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Social distancing isn’t a personal choice. It’s an ethical duty.

Why we should foreground our commitment to the common good in the fight against coronavirus.

A social distancing sign on the floor of a post office on April 9, 2020, in Penarth, Wales. 
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Social distancing is inconvenient at best, truly burdensome at worst. What hasn’t helped matters is the confusing messaging of why we should social distance at all. We’ve been conditioned to think social distancing is only about us — lowering the risk to one’s self and one’s family. And yet we’ve also been told that this is something we need to do to protect others.

While not necessarily incorrect, both ways of thinking about it are not equal to the task before us. What we need is an exhortation to act that is grounded firmly in an ethical foundation, one that not only gets at the deeper purpose of social distancing, but that also lays the groundwork for a more resilient society on the other side of this crisis. We as a global society need to see social distancing as nothing less than an act of solidarity, an intentional choice that binds us in a common cause.

Some US leaders have started making this rhetorical shift. In one of his daily press briefings on the coronavirus, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) leaned into the message: “We are united, and when you are united there is nothing you can’t do.”

This echoed what former Vice President Joe Biden said after the Democratic primaries when calling for social distancing; this is “a moment where the choices and decisions we make as individuals are going to collectively impact what happens, make a big difference in the severity of this outbreak.”

Biden added, “It’s in moments like these we realize we need to put politics aside and work together as Americans. ... We are all in this together.”

Both statements implicitly appeal to solidarity. Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) appealed to solidarity outright, embracing the claim that social distancing is another name for social solidarity, “because by staying apart we are actually coming closer together in common cause to defeat Covid-19.”

Cuomo, Biden, and Murphy are onto something: framing the need for social distancing as solidarity in action is much more meaningful and motivational than wonky (if accurate) discussions of “community mitigation strategies” and “flattening the curve.” Appealing to solidarity gives us a better chance of convincing people to practice social distancing. It is also the right move philosophically.

But what exactly do we mean by solidarity? In one sense, when we say we are in solidarity with others, we are foregrounding a common purpose and describing an empathetic response based on the recognition of mutual needs and shared identity. We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and political differences. Inherent in human nature is not only our interdependence as finite beings but our need to form associations for emotional and economic welfare.

Appealing to solidarity in this sense is not novel. Not too long ago, Barack Obama called on people in the US to commit to mutual flourishing. In his farewell speech as president, he said that “democracy does not require uniformity.” However, he added, “democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

Cuomo hit this note when he said: “Black and white and brown and Asian and short and tall and gay and straight. New York loves everyone. ... And at the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day … love wins. Always. And it will win again through this virus.”

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the term gains even greater urgency. Solidarity becomes nothing less than an ethical stance. It speaks to a reorientation of an individual’s will to commit to doing what will protect and promote the common good (not to be confused with the greater good, a term from utilitarian philosophy that can call for the sacrifice of fundamental needs of some for the good of all).

Solidarity as an ethical virtue doesn’t just depend on feelings, but on a deeper sense of commitment to a cause bigger than yourself. By grounding social distancing in an ethical posture, we don’t just increase the likelihood of buy-in to deal with the present crisis — we cultivate a virtue that ensures we’ll stay the course.

The virtue of solidarity also includes a commitment to social justice. The vulnerable and marginalized among us need particular care and attention to make sure that the common good is being met. So when we ask people to practice social distancing for the good of those who are most likely to get seriously ill, we are asking them to see their social responsibility in light of the many overlapping communities to which they belong (families, friends, neighbors, New Yorkers, Americans, humans, etc.), and to appreciate that the vulnerable have a particular ethical claim on all of us to promote their well-being.

Why solidarity is an enduring basis for social distancing

Recent articles have discussed the ethics of social distancing, but in terms of altruism. By definition, altruistic acts typically entail personal sacrifices that are considered “above and beyond duty,” with no ulterior motivation or benefit.

But rooting social distancing in altruism isn’t as robust a motivation as you might think as framing it as an ethical duty. Social distancing really can save lives and protect long-term health. In other words, we really shouldn’t think of it as an optional act that we perform out of the kindness of our hearts. The downsides of not social distancing can be so severe that we need to think of it as an ethical duty to our fellow human beings.

Then there’s the second type of appeal: to our self-interest. We’ve been told to stay in for ourselves and for our families. While it’s not untrue that staying in will obviously redound to our and our families’ benefit, such appeals fail to get at the interconnected nature of the problem we face.

If we decide to take the risk of not sticking with social distancing, it’s not just ourselves we’re putting at risk — it is also our neighbors, our grandparents, our friends who might get hurt. We are seeing this with the tragic rise in numbers of sick and dying within extended families and within local communities. The health care system has been overwhelmed and the economy is suffering precisely because we are all vulnerable to each other.

Solidarity then is a more apt foundation for social distancing than either altruism or narrow self-interest. And the fact is the impulse of pulling together is already there — we just need to articulate it more explicitly. The reality of our shared fight and plight has drawn those of us practicing social distancing together, closer with loved ones, neighbors, and in many instances strangers, even as we are physically apart. We are finding alternative ways to connect to build and maintain our emotional and economic bonds.

In addition to social distancing, collaborative efforts to aid those who are in social isolation and the economically vulnerable are growing across the country. When we return from social distancing, it is up to us to make this inchoate commitment to our fellow human beings and the common good the new normal.

Some skepticism is certainly in order. Individualism is encoded in Americans’ national DNA. But solidarity is just as central to American identity as individualism. “Live Free or Die” co-existed with “Join or Die.”

When I was young, my grandfather shared stories of his experiences after the US entered World War II. One of the memories he shared was living through a period of gas shortages. The rubber supply for the US military was critically low.

Despite great pressure from the business sector, FDR in 1942 instituted strict gas rationing, meaning less driving and therefore less wear and tear on tires. It amounted to a de facto ban on pleasure driving, a popular leisure activity. Many Americans who are now over the age of 80 remember having to give up all the joys associated with pleasure-driving as part of the war effort. Efforts to increase public support included posters with messages such as “When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler! Join a Car Sharing Club TODAY!” (similar to today’s more encouraging #togetherathome and #stayhomesaveslives).

It wasn’t until the war was over when people could take to the open roads again. We were all in it together, my grandfather said, speaking to the sense of shared sacrifice and purpose that defined the time.

We face a common threat in Covid-19. Few of us will remain untouched. We are all in this together. Solidarity demands we do our part by holding each other accountable, as we hold each other dear (but not too near).

Sarah-Vaughan Brakman is a professor of philosophy at Villanova University.

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