Learning from COVID-19: Virtue Ethics, Pandemics and Environmental Degradation

Learning from COVID-19: Virtue Ethics, Pandemics and Environmental Degradation: A case study reading of The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Contagion (2011)

Fiachra O’Brolcháin and Pat Brereton

Dublin City University


This paper uses virtue ethics to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak, Hollywood science-fiction/pandemic films, and the environmental crisis. We outline the ideas of hubris and nemesis and argue that responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires that we develop virtues. We will explore these ethical issues through an eco-reading (Hiltner 2018) of two popular films cinematic representation of pandemics, The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Contagion (2011). Fictional narratives are particularly adept at celebrating the moral and intellectual virtues of individuals (as is standard in Hollywood cinema) and dramatizing the tensions inherent in human scientific and technological civilisation. Using examples from our texts and with reference to COVID-19, we begin with a discussion of virtues and vices, both individual and collective, we then explore the concept of flourishing and apply this framework to collective action problems such as climate change and COVID-19. Thus, science fiction can provoke new forms of environmental philosophising and ethical engagement, while addressing the most important challenges facing humanity at present.

Keywords: Pandemic, Virtue Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Contagion (film), Andromeda Strain (film), hubris

About the Authors

Pat Brereton worked as Project Engineer with Ericsson for four years, having left Ireland with an Arts Degree. He then moved full time into Education, working at Northampton College and Luton University, before moving back home to Dublin City University, where he progressed to Senior Lecturer and worked as Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty, before becoming Head of School of Communications. He is currently a Professor in the School and chairs the new masters in Climate Change.

Fiachra O’Brolcháin obtained a BA in Philosophy and English from University College Dublin. He obtained his doctorate from the school of Politics, International Studies, and Philosophy, Queens University Belfast. He is based in Dublin City University’s Institute of Ethics, School of Theology, Philosophy and Music. He has published in international peer-reviewed journals on various aspects of applied ethics, from bioethics to robotics and biologicalisation, as well as environmental ethics. He was a Marie Curie Fellow as part of the ASSISTID programme, focused on the ethical implications of the use and development of assistive technologies for persons with intellectual disabilities. He is currently working on the H2020 Inbots project, as part of an international consortium of ethicists, engineers, and roboticists with the aim of creating a responsible research and innovation paradigm for robotics, and is a DCU Rising Talent Fellow.

Published: 2021 – 06 – 25

Vol. 4 (2021) Cover

Issue: Vol 4 (2021): The Day that Coronavirus Stopped the Earth: What Do We Learn about Pandemics in Science Fiction Stories?

Section: Yearly Theme

Copyright (c) 2021 Fiachra O’Brolcháin and Pat Brereton

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