries like Japan and some states refuse to lockdown, while healthcare workers die due to insufficient personal protection equipment.
The notion of the federal stockpile is that it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles. — Jared Kushner, April 2020
This ‘unfairness’ is now obvious to everyone. We should all be concerned about it. At a certain point, this cannot go on.
At a certain point, when faced with gross unfairness and greed, combined with unprecedented uncertainty, people may start taking the law into their own hands.
Looting, public and domestic violence, all could become much more common if people are pushed too far or lockdowns are extended to long. In fact, the ethical standards of the common citizen have already started to erode.
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On the other hand
I’d like to end on a positive note. Thankfully, we are also seeing the personal ethics of most people around the world, change for the better;
- I’ve never Skyped friends and family around the world more than I am now.
- Nurses and doctors always work hard and sacrifice for society, but watching these professionals risk death to save the lives of others, has been a humbling experience.
- Seeing people work hard to social distance and to stay in their homes for weeks at a time shows a sense of duty. It shows most people care about society and the neighbors that live around them.
- Hearing stories of neighbors getting food or medicine for the elderly — virtually unheard of only a few months ago, now is becoming a common story.
Ethics change, especially in times of uncertainty— how do you want to be remembered?
I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is; as this pandemic drags on for weeks and months, how do we want to be remembered after the danger passes?
Hoarding masks, sanitizer, and toilet paper, profiteering on Amazon — I think deep down clearly everyone knows we really shouldn’t be looking for ways to profit from this disaster or selfishly inconvenience our neighbors. Yet, on the other hand, there are going to be moments during this pandemic when we have to put ourselves and our family first.
This virus is going to be with us for quite a while and almost certainly, you will be faced with ethical dilemmas that cause you to wonder how to proceed in these uncertain times. If you want to sharpen your ethical focus, then I think the best thing to do is to ask yourself a simple question;
When this is all over, and everything goes back to normal, do I want to be remembered as ‘that guy’ who pushes children and women out of the way to escape a burning building, or do I want to be remembered as the guy who pulled someone out of the burning building?