Katharina Krause By: Katharina Krause
PhD Candidate
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22 May 2020 : Moral Fatigue

Disclaimer: This is a post full of banalities and complaining

I am exhausted, I am tired, and, above all, I am upset that I feel this way. Right now, even the simplest decision seems complicated to me and this makes my everyday life cumbersome. Here are a few hits from this week:

  1. Grocery shopping: Since March, we only go grocery shopping once a week to avoid close contact to others. Even though making meal plans makes me feel very grown up and certainly was a way to get the feeling of “getting back control” at the beginning, small things like running out of milk now constitute a moral dilemma. Is my need for coffee a good enough reason to go to the supermarket early, or can and should I wait a few more days until the weekly shopping trip? What if I am an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and infect others, just because I refuse to drink my coffee black? The other questions are rather similar:
  2. Playgrounds have reopened recently. Does this mean it is ‘right’ to go there now or should we simply appreciate and stick to the shared garden of the house we live in? Is my daughter’s need to swing and to see other kids her age a good enough reason to go to a crowded place?
  3. My birthday is coming up next week, shall I ask a few close friends to meet for some cake and physically distant coffee?
  4. I really miss my parents. Can we meet again, or should we keep skyping and wait a few more weeks?
  5. Should we return the car we borrowed for my partner to drive to work? Is it safe (for him and others) to take the train again?

The list continues indefinitely.

In the end, the implicit question underlying all these issues is: is it worth the risk? More specifically, the risk for others, for my family and for myself. And here is the thing: I feel that I cannot evaluate the risk. I read about the relaxing lockdown regulations and the decreasing number of new cases in my area and I feel hopeful. Then, I read warnings about a potential ‘second wave’ and I hear friends predicting that daycares might stay closed until at least autumn and I want to scream ‘no, of course not!’ at all my questions and never leave the house again.

Of course, in a sense, all these questions are banalities. However, the sum of them and realizing that answering them is not straight forward, really frustrates me. I am angry that the pandemic invaded almost every aspect of my everyday life, and that simple decisions turn into moral battlegrounds. I know that being able to ask all the questions in the first place is an immense privilege. But telling oneself to be happy because ‘others are far worse off’ seems so misplaced to me. Knowing that others face much severe, existential, and dangerous challenges that I can hardly even begin to imagine is no (of course not!) source of comfort.

At least, I found a term for what I (and probably many others) are experiencing right now. A feature on German radio, referred to the psychologist Ramani Durvasula who uses the term ‘moral fatigue’ to acknowledge that it takes up a lot of energy, when every decision has moral implications. Apparently, the dilemma faced when grocery shopping is a typical example.

The radio piece ends with a positive note that I find worth considering. Experiencing ‘moral fatigue’ (or whatever name you want to assign) makes you aware of how much we are connected to others, and how all our actions intersect. Maybe, in times where physical distancing is still recommended, this is a comforting thought after all.


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