The Behavioral Ethics Challenges Of Covid-19 Crisis to Recovery

Derek Ireland


This document is an updated and modified version of an earlier article completed and distributed by the author 13 months ago.  The major argument of both versions of the article is that the insights from the behavioral ethics literature on bounded ethicality, ethical blind spots, ethical fading, erosion, corrosion, numbing, and fatigue and good people doing unethical things, should be extended to the behaviour of individuals and organizations during the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic crisis of 2020/2021 and its four waves in many jurisdictions.  Special emphasis is placed on the behavior and misconduct of normally good people when jurisdictions are moving from the crisis to the hoped-for and at times pre-mature recovery stage of the pandemic after a long lockdown period; and on providing guidance and possible lessons learned to assist governments, their policy and law makers and other organizations and stakeholders to prepare for the pre-crisis stage of the next pandemic, which many believe is virtually inevitable.  

The major contribution of these literatures and this article is that they illustrate how and why a behavioral ethics and behavioral economics lens can provide guidance on a wide range of Covid-19 issues discussed in the media and recent academic studies over the past twenty months, such as:

(i)            the debates, controversies, and conflicts (many of them unresolved) surrounding a wide range of Covid-19 issues such as physical distancing, face masks and vaccine mandates, and their implications for the extrinsic and intrinsic incentives and motivation of normally good people to comply with Covid-19 rules, mandates and social norms;

(ii)           how and why governments and their healthcare and other authorities need to address the temporal, dynamic and situational challenges posed by ethical fading, erosion and numbing when designing, framing and implementing their Covid-19 rules, strategies and messages;

(iii)          the negative effects on Covid-19 rule compliance, the incentives to comply, and feelings of personal and social accountability of naming, shaming and stigmatizing certain demographic, economic  and other groups and sectors as well as other nation states with different governance regimes;

(iv)          the salience of Covid-19 to different individuals, groups and locations and how these differences in salience, the vividness of Covid-19 information, and lived experiences should be addressed when conducting natural experiments and preparing for the pre-crisis period prior to the next pandemic;

(v)           emerging debates on: whether, when and where “normal” will return, what “normal” will look like when it does return, whether the end-point for COVID-19 will look anything like the pre-pandemic normal, which appears increasingly desirable as the crisis is prolonged – “2019 as the best year ever”; and whether we will be happy with the “new normal”;

(vi)          and treating Covid-19 as a wicked rather than a tame problem from the very beginning in the pre-crisis period of the next pandemic.


Keywords: behavioral ethics, bounded ethicality and rationality, misconduct of good people, ethical fading, erosion and numbing, pandemics as a wicked problem

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The reader will find that many of the references on the papers of Ireland and other sources are not available in electronic and conventional libraries, on the Internet, and at other locations. Readers who wish to have these references, sources and studies can send an Email to the author of this working paper, Dr. Derek Ireland, at and he would be happy to send you a copy.

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