As the coronavirus pandemic escalates, countries are facing increasingly complex ethical decisions in their bid to control the virus and save lives.
ICU Physicians are being forced to ration healthcare resources like ventilators and medication. Governments have introduced sweeping public health restrictions that have radically altered people’s day to day lives. And as authorities seek to stop the spread of the virus, questions are being asked about our duties to prisoners, migrants, and people on sea vessels.
These ethical dilemmas lead us to reflect on the philosophical frameworks that inform our decision making when faced with a global threat like the coronavirus. Commentators have discussed three philosophies in particular in recent days: communitarianism, utilitarianism, and libertarianism.
Communitarianism is a political philosophy that emphasises the connection between individuals and communities. Communitarian thinkers suggest that individuals derive their identity from social groups, and that individual rights cannot and should not be viewed in isolation from community norms and interests. Communitarians, furthermore, see the welfare of society or communities to be the orienting principle of political decision-making, and are inclined to prioritise the public interest over the preservation of the liberties of individual citizens. Notable communitarian thinkers include Princeton philosopher Michael Waltzer and Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel (though Sandel is somewhat reluctant to identify as a communitarian).
As Bloomberg columnist John Authers observes, China practiced an authoritarian kind of communitarianism after the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan in January. The people of the city of Wuhan were told to lock themselves in their houses, and often forcibly quarantined, for the good of the community and the state, largely identified with the Communist Party.
Yet there is a democratic form of communitarianism that is more in line with Western liberal values. The latter form of communitarianism is more defined by solidarity with society’s most vulnerable rather than an idolisation of the State or some other political entity. Many of the restrictions on civil liberties in Western countries have been brought in under the guise of protecting society’s most vulnerable (such as the elderly or people with disabilities).
In a recent address in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis offered communitarian perspective on the current crisis, stating that “we have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other”.
Utilitarianism is a philosophy that gives primary importance to the consequences of actions, and, in particular, the utility that those actions produce. In the context of politics, utilitarianism takes the form of a calculus about political decision-making, whereby actors consider which course of action would bring about the greatest benefits for society at large.
One controversial example of a utilitarian approach to COVID-19 pandemic would be the so-called “herd immunity” strategy for managing the coronavirus threat. Some epidemiologists, as well as politicians, have advocated intentionally exposing society at large to the virus, with the aim of developing population immunity to COVID-19. This strategy would involve massive rates of infection and loss of life, but would allow for greater economic activity during the pandemic and would address the problem of the virus head on. A herd immunity policy was recommended to the UK government by its Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance in mid-March, though the government says it is not currently pursuing this approach.
Utilitarianism is also exemplified in the rationing policies currently being advocated by many influential medical ethicists. Recently, several prominent doctors and ethicists in the United States published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, arguing that “the value of maximising benefits” is the most important value in ICU rationing.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy that prioritises individual liberties over other goods. Libertarians are deeply suspicious of any attempt to limit individual freedom, even if this may be necessary to prevent some grave risk to society. Libertarians suggest that people should be free to take risks if they want to, even if this behaviour may be seen as imprudent, immoral or unreasonable by other members of society.
Libertarianism is exemplified in the behaviour of some members of the public in response to government warnings about the risk of contagion. Social media in recent weeks has been full of images of big social gatherings -- often in luxurious social settings -- even after governments have introduced strong new measures to stop the spread of the virus. “If I get corona, I get corona,” as a 22-year-old said on video recently in Florida. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying”.
Recently, scholars from the Mises Institute -- a libertarian think-tank in the United States -- argued that governments should immediately rescind lock-down laws, and instead allow individuals and families to decide what level of risk the wish to take in continuing with their daily lives during the pandemic. In a recent editorial, the editors of Institute’s official blog state:
“The shutdown of the American economy by government decree should end. The lasting and far-reaching harms caused by this authoritarian precedent far outweigh those caused by the COVID-19 virus. The American people—individuals, families, businesses—must decide for themselves how and when to reopen society and return to their daily lives”.
Xavier Symons is deputy editor of BioEdge
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