Public Shame, Hoarding and Panic Buying

The Issue:

At a time of great stress, up to and including the prospect of fatal loss of life for thousands to an inexorably growing pandemic, we see acts of panic, desperation as well as courage. Many of us are still able to put aside personal concerns to focus on doing acts of simple kindness and compassion for others.

We are witness to widespread panic buying. According to psychologists, the rationalization is that shopping is one of the few things that a person can control. Many of us are capable of being irrational, panic-buyers, seeking a key to future uncertainty through buying goods we may never need, in quantities that don’t make sense. We don’t want to leave ourselves vulnerable to hunger. We soothe our anxieties, vulnerability, and uncertainties by buying, shopping, owning and hoarding. This behaviour is variously called calamity capitalism, shutter and shelter in place, and bulk panic-induced shopping.

Resellers of disinfected wipes, or toilet paper or masks are engaging in buying low and selling high, a basic of commercial trading behaviour. These profiteers are being pilloried and “shamed” in the press for profiting from health misery. In some cases, their on-line promotion posts and accounts are being taken down by social media platforms.

Ethical and Moral Dilemmas:

When are personal hoarding and reselling morally odious? Is it a matter of the product being coveted or the amount of profit made? Hoarding for personal use is somehow wrong but tolerated, whereas selling at a profit is a more serious and morally odious practice. Individuals who seek to make a short term profit are being called out in print and social media for violating some kind of communal norm.

Legal and Values Dimensions:

We acknowledge that there is panic buying. But there does not have to be meanness. There is fear. But there does not have to be hate. Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness. Yes, there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul. Yes, there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Further Reading

Military Times:

New York Times:

About the Author

David Nitkin, founder of EthicScan, is a full-time organizational ethicist. David’s original writing, teaching, consulting and research focuses upon ethical decision making; enhancing corporate accountability and reporting; and developing corporate ethics assurance programs, including transparency, risk management, integrity management, and safe partnering.

David has provided ethics training, advice and research for over 200 clients both internationally and in Canada who collectively employ over 750,000 employees. He consults and trains widely with a variety of clients, including corporations, industry associations, public service sector organizations (integrity commissions, human rights commissions, and anti-corruption tribunals social agencies, professional ethics certification organizations, not-for-profits; and civil society organizations.


  1. Eric B. Litwack

    | Reply

    This indicates effectively some of the problems linked to a change for many from buying daily supplies as needed to either a) hoarding them or b) profiting from them at the expense of those who are in desperate need. It should be clear that the second choice is legally and morally blameworthy. If you do it, you are a profiteer in the tradition of criminal gangs that made money off the miseries of other in previous natural calamities or wars. Don’t do it–it isn’t acceptable entrepreneurship, it’s the exploitation of misery. Business can and has been better.

    Hoarding is trickier. We all have a natural sense of wanting to look out for ourselves and those close to us that becomes downright primal in emergencies like the current crisis. At the same time, we should want–and may have to be forced to recognise–the needs of those more distant from us. Our fellow citizens and the world in general also count. That is why, when there is a shortage of what have always been essential supplies like food, soap, and yes, the now much discussed toilet paper, we have to recognise the need for responsible limits. The same rule applies to the now highly valuable extras like hand sanitizers. It isn’t clear what the exact numbers are, and it can’t be. What is clearer though, is that we all should accept temporary limits so as to allow for the needs of others. Lives may be at stake,

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