14 May 2020

Is staying at home really about ‘saving lives’?

By Helen Frowe

In a recent CapX article, Bashshar Haydar and Alec Walen consider how we ought to assess the morality of restrictions on individual freedom aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19. The appropriate balance, they argue, depends on the costs that each of us can be required to bear for the sake of saving other people’s lives.  

Their discussion focuses on the following example. You have scrimped and saved for ten years, living modestly, in order to buy a Bugatti: the car of your dreams and, you hope, a sound investment. One day, whilst out for a walk, you see a boulder rolling down a hill to where it will lethally crush a child. You cannot reach the child. But you are able to deflect the boulder towards your car, saving the child’s life. 

It is largely uncontroversial that you are required to sacrifice your car to save the child’s life. And yet it is very controversial whether, had the boulder not struck, you would be required to sell the Bugatti and use the money to save children’s lives. It is similarly controversial whether it was wrong for you to buy the car in the first place, rather than use the money to save lives.  Many people believe that buying and keeping the car is permissible, even if they also believe that you must divert the boulder towards your car rather than let a child die.

Haydar and Walen argue that these intuitively different permissions can be explained by the difference between bearing a one-off cost to prevent harm to others, and being subject to ongoing demands to prevent harm to others. The former allows you to live your own life and pursue your own projects: the loss of the Bugatti is a blow, to be sure, but you are still free to adopt and pursue new goals. The latter, in contrast, requires you to “work on one overarching project: saving the lives of others. You are required to live as a servant for the greater good”.

They think that this reasoning illuminates the costs that we can be required to bear to alleviate the harms of Covid-19. If this is a one-off crisis, then “we should be willing to do more than we would normally do to save lives”. If, however, we are on the cusp of a ‘new normal’, requiring permanent adjustments to our way of life, then “we must open up to allow people to get on with their lives”. The thought is that we may not be forced to bear ongoing costs to save other people’s lives, since this unduly hampers our ability to live our own lives.

But I do not save your life if I do not infect you with Covid-19. Rather, I refrain from harming you. And the costs that I may be required to bear to refrain from harming you are considerably greater than the costs that I may be required to bear to save you. Imagine that Alice is caught in the sluice gate of a river and will drown unless she is saved. Betty can save Alice, but only by suffering the loss of her own arm in the process. Most of us think that Betty is not required to suffer the loss of her arm to save Alice’s life – rather, she is permitted to let Alice die rather than incur such a significant cost to herself. 

Now imagine a different case, in which Betty is fleeing an attacker who will cut off her arm if he catches her. Betty can escape, but only by lethally trampling over Alice, an innocent bystander. It is plausibly impermissible for Betty to kill Alice in order to save her arm. Indeed, most theorists of permissible harming think that it is impermissible for Betty to kill Alice to save her own life.

If these judgements are correct, they support the view that we must bear much greater costs to avoid harming others than we must bear to save them. Betty may fail to save Alice’s life to avoid suffering the loss of her arm. But Betty may not kill Alice to avoid suffering the loss of her arm, or even her life.

Haydar and Walen’s explanation of the limit on our duties to save – that there is a limit to the costs we must bear in the course of making ourselves useful to others – is correct. But when I refrain from harming a person, I do not thereby make myself useful to her. I merely refrain from making her worse off. We cannot, therefore, point to the limit on our duties to make ourselves useful to others to justify harming, or risking harming, other people. Bashshar and Walen’s exploration of the costs we can be required to bear to save others from harm is irrelevant to justifying restrictions aimed at stopping us from infecting others with Covid-19.

It is also irrelevant to restrictions aimed at stopping us from taking up scarce medical resources by becoming infected. If Betty is using a ventilator, she renders that life-saving resource inaccessible to Alice. If there is only one available ventilator, Betty thereby makes Alice worse off, depriving Alice of what she needs to save herself.

Philosophers disagree about whether this counts as harming Alice, or whether preventing others from being saved is a distinct moral category. But, either way, depriving others of life-saving resources is not plausibly characterised as merely failing to save them. Here too, Betty cannot justify using the ventilator by pointing to the limit on her duty to make herself useful to others. Alice does not need to make use of Betty to save her own life. She only needs to make use of the ventilator. By risking becoming infected with Covid-19, each of us risks depriving others of life-saving resources.

Of course, we are sometimes justified in imposing risks of harm on others. Indeed, most of us impose risks of harm on other people all the time, including for trivial reasons. Many everyday activities – driving, cycling, horse-riding, playing football in the park – impose risks of harm, including lethal harm, on other people. If we were not permitted to impose at least some such risks, our capacity to shape our own lives would be unacceptably diminished.

But this does not mean that we permit any degree of risk imposition as people go about their projects. On the contrary, activities that pose higher risks of serious harm, such as driving, are tightly regulated. And even typically low-risk activities are subject to moral, if not legal, constraints. If the park is crowded, I may not persist in kicking about my football. If I know my horse is a frequent kicker, I should not be riding her on busy public bridleways. I am, in general, expected to abandon personal projects that impose significant risks of harming others.

It is with these other risk-imposing activities that we must compare the loosening of the restrictions aimed at limiting the harms of Covid-19. Haydar and Walen are surely right that short-term restrictions are easier to justify than ongoing restrictions – that’s simply a reflection of the greater cost of ongoing restrictions. But buying into the political rhetoric that staying home is about ‘saving lives’ misrepresents the moral issues at stake.

The central question is not, when must I save others? It is, rather, when may I risk harming others? And given the much greater stringency of our duties not to harm, compared to our duties to save, this difference is likely to have a significant effect on when, and to what extent, we may get on with our lives.

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Helen Frowe is Professor of Practical Philosophy and Knut and Alice Wallenberg Scholar at Stockholm University.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.