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The National Catholic Bioethics Center
Our Better Angels
March 2020
© 2020 by The National Catholic Bioethics Center

Our Better Angels

An ethical reflection on distinguishing
between preparedness and hoarding

By NCBC President

Joseph Meaney PhD

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Don’t panic! There is little good that shouting this injunction will do. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” the United Kingdom’s popular slogan during the Battle of Britain in 1940, is more inspiring.

Abraham Lincoln captured something when he referred to the “better angels of our nature.” “Panic buying” and people emptying entire shelves of goods into shopping carts represent some of the worst angels of our fallen human nature. That is not the kind of persons we want to be or, more importantly, should be morally.

It is perfectly rational and prudent to “stock up” on needed items when a big storm is coming or a temporary shutdown of most business activity is upon us as has happened in so many places with the COVID-19 Pandemic. The key is to keep from yielding to fear or bad crowd dynamics.

In fact, we have a moral duty to the common good to display calm reasonableness and charity towards others in times of crisis. It is clear that if one person buys a year’s supply of toilet paper, they will be temporarily depriving many others of this item, etc. etc.

The ethical transgression only gets worse when people try to “corner the market” on hand sanitizer or other high demand items and then proceed to try and make a huge profit by exploiting the artificial scarcity and reselling at exorbitant prices. This even crosses the ethical line into criminal activity and should be punished by law.

As a Catholic bioethicist I am frequently confronted with the, at times difficult, determination of what is ordinary or extraordinary care for certain patients. Much of the determination is indeed dependent on the particular circumstances of the sick person. We are clearly living through an extraordinary time. It is good to remind ourselves that it is temporary and this too will pass.

There is no structural shortage of food or other basic necessities in the United States. Items are being replenished every day, so scarcity is being artificially induced by people buying too much at once. (See these reassuring stories from ABC News and CNN.) If the vast majority of us cannot be convinced that a two week supply of anything is enough, then the State and or other responsible institutions may have the obligation to impose rationing as a measure to defend the common good.

What can make a positive difference, without imposing new restrictions, is practicing the virtue most opposed to selfishness or hoarding. That would be generosity. Think of the many less fortunate in our society and world. Charity begins at home, especially during extraordinary times. Help close family members or neighbors and contribute to local food banks.

When blinded by emotion and tempted by frenzied activities that can be more or less destructive, take a breath! Just as hyper-ventilation is associated with anxiety episodes, slow deep breaths are soothing. Meditative prayer requires the tranquility of silence and calm breathing.

Hoarding flows from a disturbed state of mind. The variable ethical line between prudent preparation for future needs and over-reacting is there for all of us to discern in our moral consciences. Ask yourself calmly, do I really need this or this much? It is a good exercise even in ordinary life.

Next time you are in a market or shop with bare shelves take a calming deep breath and fight the urge to buy up things you do not really need or that others need more.