COVID-19: A Neuroscience Perspective

Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongUnderstanding Ethics & Morality During the Pandemic

A Conversation with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, PhD
 Chauncey Stillman Distinguished Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics

Could you tell us about your research?

Much of my work is on the psychology and neuroscience of moral judgments as well as the implications of neuroscience of decision-making for moral responsibility. I also run labs on moral artificial intelligence and on political polarization, and I work on psychiatric conditions and law. I have no discipline, but my research is nearly always about morality.

What kinds of moral issues are raised by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The moral issues raised by COVID-19 are not only numerous but complex and subtle, so we should not be completely certain that our own moral judgments are correct. Our work has shown that, instead of imposing our moral views on others, it’s important to gather input from stakeholders, which includes everyone. To derive answers to moral questions that integrate a wide range of perspectives, we take a unique approach that relies on a computer to integrate this information.  This results in less biased answers that are more representative of all stakeholders.

Let’s consider, for example, which patients should get ventilators when there are not enough? To answer this question, we ask large and representative samples to tell us which general features of patients should matter morally and then to decide who should get a ventilator in particular conflicts, where different features point to different patients. We can analyze their moral judgments with machine learning, correct for misinformation, and aggregate individual models to ground social decisions. This method is complex, but, if it works, it can predict what stakeholders would prefer if they were informed and unbiased. General policies and individual decisions can then be based on the values of everyday people as well as experts.

What are common emotions that people experience when they are dealing with challenging moral dilemmas such as choosing between helping others on the front line and exposing themselves and their families to infection?

They experience a lot of emotions which undoubtedly influence their moral decision-making. They feel fear that they or their loved ones will get sick, sadness and compassion for those who are sick, anger at leaders who exacerbate the problem or fail to help, disgust at unclean surfaces, contempt for those who disobey regulations, boredom when stuck at home, and impatience with how long the crisis is lasting. More positively, they also feel happiness when patients recover, pride and admiration when their communities work together, and surprise and excitement when they find creative ways of dealing with unusual circumstances. This swirl of strong emotions is common and not unexpected but still troubling to many, making moral decision-making on a personal level difficult.

Do you have any advice regarding how to handle the stress that comes with making ethical decisions such as the ones we are currently facing? 

Our greatest resource is other people. Friends and family can show us how much they care about us, so we are not alone. When we face difficult ethical decisions, it helps to ask others, since they can notice factors that we overlook or reassure us that we are not making an obvious mistake. Difficult decisions that impose serious risks of harm will still be stressful (as they should be), but other people can help us do our best and deal with the stress.

Where can people find additional information or resources?

For more on our research on moral judgment, see:

“AI Methods in Bioethics,” by Gus Skorburg, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Vincent Conitzer in American Journal of Bioethics: Empirical Bioethics 11, 1 (2020): 37-39.