To set the stage for our discussion, we start with this assumption: unless a society has completely eradicated the COVID-19 virus in its borders, any decision to re-open that society from the stay-at-home orders that were common, at least across the U.S., in April, will accelerate the spread of the virus. This will likely have deadly effects. A protracted shut down may also take a large toll on human life, and the justification for reopening could be framed in terms of maximum lives saved. But in the near-term, the justification for opening up must appeal to the importance of avoiding costs other than loss of life, such as unemployment, poverty and the psychological stress of isolation. Can opening up in the near term be justified in that way? If so, how?
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ALEC: I want to start by thanking you two, Sophia and Christian, for agreeing to discuss the ethics of reopening society with me.
I take the position that it is, in principle, justifiable to reopen society for the sake of people’s economic and psychological welfare. This follows from my views on risk and aggregation.
There are two ways to think about the moral significance of risk: the ex ante model discounts claims with regard to an outcome (a harm or benefit) by the probability that the claimant will experience that outcome; the ex post model weighs the claims of those who experience some outcome in the end, whoever they turn out to be, discounting only insofar as it is uncertain that anyone will experience a particular outcome. Both models can be combined with different views on the permissibility of aggregating claims.
Many contemporary ethicists embrace the ex ante model. Because people can sort into groups with different COVID-19 risk profiles, people have conflicting claims on public policy. Low-risk individuals often reasonably prefer risking infection for the sake of being able to carry on a normal life, while those at high risk often reasonably prefer that society remain on lockdown.
Many who embrace the ex ante model also oppose aggregation. They think that the only morally relevant question is who has the strongest complaint if their claims are not honored. The complaints of those who prefer not to die—at least if they are not already very old or very sick—would seem to dominate.
In an article of mine, “Risks and Weak Aggregation: Why Different Models of Risk Suit Different Types of Cases” (forthcoming in Ethics), I argue that when people can sort themselves into different groups with competing claims on public policy, the ex post model should be used. I also argue for a variation on what is often called “limited aggregation.”
According to limited aggregation, if interests are far enough apart in moral significance, no number of less significant interests can outweigh more significant ones. For example, no number of people’s desires not to suffer an annoying itch for one minute could justify leaving another person to die years earlier than she would otherwise.
In the end, I think we can plausibly justify opening up, if sufficient precautions are taken, because people’s claims based on economic and psychological welfare are not like claims not to suffer an annoying itch for a minute. Taken in the aggregate, they plausibly outweigh the claims not to be allowed to die early. [Post script: I now realize that this formulation, framing the issue as though opening up merely allows people to die, is flawed—see Christian’s comment below and a recent article by Helen Frowe.]
SOPHIA: Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alec. I’m going to raise a few questions about your characterization of our dilemma, and then some questions about the methodology you’re using to address it.
First, I don’t think our dilemma maps neatly onto the scenarios that philosophers standardly discuss, when thinking about whether to aggregate and how to measure people’s complaints. Our dilemma in deciding when and how to open up our societies is not how to weigh the smaller complaints of the many under lockdown against the larger complaints of those who will die when we open up. Many lives are at risk under lockdowns, too. The UN has reported a surge in serious abuse of women and children; women are being denied access to life-saving reproductive healthcare; people with life-threatening medical conditions have had their treatment put on hold. There are many with large complaints about all alternatives.
Second, your methodology. COVID-19 is not just a combination of a health crisis and an economic crisis. Our responses to it risk perpetuating serious social injustices, such as racial injustices, gender-based injustices, and injustices against those with disabilities. And I worry that we, as philosophers, risk leaving these injustices invisible when we simply weigh the different complaints of “people” taken in the abstract. It matters, for instance, that our essential workers are disproportionately members of racial minorities, whose current vulnerability is the result of prior social injustices. It also matters that the recession is concentrated in the service sector, where most employees are women. Somehow, we need to find a way to factor this into our assessments of different policies. One way to do so — though I’m not sure it’s the most satisfactory way — is to suggest that the size of a person’s complaint about a policy depends partly on whether they are already disadvantaged, and also on whether this disadvantage stems from a prior social injustice.
Lastly, I think we need to ask about the risks imposed by particular policies, rather than about the risks of “lockdowns” or “opening up” in general. Different policies raise different moral dilemmas. For instance, digital immunity passports raise questions about whether economic or health benefits to the many can ever justify a government legislating two classes of people into existence. Proposals to impose mandatory lockdowns on the elderly for long periods of time raise questions about parity of treatment and what it takes to justify paternalism. And there are questions that nobody has been asking about what society owes to those with disabilities who normally live in the kind of isolation that many of us have now experienced for the first time.
CHRISTIAN: I’d like to follow up on Sophia’s insightful comments on how Alec’s interesting model might apply to policy responses to COVID-19 by drawing attention to two further respects that the tradeoffs we face in deciding whether to ease lockdown restrictions differ from tradeoffs involved in simple cases of choosing which of two groups of people to protect from harm. One of these makes it easier to justify continuing lockdown restrictions, while the other makes it harder.
First, one principal justification of these restrictions is that they are necessary to prevent people from doing or enabling harm to others. (In the simple cases, by contrast, there is no question of the one group we might save doing or enabling harm to the other group we might save—these groups are related only in the minimal sense that our saving one group will mean that we do not save the other.) Generally speaking, it seems permissible to impose more cost on a person that might do or enable harm others than simply as a means of conferring benefits on others. Now just how much more cost is debatable, especially when those that risk doing or enabling harm do not do so intentionally. How great the harms and how large the risks that their conduct will result in them surely matters, but so too will whether those put at risk can plausibly be seen as having validly consented to the imposition of these risks, or if those on whom the risks are imposed are, reciprocally, imposing risks on others. Still, this feature of the situation weakens the complaints of those who would be made worse off by the continuation of lockdown, if these restrictions are necessary to reduce the risks that they will do or enable harm to others.
Second, if people do suffer harm as a result of lockdown restrictions, those who are responsible for imposing these restrictions will not just have allowed these harms to occur. At the very least they will have contributed to them by enabling them to occur. If we save one group at the expense of the other in the simple cases, by contrast, we will have allowed a group to suffer harm but will not have enabled harm to them. Generally speaking, it seems easier to justify allowing some to be harmed when this is necessary to protect others from suffering than it is to justify doing or enabling harm on some for this reason. This consideration strengthens the complaints of those who would be made worse off by the continuation of lockdown, if these restrictions will indeed do or enable harm.
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