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Coronavirus, structural injustice, and moral responsibility

<h6>Teodoraturovic / Wikimedia Commons</h6>
Teodoraturovic / Wikimedia Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reckon with deep structural problems in our society, such as global climate change and economic injustice. To rectify those problems, we need to recognize that all of us hold responsibility for both these problems and their solutions. 

When it comes to climate change, there is an obvious relationship between our lifestyle choices and environmental issues, as pointed out in a recent column in The Daily Princetonian. COVID-19 has helped demonstrate the sort of changes to our lifestyles that would be required to adequately fight global warming.


Another pertinent issue concerns the underlying structure of our economy. Calls for “essential businesses” to remain open, while all other establishments remain closed, have demonstrated that many of those people we deem essential to our day-to-day survival — grocery store and supermarket employees, mass transit workers, and farm workers, for instance — are often the ones we ignore or neglect.

It is obviously not the case that those who are the worst off in our society are the only ones who are deemed essential business (banks, for example, remain open). Nonetheless, it is clear that we do not always treat all people justly, even if our entire society depends on them.

These different problems are not unique to the pandemic. Rather, it seems to me that these are merely problems that are making the pandemic worse or, at least, harder to confront. Recent evidence has shown that climate change affects the spread of infectious diseases. The mode of production central to our economy has been evidently strained under pandemic conditions, as evidenced by the incredible spike in unemployment in recent weeks.

One question these issues raise is that of moral responsibility. Specifically, if we recognize that these are problems that ought to be corrected, we have to pinpoint who ought to correct those problems. But in order to do this, we must answer the question of who is responsible for the problems.

Should we believe that there is a link between these two? I think we already intuitively do. Imagine that I steal your bike. Most of us, I think, would agree that I owe it to you to return the bike. Moreover, we might think that I owe you for any losses you incurred as a result of not having a bike, say, the cost of public transportation for the period you did not have a bike. The reason for this is that I was the one who stole the bike. I harmed you and, in order to make up for that harm, I am responsible for ensuring that you are in the state you would have been in had I not harmed you.

I think the answer to the question of responsibility is fairly intuitive: all of us are responsible. We each make choices in our lives that reify the problems that COVID-19 is making salient. But equally intuitive is that this answer seems to be prone to various issues.


The first problem is what I’ll call the DSA objection, in honor of the tweet written by the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The tweet reads as follows: “Don’t listen to anyone saying ‘humans are the virus.’ That’s ecofascism. It’s our *system* that needs to change. And that system has a name: capitalism.” The objection is pointing to the fact that we are mistaking the real culprit when we say that humans are the problem.

Now, I am sympathetic to this view. I think it is wrong to call human beings a virus or to suggest that we are in any way a problem that can be resolved. But I think the objection misses something that we know to be true: systems don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, systems are simply the result of aggregating all the choices people make and the incentives that motivate those choices. Without human beings, it would be hard to say that there would be systems of the sort that the DSA is pointing to here.

So, while it might be true to say that the cause of the problems is the system we live under, it is not true to say that that system is somehow responsible for it. Responsibility lies with agents and the only agents in question here are human beings.

The second objection is what I will call the egalitarian objection. It says that my answer — that all of us are morally responsible for the problems that are highlighted by COVID-19 — places too much of a burden on the people who face tremendous injustice in other areas of their lives.

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This objection fails because it assumes that universal moral responsibility is equivalent to universal and equal moral responsibility. But this is not necessarily the case. Moral responsibility can come in degrees.

For instance, let’s imagine that in our bike example from above, I sell the bike to Susie, who buys it not knowing that it was a stolen item. Many of us would agree that if Susie were to find out that the bike she now owns is stolen, she would be morally responsible for returning the bike. But we would not say she is as responsible as I am, given that she did not actually steal the bike.

Similarly, I want to suggest that given that we all are members of a social structure that is deeply unjust, we all hold a sort of moral responsibility for that injustice. However, this contains a caveat:  different people hold different amounts of responsibility for said injustice.

People in the global south might hold less responsibility for climate change than people in the global north, for instance, because countries in the global north emit far more carbon dioxide than those in the global south. This is not to say that this must be the case; it is simply to show that differentiated quantities of moral responsibility can work in this model.

This, obviously, is not a complete answer to the question of moral responsibility. But in enacting the change necessary to fix the problems that this pandemic has brought into stark focus, we need to start with each of us being responsible.

Structural change requires collective action: action that is possible only if we all take responsibility for our choices and for making better ones.

Sebastian Quiroz is a senior from Deltona, FL. He can be reached at