When Everything is a Moral Dilemma

I had a strange nightmare last night. It began in a perfectly ordinary way, with me pushing a shopping cart down the aisles of a grocery store and loading my cart with the kinds of items I usually buy: some cheese, some cherry tomatoes, some fish and so on. This is a task I have performed hundreds if not thousands of times in my life.

Suddenly, in my dream, the grocery store shifted, taking on the dimensions of a haunted house: the aisles filled with strange creatures; the items on the shelves took on grotesque shapes; and I was overcome with a feeling of dread, a sense that something horrible was occurring. When I woke up, I still had the feeling that something bad had happened, or was about to happen. In short, my dream trip to the grocery store shifted from an unremarkable, commonplace activity to something from a Lovecraft story in which the ordinary becomes awful, and the familiar becomes strange and menacing.

Pensive shopper COVID-19 pandemic

Photo by Philafrenzy / CC BY-SA

Like many readers of this column, I have been stuck at home for more than two weeks. I have not, in fact, been to the grocery store during this time, nor have I gone anywhere else. Instead, I am engaged in a long-overdue clearing out of my freezer, which has involved the discovery of long-forgotten but still edible leftovers, such as turkey stock made four Christmasses ago. However, I know that, at some point in the next few weeks, I will have to venture out to find food, and, even in my waking moments, that once-commonplace trip seems fraught with danger: will I get the virus from a fellow shopper, or from the cashier or even from touching a food item? And, an almost worse thought also comes to mind; might I already be infected and might I give the virus to someone else? I don’t think I am, but we now know the virus may cause no symptoms for 25-30% of those who get it, and it is these “silent carriers” who probably are responsible for much of the spread of the disease.

Not only am I having weird nightmares, I am also finding it hard to concentrate. I have before me as I write this a stack of essays which I need to mark, and I am expecting another large set to come in next week. While I would usually hunker down and mark for eight hours a day, I now find myself unable to mark more than two or three at a stretch – and picking up and reading each one of those essays requires a supreme act of will.

Finally, I am surprised to find myself sleeping more than normal: I usually wake up around six, but I now find myself waking up around eight-thirty or even nine, although I am not going to bed any later than usual. When I speak to many of my friends (by phone, of course) they report much the same thing: they are sleeping more and accomplishing less. Even those of us who are “working from home” find it a struggle to complete tasks that would normally be done in no time – and the dust balls and dirty dishes pile up around us, even though, since we’re not going anywhere, we have a lot more time to clean.


I was puzzled by my own behavior – my lack of motivation, my lethargy – and by that reported by my friends, until I read an excellent article in Rolling Stone of all places. This article — “The reason You’re Exhausted Is Moral Fatigue” — by Elizabeth Yuko makes the case that we are all tired because the things we used to do without thought and the activities we used to take for granted now require us to make serious moral calculations. As Yuko notes, almost everything we do at present has turned into a moral dilemma:

Whether it’s trying to decide if you should visit a sick family member, order delivery, take public transit, or take a trip to the grocery store, we now have to think through the potential implications of many of our normal, everyday actions and decisions in a way that we never had to do before, because of how they could affect others.

We are, in short, exhausted because we are suffering from moral fatigue.

Bram Stoker Park, social distancing guides

Bram Stoker Park social distancing marker April 2020. A painted marker to show the distance park visitors need to maintain during the COVID-19 lockdown in Ireland. Photo by Smirkybec / CC BY-SA

As Yuko notes in this excellent article, the issue is not only that previously routine activities now carry with them a moral weight they did not have before we entered into the time of the corona virus, it is also the case that the choices we ought to make are unclear to us.

Making these types of decisions feels like a ‘no-win’ situation. No matter what you decide, there will be positive and negative consequences.

If you order take out delivery with Skip the Dishes or Uber Eats, you might be putting yourself or the delivery person at risk; if you refuse to order take out delivery, your local restaurants may go out of business, and the delivery person may lose his apartment because he cannot pay his rent. If you try to minimize your trips to the grocery store by buying large amounts of food when you do go, thus lessening the risk to yourself and to others, you may deplete the stocks so much that there is not enough food left for others. And so on: everything we choose seems to have both good and bad potential consequences, and it’s not clear what we ought to do.

What can we do about moral fatigue? Yuko quotes experts who suggest we should acknowledge that we are in an unprecedented situation that we need to deal with one day, and one issue, at a time. We can also see the brighter side of the challenges now facing us, which is that, if nothing else, this pandemic has shown us in no uncertain terms how interconnected our lives are and how much we depend upon one another.

To which I would add: we are also learning, as a number of people have pointed out, that our well-being depends, in large part, on the work of people who we (societally-speaking) have thought worth paying only minimum wages: cashiers, janitors, the people who pick up our garbage, all take risks that most of us would not want to take. Perhaps, when this is all over, at some unknown time in the future, we will engage in a communal process of reflection, and recognize that the work these people is essential, and that we should pay them more to do it.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.