What Will The Vaccine Rollout Reveal About Us?

The COVID vaccine, all manifestations of it, are a testament to heroism: the identified and unidentified scientists and the anonymous assistants who supported their work are nothing less.  Even to President Trump, who pushed aside what he considered to be bureaucratic roadblocks to a warp speed accomplishment, notwithstanding his bizarre messaging understating the pandemic’s dangerousness — even though virtually all sentient human beings recognize the virus as potentially deadly for nearly everyone.

Still, the warp speed of the vaccine’s creation and the worldwide cure that it augurs doesn’t prevent us from seeing traces of moral rot that often lie at the core of human behavior— in both good times and in bad. The North Star always points north.

Although we yearn for the best in people when the world is sunny and bright, we tend, perhaps naively, to expect the same when things are dark. We don’t expect people to slither under the rope line to advance their positions during a run on a bank; jump a food line during a famine crisis; or push people aside in order to secure space on a lifeboat when the ship is sinking. Or do we? Do we, deep down or even at the surface, recognize that people — friends and love ones, among them  — will take moral shortcuts to the finish line in times of crisis, like a deadly pandemic.

I have, sometimes, wondered whether the New York Times “Ethicist” column is sometimes made up of fictitiously-created letters to the author designed to raise serious ethical dilemmas that many readers and non-readers struggle with. The letter that led off the December 29 on line column, though, allied itself with things that have been burning my ears lately. The writer (“Name Withheld”), and his or her husband, “an essential worker,” are both in their late 60s, with no special risk health problems. The husband, though, was high enough in the pecking order of the company that employed him to gain the vaccine not only for himself, but also for the writer. So, Name Withheld (as he or she is identified) writes the Ethicist:  “Can I (ethically) jump the line?”

Of course, the answer of the Ethicist’s Kwame Anthony Appiah, in three analytical paragraphs, was “no.” What kind of ethicist, after all, would Professor Appiah be if he had answered “yes”? (I, myself, would have answered Name Withheld with one word —  or maybe two, with an exclamation mark after the two). But most people who struggle with such ethical inquiries, if they struggle with them at all, don’t reach out to ethicists. They just “do,” or they just “don’t.”

More likely, they “do” — particularly if there’s no one watching. They take the (moral) shortcut because the shortcut works for them or their families, and they’ll be able to blithely live with what they’ve done. They typically don’t even see it as a moral shortcoming or crisis. After all, the CDC, the author of the subjective priority criteria, such as occupation, age or co-morbidities that help paint the narrative of “who will live and who will die,” isn’t the be all and end all of “prioritizing,” or the arbiter of righteous behavior:  “So, by the way, if I’ve got a hundred grand to throw at a hospital — or even a dispensing pharmacy — to enable my precious and young family to jump the line, why not? I’m not hurting anyone.”  And, yes, they’re probably not hurting anyone, in particular.

Well, we’ll have to see what St. Peter (or Whomever possesses the keys) will have to say about that. Or does that even matter anymore?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.