by R.J. Snell, Ph.D.

Given the spread of COVID-19, it’s unsurprising that people are stocking their pantries and closets with food and medication, toilet paperhand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes.

Supply chain disruption has already resulted in shortages of some drugs and medicines with concerns that protective devices such as face masks may be unavailable for hospitals to protect caregivers, in part because ordinary citizens are purchasing them, sometimes in large volume.

When it comes to emergencies such as pandemics, how ought we think—ethically, that is—about stockpiling? What are our duties, if any, to institutions like hospitals or governments, to our neighbors, to our families, to ourselves? Is it “every person for themselves,” or is there a common good which requires us to sacrifice and risk our own well-being?

Put more starkly, if you have two face masks, do you need to give one away? What if you have twenty . . . or two hundred?

I won’t pretend to provide an answer to every difficulty, merely to articulate some principles to guide reflection.

The natural law tradition, as articulated by thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Aquinas, concludes that basic moral principles are known with a high degree of certainty, and ought to be known by rational adults. Still, the tradition recognizes that knowing what we ought to do in a given (as distinct from ought not to do) is far less certain and admits of prudential judgments. So while we may never murder or steal, the amount of how much we should give away is far from certain; still, there are guiding principles.

First, the basic resources of the world are commonly held. The world belongs to everyone, as it were, and everyone has a claim on the goods of the world. That is, because the world is held in common, every individual thus has the basic prerogative to property, to ownership of some aspect of the world’s goods.

Second, private or exclusive claims to property—this is mine or yours—occurs by labor. Because my labor belongs to me, the fruits or results of the labor also belong to me. The public store of goods, say all the apples in the primordial forest, belong to all, but once you labor to pick some, those belong to you. This is true whether you labor directly or exchange other private goods (barter or money) in order to have another labor on your behalf.

Third, because we are obligated to preserve our own life, the lives of our dependents, and to preserve a human or dignified life, there is a corresponding right to build and store property. We can pick apples for tomorrow, in other words, not just those sufficient for today, and can build up a business, a bank account, a pantry, so that we can properly fulfill the obligations of dignified life for ourselves, our children, our dependents, and our employees. Property can go beyond mere subsistence.

Fourth, however, property rights are not absolute, for our use of property must benefit the entire community. If a property owner neglects or ruins his property, or if the apple-picker picks more apples than he can ever use and they rot in his storehouse, the authorities are justified in regulating the owner’s use or acquisition of property. You can pick the apples you need to live, you can even pick more apples to support the lives and dignity of others, but you are not justified in picking apples beyond your scale of proper management or use, particularly if doing so diminishes the life and dignity of others.

Fifth, we can distinguish property needed to meet one’s responsibilities (the propium), which would include the building or storing of wealth, from what the tradition terms the superflua, the excess that could be dispensed without negatively affecting responsibilities to one’s family, neighbors, or business. When it comes to that which is dispensable, justice requires excess be disposed for the benefit of those in need (whether in poverty, or in this case, medical necessity). This is not benevolence or charity, which goes beyond obligation, but rather a demand of justice. When we have excess, justice demands we give of that excess to those in need.

Sixth, justice does not obligate us to give away those goods needed for meeting one’s own needs, or responsibilities. It is permissible to do so, but is not required.

From these principles, we can conclude something like the following: Yes, make sure you have a stocked pantry, for you have an obligation to provide for your life and the lives of those depending on you. Yes, it is reasonable to plan on providing for yourself in ways beyond the normal experience—stock the pantry for weeks, not days. Yes, it is reasonable and just to have extra medication, sanitizers, and disinfectants. Even a mask.

But, it is unreasonable, unjust even, to hoard, to have more than you reasonably need or can use, to keep what you may waste or ruin. Even more, since property is always in the service of the common good—even when privately owned—justice demands that we do not take so much that others go without, and that we do not take goods needed for the function of institutions of the common good. That is, if we are asked to stop buying face masks, for example, because doctors and nurses cannot meet their needs, then justice requires us to comply.

As responsible agents, we are not merely entitled, but are obligated, to care for ourselves and those near to us, but we are also obliged to act in ways that supports the good of others. Which I suspect is how most of us would act anyway, since the natural law is not an abstraction but the governing principle of all decent and rational people.

[March 13, 2020]