So,you’ve broken a COVID rule. Are you a bad person?

Until last month,I knew one thing for sure. If you broke COVID rules,you were bad. OK,maybe notbad. But definitely worse than me.

“How can they sleep at night?” I used to say to my husband in bed at night,cozy with self-righteousness during the first couple of years of the pandemic. I was speaking about acquaintances who drove their kids under the cover of night to their grandparents when this went against public health orders. And friends who encouraged me to go to the beach with my kids when our family was locked in a house for two weeks of isolation down the south coast (one of my kids was a close contact of someone who has COVID) because “no one will know”.

The good news if you’re struggling with your conscience after you’ve done the wrong thing? “One,it says you’re not a psychopath,” says philosopher Dr Glenn McLaren,of Swinburne University.

The good news if you’re struggling with your conscience after you’ve done the wrong thing? “One,it says you’re not a psychopath,” says philosopher Dr Glenn McLaren,of Swinburne University.iStock

I was desperate to break those rules,too. But I had aresponsibilityto my fellow people. I was part of acommunity,for god’s sakes.

You know where this is going. As with most personal reckonings that ultimately cure you of a lifetime of crippling thinking,my life got worse before it got better.

It began when my mother,who had been fighting terminal bowel cancer in Toronto for seven months,started begging me to visit. With my heart in my throat,I booked my flight.

Then,a week before I was due to fly out,my eldest son got COVID.

I did everything I could do to avoid getting COVID from my son,or anyone else in my family,so that I could see my mother before she died. (N95s,treating everyone like a leper,the works.)

A day before I was due to fly out,a friend whispered to me over the phone:“If you don’t have any symptoms,don’t take a[RAT] test. Just get on that plane.” Even,she meant,if there was a chance that I had contracted COVID and could potentially infect other passengers. (At this point,I no longer needed a negative test in order to board the plane,according to the Australian and Canadian authorities.)

Reader:I got on that plane. The fact that I tested negative before I boarded – I was too curious about whether I had COVID or not to not test – is likely moot. I wish I could say I would most certainly not have boarded that plane if I had tested positive. I don’t know that to be true.

Does doing the wrong thing,or in some cases even the illegal thing during COVID – as so many friends have admitted in whispered conversations – make you a bad person?

Much depends on what you think about what you did,says Dr Glenn McLaren,a philosopher at Swinburne University.

If you struggle with breaking a COVID rule,afterwards – wonder whether it was the right thing to do,or feel guilty in knowing that it wasn’t,but wonder if it could be justified by a need to alleviate suffering – it’s likely a sign you’re developing a more nuanced,complex understanding of human behaviour,and perhaps a greater tolerance for other people and their frailties,he says.

“Thank God I’m not the only person who’s had enough of these rules and wants to protect my child,” says one mother of three children.

“I think it’s a positive,” says McLaren,adding that this concept is the cornerstone of virtue ethics,a character-based approach to morality – as developed by Aristotle and other ancient Greeks – which posits that we acquire virtue through practice.

“Aristotle would appreciate the experience you went through,” says McLaren. “One,it[your struggle] says you’re not a psychopath,and that you care about actually making yourself a better person,by reflecting on your actions and thinking,‘How would I approach this from now on?’”

Dr Simon Longstaff,executive director of The Ethics Centre,agrees,adding that not only have more Australians struggled with ethical conundrums during the pandemic than previously,but that this is a good thing,because it leads people to ask themselves the most crucial question there is.

“The question that ethics seeks to answer,which Plato ascribes to Socrates,is,‘What ought one do?’”,says Longstaff.

“Lots of people go through life without ever asking what ought one to do;they just do[what they do] because they’ve been raised in a religion or culture.” This informs their thinking on all their choices,from what they should put on in the morning to how they feel about assisted suicide,says Longstaff.

“There’s one way to escape it,and it’s very common,” says Longstaff. “It’s that you never ask the question.” (For those wondering,people can be “forgiven” for making ethical mistakes if they made them because they were traumatised by their situation,or not “fully able to discharge rational thought”,says Longstaff.)

So many Australians have struggled with ethical questions during the pandemic says Longstaff,pointing to the popularity of the centre’s 24-hour COVID Ethics Telephone Hotline.

Partly,it’s because people were confronted with issues they hadn’t had to consider before. Business owners,for instance,had to figure out:do they sustain their enterprises for the sake of the people they employed,for whom job loss could be devastating? Should we ask about a person’s vaccination status?

Even ethicists,themselves,struggled during the pandemic.

“We felt some guilt,” says Dr Luara Ferracioli,a political philosopher at The University of Sydney,about the choice she and her husband,also an academic,made to send their daughter,then in kindergarten,to school at one point,when those spots were reserved for the children of “essential workers”,and all other children were expected to be homeschooled.

“I knew the system[school spots] was not really there for people like me,they were there for nurses,and people who were really working outside the house,” says Ferracioli,adding that the school also had a policy of not turning children away,and were happy to have her daughter. “I was torn. On one hand,I wanted to do as much as I could to help,in this kind of collective effort,and not put extra pressure on teachers,who are already operating under such[strain].”

It was her daughter’s wellbeing,after five weeks of homeschooling,that tipped her over.

“She needed to be with other children … We thought,we weren’t seeing other people,it’s important for her wellbeing,she had a terrible experience this year” – after five weeks of homeschooling – “she might never love school again. We’re making all these other sacrifices. I’m not seeing my family,I’m happy to not go abroad,all these other things I was happy to let go. But,at some point,I put my child’s interests first.”

It’s a stress that has pushed many others over the edge,too.

“It’s taken me a long time to get to this point,” says one friend in Sydney,a mother of three children,who until now,has obeyed the COVID public health orders to the letter. (This has included multiple weeks-long isolation periods outside of official lockdowns for the entire family.) “At the beginning,it felt like we had to be in this together,it felt like a moral responsibility,that we had to watch out for each other. I think a lot of us are[now] feeling we’ve f---ing done our dues.”

By this,she means that her children have suffered,mentally,from missing out on multiple important school milestones – like mentoring opportunities,and school camps – because they ended up in isolation when one of their siblings contracted COVID. (This is before the “close contact” isolation,for family members,was dropped.)

“My kids didn’t get COVID[from each other],they just ended up with all the shit stuff,and resentment towards their siblings,stuff like that,” she says,adding that this close-contact rule seemed “futile”.

So,when a friend of hers admitted the other day that she wouldn’t be testing anyone in her house while her eldest child was in the process of taking crucial pre-HSC exams – in case one of them tested positive and the child had to miss the exams,only to have to make up for them later – my friend was relieved.

“I was like,‘Thank god I’m not the only person who’s had enough of these rules and wants to protect my child’,” she says. “I feel like I’m in the majority,like everyone I talk to seems to be at this point.”

So which of us — who’ve broken COVID rules –are morally questionable?

For McLaren,it’s those who don’t think at all about the common good,believe their personal freedom trumps it,and think they should be allowed to do whatever they want “and everyone else can go and get stuffed”.

“That’s not ethical,that’s not mature,that’s not recognising your interdependence with others. This sort of individual self-interest thing is,I think,what’s dangerous in our society.”

Longstaff agrees.

“Some people would’ve thought,‘Oh,what if I get caught? Am I going to be fined,or embarrassed in front of my community? Or shamed?’,” he says of people he calls “ethical egoists” who break the rules. “That’s the same people who will commit insurance fraud because they think it’s only a big company that’s being hurt,or others who commit nefarious acts on the assumption that they can get away with it. They do it thinking they’re smarter than anyone else.”

This isn’t to let off the hook those black and white thinkers who,like me for the first two years of the pandemic – and decades prior – judged others without taking into considering the personal circumstances that led to their actions.

“It’s the basis of racism,of intolerance of others,” says McLaren of that type of thinking. “It’s what human beings seem to be good at.” After all,even our legal system,he says,takes into consideration a person’s circumstances – like poverty or mental illness – when determining a punishment for a crime. “We are always a work in progress in terms of our ethical development,” he adds.

Letting go of my black and white thinking meant confronting some long-held beliefs about who I was,and what value I had as a person. There was a good reason why it took a pandemic for me to see – for the first time – why doing the “wrong” thing was my personal kryptonite. Like most people whose parents and wider culture forgot to tell them that they were enough just the way they were,I’d always walked through life silently tallying just how I was better,or worse,than the next person. I’ll never be the best-looking person in the room,I used to think. Or the most well-read. Or,OK,the sanest bear in these woods. But at least I was morally superior.

What a cramped existence,and a narrow way of seeing the world.

I’m far from the only one for whom the pandemic has prompted a come-to-Jesus moment.

Emile Sherman,the Oscar-winning producer ofLion andThe Power of The Dog – and co-creator of a podcast about ethics called Principle of Charity – had a similar awakening,but one that moved in the opposite direction of mine.

“I did feel a bit morally superior,I’d say;not morally superior,but probably,that they were a bit silly,and a bit self-righteous and that I’d been able to see things that they weren’t able to,” he says,referring to how he felt earlier in the pandemic about people who were,he thought,“way too cautious as the variants became less dangerous” – wearing masks,and so forth – even while public precautions were dropping and vaccination numbers were rising. “I remember getting quite worked up. It always feels more virtuous to be more cautious.”

But the messy ethical conundrums that the pandemic has brought up,in addition to constantly listening to two sides of an issue on his podcast – experts with opposing views present the most generous version of the other person’s point of view,on issues like whether pornography is inherently demeaning to women and whether criminals deserve punishment – has given him the gift of “ethical humility”.

“I did,at a point,early on in the podcast,slightly grieve the loss of the possibility of certainty,” he says,about ethical issues. “But then you move into a sort of fuller joy of the messiness[of ethics] … I think COVID has taught us,there is no perfect answer,and that just gives you a bit of humility.

“I believed that with the right information,people may come to the same conclusions,” he says. “I now feel more comfortable with different conclusions.” (Though this does not include,he stresses,“conclusions based on bad data or faulty reasoning and bad motivation,like,‘I only care about myself and don’t care about anyone else’.“)

The pandemic hasn’t cured all of us judgmental Julies,at least not entirely.

But I could kiss the ground that I have finally begun to see the world through grey-tinted glasses.

In seeing that life,and people,are far more complicated than I previously gave them credit for,I’m able to look at others with greater compassion. And,myself,too.

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Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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