Dear Friends of the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance,
There is nothing like calamity to bring out both the light and the darkness in human beings. During natural disasters some people will selflessly and courageously tend to the wounded; others will simply loot unoccupied stores. Why do we behave so differently?
We can see the same tension play out today during the Covid-19 crisis. For example, medical supplies and personal protective equipment are desperately needed by first responders, yet some individuals have seen an opportunity here for themselves and hoarded massive quantities of these supplies only to sell them at an inflated rate. They are now under criminal investigation. Others, such as retired health care workers, have done the very opposite: they have donated their own supplies and volunteered at local hospitals (despite the fact that their age puts them at higher risk).
Consider also that there are scam artists at work preying on the fearful by offering “Covid-19 Kits” in exchange for their bank account and Social Security numbers. And yet there are others selflessly working not to take advantage of, but to help, the most vulnerable among us. Witness the advocates in every city working to get homeless people off the streets and into adequate shelter to reduce the risk of transmission.
We can also see this disparity in organizational behavior. Some businesses and non-profits have been exposed for taking advantage of the recent CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) by taking funds that they don’t need or deserve. But other businesses and non-profits are selflessly supporting their employees and local communities even when facing an uncertain and precarious financial outlook.
We need not look far for such examples of institutional generosity. In the tradition of Benedictine hospitality, our own Saint Anselm College is generously providing housing and meals to local health care workers who must quarantine due to their exposure to Covid-19. And across the river, Southern New Hampshire University recently partnered with the Manchester School District and Sodexo to provide up to 5,000 meals on weekends to Manchester schoolchildren who are in danger of going hungry.
So, here is the question: when there is widespread suffering, why do some people and organizations think of others, and others just think of themselves? For my own part, I think that the moral strength and moral weakness visible in these moments is the product of countless decisions and actions these individuals have made in the past. In a crisis, we behave like the kind of people we are. If we have practiced courage and selflessness and compassion in the small moments for years and years prior to the crisis, then we will act courageously and selflessly and with compassion in the big moments—because that is who we are. The same applies for greed and selfishness and any other of the undesirable traits.
Put simply, situations of panic and crisis reveal our true colors. Morality cannot suddenly be “put on” in such moments, but will always reveal itself in the kind of person we truly are, or have become. You can teach a parrot to speak all sorts of fancy words, but when it is suddenly attacked by a cat, it will revert to its natural squawk.