Should the HSE buy PPE made by Slaves to Save Irish Citizens?

Daniel Kelly

5th Year
Gonzaga College

Considering some reports that PPE is being made with slave labour in South East Asia (Pete Pattison, NHS urged to avoid PPE made in slave-like conditions, The Guardian, 23 April 2020), I will explore whether it is morally justified to do so with the intention to save Irish lives but in doing so, indirectly violating the rights of foreign workers.

For the purposes of this exploration, I will assume that the HSE has bought PPE made by slaves.

Slavery is defined as the severe exploitation of others for personal or commercial gain. Slaves are often trapped by violence and inescapable debt, have their passports taken, and are paid little to no wages. Slavery is unethical because it violates Kant’s maxim by treating humans merely as means to a slave owner’s ends, rather than as an end themselves, and it is objectively wrong, according to Sam Harris, because it increases human suffering.

This is a very important ethical question concerning Covid-19, and it affects us all. We have all benefitted directly or indirectly from this PPE, whether by using it ourselves or by living in a country that benefits from a functional health system, made possible by PPE.
Is the HSE is morally justified in buying such PPE?

Applying Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism, buying this PPE is justified because the ends justify the means. While the PPE was made with unethical practices, exploiting a minority, the consequences of saving lives, and a stronger economy benefitting from a shorter lockdown, brings a greater good to a greater number of people. Therefore, according to consequentialist theory, they are justified.

However, the HSE ‘s action may not be morally justified.

Interestingly, through the application of utilitarian principles again, we can conclude that this is not morally permissible. While buying the PPE would save lives here in Ireland, it could also spread the virus in manufacturing countries, where in factories social distancing can be very difficult. A problem with consequentialism is that it is almost impossible to accurately measure and weigh up the impacts of an act or evaluate how positive an impact an act will have. The HSE could not argue that the ends of saving lives in Ireland justify the means, because the means would lead to more deaths and the spread of the virus in the manufacturing countries. Therefore, consequentialism does not justify the purchase.

Neither does a deontological approach. Kantian ethics tells us that we cannot prioritise Irish people over others, as that would be basing our moral decisions on preferences and discrimination. Kant’s Categorical Imperative states that you must ‘act only according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ With this imperative, the HSE cannot treat Irish people more favourably than people in the manufacturing country. Regardless of the possible positive outcomes, you cannot justifiably exploit another human being for your own ends. Kant insists that we all ‘act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.’

However, the problem with this deontological approach is that it does not consider the consequences of the purchase. Using Peter Singer’s argument, that this is redundant as a theory for realistically solving the moral dilemma of this purchase, because taking consequences out of consideration divorces it from reality, we could refute this utilitarian argument against the purchase.

Let me consider this dilemma with Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics. According to virtue ethics, we should look to virtuous people who possess moral wisdom through developing good habits of character for guidance. My mother is a virtuous person who possesses such moral wisdom. She is also a doctor who uses PPE every day in her work on the front line. I debated with her on what is the right answer to this dilemma, and she replied that she would choose to wear the PPE, if there was no other ethically sourced alternative. She justified her opinion with the argument that her primary responsibility is to herself, her patient, her family, and society, under the principles of beneficence, the Hippocratic Oath, fidelity, and non-maleficence, and that the only way to uphold these principles would be to accept the PPE. While there is perhaps no ‘right answer’, she believes that the moral theories I have mentioned would justify her decision, and Duty Ethics demands that she uphold her primary obligation to her patients.

As with many ethical dilemmas, there is perhaps no ‘right answer’. It is very difficult to decide what is the right thing to do when this question affects so many people across the globe.