Helpful Or Harmful? The Ethics Of Shopping Online During The Pandemic

Mar 30, 2020

Credit Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

The thoughtful consumer now faces a conundrum when ordering goods, especially nonessential ones. On the one hand, those orders can help businesses struggling to survive the coronavirus shutdown. But shipping workers are so busy now that some are, according to the New York Times, coming to work sick. That puts them, their coworkers and possibly the public at risk.


What’s a responsible would-be shopper to do? “It’s a really hard thing to think through,” Western Michigan University philosophy professor Fritz Allhoff told WMUK. “You do want to support the economy, and unemployment claims are skyrocketing.” Allhoff noted that Amazon and Walmart are some of the few companies hiring right now.

“At the same time, engaging those supply chains – that’s got to be done responsibly and ethically. We just don’t drivers carrying stuff around that doesn’t need to be ordered and subjugating themselves to exposure,” he said.

Where the economy and public health conflict with each other, perfect resolution is impossible, he suggested. But it is possible to make less harmful choices. Allhoff says he says one thing he and his wife have tried to do is to consolidate their orders.

“If we’re going to order bread flour, which we need to cook, at the same time we’re ordering the bread flour we want something else, like a spatula, then we don’t feel very guilty about it because the delivery was coming anyway, for the flour, and the spatula kind of gets a free ride,” he said.

“At the same time, I really would be hesitant to just order the spatula by itself because that’s creating another delivery, another box, another vector and that just doesn’t seem very ethically defensible at this stage,” he added. 

"We need to think kind of carefully about our shopping and what we actually need versus want, and ways that we can try to minimize exposure."