Ethics for Disaster

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Ethics for Disaster addresses the moral aspects of hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, plane crashes, Avian Flu pandemics, and other disasters. Naomi Zack explores how these catastrophes illuminate the existing inequalities in society.

  1. There is normal life, and disaster interrupts it. What are disasters?
    A disaster is a destructive event with mass human casualties that overwhelms
    normal ability to respond. Usually, disasters have been short in duration and
    after response to them, it is possible for both those directly affected and
    onlookers, including electronic onlookers, to return to normal life.
    Not all destructive of disturbing events are disasters. For example, during the
    recent Global Citizen Concert, tropical storm Ophelia occurred, featuring the
    Fugees. The Great lawn in central park was ruined when 30,000 trampled
    over sodden earth. There was warning by the Central Park Conservatory but
    it was ignored. 1 mil $ in damage but loss of use of 12 acre common space for
    months to resod it. A loss of a highly valued public space and environment
    destruction, but not a disaster. On the other side, destructive events that
    exceed possible response, such as nuclear war, would not be disasters, but
    catastrophes.
    Has disaster always been embedded in normal life as a whole? Until recently,
    disaster has not been embedded in normal life. It is, for us who live in rich
    countries, something that happens rarely or else far away.
    How does disaster differ from risk? We live with risk, as in auto and plan
    accidents but until climate change and COVID-19, we have not had to live
    with disasters. With climate change and COVID-19, our existential condition
    has changed. Accelerating disasters are now embedded in our lives as risks.
    What roles does the government play in this? Can and should we prepare for
    disasters?
    As a general collective entity with more power than other groups or
    institutions in society, government has the reach and resources to respond to
    disasters most effectively. It has the authority and power and can get the
    resources to prepare for disasters.

  1. What aspects of disaster go beyond facts, and into the ethics of disaster (what
    does that mean?) – provide a brief overview of the subject of disaster ethics and
    then speak to examples of recent disasters with the benefit of ethical hindsight.
    Ethics is about preserving human life and wellbeing. Ethics is crucial to
    disaster b/c human life and wellbeing are at stake, esp the most vulnerable
    among us—very young and old, minorities who have less resources, and the
    poor. Morgues in the Bronx, e.g., Hispanic Latino Americans and Native
    Americans hardest hit. Elderly people constituted the most casualties. The
    importance of ethics is related to the social construction of disaster. A disaster in
    nature or in the middle of the ocean does not garner broad concern. Phil Jean-
    Jacques Rousseau introduced this idea, although not by that name, in his
    reaction to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. He did not blame God or rail
    against nature but blamed the inhabitants who had built 7 stories high and
    then rushed into those buildings to greedily retrieve their possessions after the
    earthquake.
    E.L. Quarantelli, 20 th c. sociologist took Rousseau’s insights further in
    analyzing how the effects of a disaster are part of a disaster. If mental illness
    increases during a disaster or is caused by it, that is part of the disaster. The
    setbacks in K-12 and higher education learning during COVID-19 were part
    of that disaster.
    Disasters hit us where they find us but we can prepare for them in two
    ways—avoid them or mitigate them. Forest fires are an example. More and
    more dwellings are on the urban-rural boundary. Avoidance is not to build
    there at all, while mitigation is to construct flame proof dwellings. In coastal
    areas—avoidance is not build there and mitigation is to build houses on stilts.
    In both cases, rebuilding in the same places after fires and floods is enabled by
    insurance companies who finance it and governments who do not pass more
    stringent zoning laws.
    Preparation is a moral obligation based generally on theories of morality,
    which place a supreme value on human life and wellbeing—utilitarianism or
    save the greatest number, deontology or fulfill obligations, and virtue ethics,
    here the ethics of prudence in preparation and courage in response.
    During COVID-19>Lack of preparation – no PPE, no research on effect of
    lockdowns on education, no effective anti-virals. Saved by technology of RNA
    vaccines that had been researched for decades. Katalin Karikó and Drew
    Weissman Hungarian-born Dr. Kariko had taken hits to her career for her


decades-long research, her life’s work, leading to the vaccine technology. Won
nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2023.
This was inadvertent preparation.
People do not like to prepare but seem to prefer crisis management or
mismanagement. But every dollar in preparation saves 7$ in response and
recovery. The public likes to prepare even less than gov’t officials.
Individuals should prepare b/c response teams may not get to them for a
while. First aid kits, chargers, generators, food, water, needed medicines.
The lack of preparation results in tragedy in the classic sense described by
Aristotle—chaos and destruction that results from settled character traits that
are actually vices—imprudence, cowardice, lack of concern for human life.
The reluctance to prepare is most starkly evident in the prevailing interest of
petroleum extractors, refiners and consumers in the face of climate change.
Climate change has eroded the line between disaster and risk making disaster
normal as part of ordinary life, as risk once was.
But always, we want to kick the can down the road, concerning preparation
and mitigation. When teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg addressed a
Climate summit at the UN in 2019, members of the audience were looking to
youth for answers. The ills of climate change will be increasing problems for
young people. Thunberg’s response to this was famously, “How Dare You!?”
and morally she was right on a factual basis. The problems from not
addressing climate change have been inflicted by older generations on
younger ones and it is an insult to ask them for ideas when these problems
should have been resolved by the older generations. We have left them no
choice, but it is unfair, if not unjust.

  1. When will academic philosophers accept disaster as a legitimate subject?
    Philosophers have flocked to discussion of the ethics of AI and the doomsday
    scenarios for that would be more than disasters—catastrophes. They have also
    discussed the ethics of war and theories of just wars. But normal physical
    weather-related disasters have been left to environmental ethics and
    discussions of public policy, as has climate change and pandemics. So in a
    sense, philosophers do consider disaster a legitimate subject from a multi-
    disciplinary perspective. But it is not a stand alone subject within philosophy
    and it is not likely to become that short of catastrophes. Of course, by then it
    might be too late. Still in the meantime, philosophers such as myself can
    intervene from time to time, plying the analyses of our trade in ways that can
    reach out across disciplines.

Image courtesy of interviewee

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