Coronavirus Ethics: Is It Immoral to Order Food, Putting Delivery People at Risk?

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Delivery people for the Wolt service in Tel Aviv.  Refraining from ordering deliveries harms both businesses and employees.
Delivery people for the Wolt service in Tel Aviv. Refraining from ordering deliveries harms both businesses and employees. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Readers ask Haaretz

Here’s a question that has come up in these weird times: Is it morally acceptable to order food from a supermarket or a delivery service during the period of the coronavirus? I am actually putting the delivery person at risk, as well as the employee who puts the order together. The latter has to make his way between people and is at risk of being infected in the supermarket – whereas I am in a sterile area at home. I should note that I work from home, but not because I’m in mandatory 14-day quarantine or confined here by a mysterious text message from the government. – Special Delivery

Dear Special Delivery,

The pandemic that has currently seized control of our lives is a reminder that theoretical moral discussions – of which ethicists are so fond – are a pleasant privilege, without actual consequences. In places that have become focal points of the disease, the dilemma of the hypothetical trolley (whether to allow a runaway streetcar to proceed on its course and kill five people, or divert it to a side track where it will kill one person) has become a concrete, macabre problem. In Italy, for example, recommendations were published that called for providing treatment on the basis of such criteria as age and background diseases, and not only to people infected with the coronavirus, but to all the patients in the hospitals. They are based on a utilitarian ethical approach, or as those who wrote the recommendations put it, “on the principle of maximizing benefits for the largest number.”

Physicians in extreme emergency situations have no choice but to rely on cold calculations that reduce people to their physiological existence. However, such calculations leave out everything that gives meaning to human life, such as each person’s uniqueness and the unknown possibilities his or her future holds in store, and also ignore the broad picture of the totality of circumstances and implications inherent in every decision.

A similar distinction underlies the theory of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In his 1998 book “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life,” Agamben noted that in ancient Greece there were two separate terms for what we call life: life as a biological fact (zoe), and political life, the way that individuals and groups live (bios). In the modern age, the linguistic and conceptual separation between physiological life and life as it is lived gradually disappeared. Agamben himself has referred to the subject in the context of the lockdown that has been foisted on Italy because of the coronavirus pandemic. In an article he published in late February, he warned: “The first thing the wave of panic that’s paralyzed the country has clearly shown is that our society no longer believes in anything but naked life. It is evident that Italians are prepared to sacrifice practically everything – normal living conditions, social relations, work, even friendships and religious or political beliefs – to avoid the danger of falling ill. The naked life, and the fear of losing it, is not something that brings men and women together, but something that blinds and separates them.

“Other human beings… are now seen only as potential contaminators to be avoided at all costs… men have become so used to living in conditions of permanent crisis and emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their lives have been reduced to a purely biological condition, one that has lost not only any social and political dimension, but even any compassionate and emotional one.” (“The Invention of an Epidemic”)

Agamben’s remarks were extensively criticized by his colleagues, and rightfully so, because of his known propensity for political paranoia and because he downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus epidemic shortly before Italy became a disaster zone. But he sheds light on an important point: The focus on the numbers of the sick and the dead – on “naked life,” in Agamben’s words – is making us forget other dangers.

Hundreds of thousands of people are losing their livelihood, businesses are falling apart, the regime is adopting frightening authoritarian powers, leisure activities and cultural events are disappearing from our lives, the closure and anxiety are causing deep mental anguish, women and children who suffer from domestic violence are in heightened danger, racism is flourishing, social bonds are disintegrating and the Other is perceived mainly as a dangerous spreader of diseases.

In the moral context, as the Italian philosopher and psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto wrote in response to Agamben, “The precautionary measures that have been taken, however painful – especially because of the economic damage – are the lesser evil.” Concern for the Other lies at the heart of the moral effort, and remaining at home is the most important action we can undertake at this moment to care for others. However, that fact must not lead us to forget other problems and other ways to proffer help and display solidarity.

Your question focuses on the health risk and ignores the economic distress with which many Israelis are now coping. Responsibility for this falls mainly on the state’s shoulders, but we, too, as private individuals, have a duty to assist as much as we can. In the economic limbo we’ve been plunged into, businesses are keeping their head above water by means of delivery services, and employees who have been put on unpaid leave are temporarily making a living as delivery people. Refraining from ordering deliveries will harm both groups. (The real problem is of course the brutal capitalist system, within which most of us struggle to survive, but that’s not something you’ll be able to fix with your deliveries policy.)

Additionally, from a utilitarian viewpoint, reducing the number of people in restaurants and supermarkets reduces the general rate of infection, which benefits both delivery people and other employees, as well as the general public.

It follows that the question we need to ask is not “whether it is moral to order food for delivery during the coronavirus epidemic,” but what is the best way to do so. In the health context, this means asking the delivery people to leave the item outside the door or to keep a distance from them for the good of both parties. In the socioeconomic context, it’s better to order from businesses and delivery services that pay their employees a fair wage and grant them social benefits; to prefer small, neighborhood businesses; to tip the delivery person handsomely on the credit card and to give them a high rating on the app, even if there are some understandable delays.

It’s also important to remember the people who, unlike you, aren’t able to leave the house to shop due to their age or medical condition, and the tens of thousands who are in preventive quarantine. The high volume of orders causes delays in deliveries, and they can’t make up what’s missing by a quick trip to the supermarket. You should make an effort to find out whether the chain you ordered from gives priority to at-risk population groups. If not, you can do part of the shopping yourself (and, hurray! that’s even a legitimate outing under the emergency regulations).

It’s impossible to foresee the full range of consequences of every decision and avoid causing any harm, especially in situations of uncertainty like the present crisis. All we can do is open our eyes and our hearts and try to act sensitively and responsibly. Moral philosophy can set forth useful directions, not absolute answers. As Benvenuto noted in his reply to Agamben, paraphrasing a line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “There are more politics in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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