So much of everyday life depends on trust: trust that tomorrow will arrive, that nothing catastrophic will happen when it does, that our plans will work out and life will go on. The COVID pandemic has upended this easy reliance on the future. Faced with so much uncertainty, we long for certainty. We want to believe, for example, that there is a single right response to the crisis: let people get back to work; maintain the lockdown; open up schools and universities; keep them closed; stop treating us like children; enforce a strict lockdown for people’s own good.

However, to embrace such easy certainties is to ignore the moral dilemmas that COVID-19 brings with it. A moral dilemma is one in which there are equally compelling reasons to do each of two things, but doing either one makes it impossible to do the other, and we are left with powerful reasons to regret the action not taken.

Our present dilemma is not simply one of “lives versus livelihoods”, as commentators like to say. The fact is: there are many things we care about, and care about deeply, but which cannot all be reconciled in the midst of this pandemic. We want to live, and we want to eat. We want to keep our children safe, and we want them to learn. We want to spend time with the people we love, and we want them to be around so that we are able to do this. We want to live our lives without interference, and we want to be free from avoidable harm.

There is no single response to the pandemic that could serve all of these ends. Some dilemmas might be resolved as we learn more about the virus, or as new treatments or a vaccine become available. But for now, many government actions, whether they are meant to protect lives or jobs or education or freedom or some other valuable thing, are also a genuine cause for regret.

This conflict between equally valuable ends is not unique to the COVID crisis; the pandemic has merely brought them into stark relief. A worthwhile human life, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, will necessarily be rich in contradictions, precisely because it will contain more sources of value than can easily be reconciled or ranked on a single scale


If this is so, then the question that faces decision-makers in the current circumstances is not: what is the single right thing to do?, but rather: how do we decide what to do when every action comes at a moral cost? Here are two possible decision-criteria. First, every regulation for dealing with the pandemic should aim to maximise people’s capability to do and be the things they have reason to value. So, instead of framing a decision as one of health or jobs, education or safety, security or freedom, seek the action that would maximise health and jobs, security and freedom, protection and autonomy. Trade-offs will be unavoidable. Nevertheless, it matters whether one goes into a decision already committed to a single, overriding value, or committed to protecting people’s ability to achieve the greatest possible number of valuable ends.

The second criterion is that every decision must be revisable in light of new information or a change in circumstances. There is no moral justification for persisting with an action that forces some people to sacrifice things that deeply matter to them merely so that others can save face.

I think the SA government has been more sensitive to the above considerations than people are willing to credit. Yes, the cabinet has its share of petty dictators. And yes, many decisions have been made harder by the lack of a capable state. But let’s not kid ourselves. This pandemic is forcing every government into impossible choices. Even a well-functioning state run exclusively by well-meaning people would still face profound moral dilemmas.

Finally, the moral burden of decision does not fall on government alone. We also have to consider the criteria by which judge these decisions. A decision that weighs up a range of irreconcilable values and comes down on a side that does not accord with our preferences is not the same as a decision made out of incompetence or indifference. It is easy to assume that what we prefer to happen is also what ought to happen. It is not so easy, however, to have to weigh up different interests, different ends, and to make a decision that will demand weighty sacrifices no matter which way it goes.

One day the COVID crisis will be over, and some of these hard choices will disappear or become less stark. In the meantime, a little less certainty, a little more appreciation for the moral dilemmas that accompany this pandemic, will not go amiss.