During a pandemic, even the simplest actions, like ordering takeout food, take on ethical weight.
Economies that thrive on gig workers and convenience have created a market of easily-accessible endless food options, delivered by legions of precariously-employed workers. Coronavirus shifts the balance of that transaction.
Any time we summon food to our doors—whether basic groceries or indulgent takeout—delivery workers expose themselves to potential contagion en route. Failing to order food, though, only deprives delivery workers of income and takes money out of an already dismal economy.
How we respond to this moral quandary depends on whether we prioritize your own individual morality, or the ethics of society as a whole.
It’s not your problem
If you care about creating a broader ethical system, even asking whether it’s right to order takeout is misguided, says Matthew Barnard, philosophy lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. “There’s a danger in putting too much responsibility on individuals to solve what’s a group society level problem,” he says. “We need to be looking up to where the power is rather than to ourselves.”
Delivery workers are in a precarious situation regardless of whether customers order burritos (thus putting them at risk of coronavirus) or don’t (depriving them of income). The only real solutions must be systemic, argues Barnard.
Corporations and the state should provide income to delivery workers who are caring for sick relatives or too ill to work, for example. This is currently a common benefit for many full-time employees worldwide and should be applied to delivery workers who are often hired as gig workers or on unstable contracts, Barnard argues. Other systemic solutions, such as universal health care, would also help delivery workers with precarious incomes.
Individuals cannot easily grant these policies but they can support them, says Barnard, by voting for certain politicians, writing to companies and politicians to demand action, and, above all, supporting trade unions in bargaining. Customers boycotting a particular company effectively deprives delivery employees of work, which creates more financial hardship for them than the company. But if workers do strike—as Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Food delivery workers have done recently in response to working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic—then customers should refuse to buy products in support.
A societal approach to ethics also means that people should be wary about donating to charitable funds that make it easier for society to tolerate failings by larger institutions. As the coronavirus pandemic was ramping up, Amazon, for example, was blasted for appearing to ask for public donations to pay for the sick leave of delivery workers. The company denied that it asked for donations, saying the way the relief fund was structured required it to be open to outside contributions.
As one of the largest companies worldwide, Amazon has the funds to provide paid sick leave; individual donations only encourage the notion that it doesn’t have this responsibility. As Oscar Wilde wrote: “It is immoral to use private property to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”
This logic has prompted Barnard to resist giving to UK charities that provide hospital workers with meals—though he acknowledges this argument can feel uncomfortable. “What I think gets perpetuated is the idea that my generosity determines whether certain people get to eat or not,” he says. “On a societal level, a charitable organization has gained massive power and influence and is legitimizing the idea that people give up their money rather than the state give funding.”
Being virtuous in an unethical world
While this approach emphasizes the limits of individuals’ impact, other ethicists, such as Joel Martinez, philosophy professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, urge everyone to focus on personal morality, which has the benefit of being within our control. Whether ordering takeout or groceries, Martinez suggests we all conduct a risk assessment and evaluate our motives. Being symptomatic, highly vulnerable, or in a remote area and unable to access food in person, make it moral to order delivery. Tipping more and ensuring there’s no contact with delivery workers can also help limit the risk.
Conversely, healthy people taking up delivery slots make it harder for vulnerable people to get their groceries and so could harm others. Amid all these calculations, Martinez says that motive has a huge influence on morality: “Do you just want some cake? Is that really a good reason to order delivery right now?” he asks. In this view, orders motivated by true need are more justifiable than those that aren’t.
This emphasis on motive is informed by virtue ethics, which argues that morality is a matter of developing good character. Martinez believes that virtue ethics is particularly relevant during this pandemic: Ancient philosophers including Aristotle, Epicurus, and the stoics argue that good character is informed by nature, which means pursuing only necessary desires.
“A necessary desire is the kind of desire that allows us to exist in nature. Our nature exists in the context of other living beings. I don’t need fast food to exist in nature,” Martinez explains. He says that a pandemic is an especially important time to evaluate whether our desires are truly necessary, and to try to live a simpler life.
A virtue ethics approach encourages individuals to focus on their own morality, rather than trying to untangle the myriad consequences of any one action. “Spending most of your energy trying to calculate consequences can become fruitless and paralyzing after a while,” says Martinez. “Virtue ethics helps you navigate life in a way that is not causing others to experience suffering and makes your life coherent.” Martinez believes there’s room for collective action, but it’s most likely to be effective after the pandemic.
Where moral theories agree
Despite their starkly different approaches, Martinez and Barnard agree on two points: Firstly, it’s easier to have moral impact when buying from small, local companies because the need to support them financially is more pressing. Whereas larger conglomerates can feasibly support workers through a pandemic, smaller restaurants are more likely to fold, and so ordering takeout has greater impact.
And secondly, if you do want to order delivery ethically, the first step is to gather information. Despite Barnard’s focus on structural changes, he notes that individuals can have impact if they know that one company treats workers better than others. “You can see the clear path to how this action is going to create change [by only ordering from that company],” he says.
The emphasis on seeking out information complicates the ethics of ordering locally—if a small restaurant treats its employees’ badly, then ordering there won’t be moral. And so customers should call and ask what restaurants are doing for their workers. “If you gain information and can see if they’re putting delivery people in harm’s way, you’ll be more effective,” says Martinez. Quartz contacted several major companies worldwide and has reported on their current employee benefits. Some employers, both large and small, may try to obfuscate their policies with jargon, and it is customers’ responsibility to push for clarity.
Researching companies’ policies before ordering delivery is an imperfect solution, but it’s the best one available. A global pandemic is an inherently dark time, but making the effort to engage with both the larger system and our own motives can bring us ever so slightly closer to morality.