12 May 2020

The ethics of a pandemic are not those of a ‘new normal’

By Alec Walen and Bashshar Haydar

As the rate of infection for Covid-19 starts to slow across parts of the world that have imposed social distancing, the question of how and when to reopen the economy has come to the fore. The answer cannot be that states must wait until there is literally no risk that opening up will cause some people to catch the disease who otherwise would not. It must be that they should open up in such ways, and when, the risk of extra infections is properly balanced against the economic costs of maintaining social distance.

This sort of balancing recalls the kind of criticism of an economic shutdown President Trump made before the threat from the virus got too great: “We have a lot of people dying from the flu… It looks like it could be over 50,000” this flu season. Implicit in this comment is the thought that our economic wellbeing is worth 50,000 deaths.

Our thesis is that this might be the right thing to say about the flu, but it does not follow that it is the right thing to say about coronavirus. One must also keep in mind the basic difference between the ethics of emergencies and the ethics of ongoing, normal life.

To explain that difference, we want to consider an argument that Peter Singer made in his 2009 book: The Life You Can Save. By examining thought experiments in which most people claim that they would be willing to make major sacrifices for the sake of others, he argued that those of us who are fairly well off generally do far too little to save the lives of the vulnerable and poor.

Consider this example. Suppose you scrimped and saved for ten years, living much more modestly than you otherwise would, so that you could buy a particular car that you have long fancied: a Bugatti. Moreover, this was not just a bizarre car fetish; you also hoped that it would be a sound investment for your retirement. 

One day, you take your car out for a drive, park by a lake, and take a walk up the hill. To your horror, you see a boulder rolling down the hill towards a child who is playing not far from your car. If you do nothing, the child clearly will be crushed and will die. You’re too far from the child to pull him to safety, but you see that you could put a large rock in the boulder’s path and deflect it from the child… onto your car. Given how much your car costs, you have been unable to insure it for anywhere near its full value. If you wreck it, it’s gone. If you don’t do anything the boulder will kill the child.

Most everyone would agree that you may not choose to let the child die. But here’s the rub: if you’re willing to wreck your car to save the child, why are you not willing to make that sacrifice to save many children. After all, if you sell your car, you could get a lot of money for it. You could use that money to save many children’s lives. Or, rather than scrimp and save for the car in the first place, why not scrimp and save to put aside money for the best charities?

We can easily apply this point to public health. We should, according to Singer’s argument, be willing to make more sacrifices of economic wellbeing for the sake of lives.

We think that the key mistake in Singer’s argument is the failure to distinguish exceptional from ongoing ethical demands. The world in which you have to crash a boulder into your car could still be one in which you get to try to pursue your life plans and projects. You get to decide that it’s worth it to you to scrimp and save to get an exotic car, with the expectation that you’ll probably be able to enjoy it for as long as you want. The fact that an emergency situation might arise when you have to sacrifice it does not undermine the idea that you can expect to be able to choose which projects to pursue. Your life is still yours.

The world Singer imagines is one in which you do not get to decide what is worth doing. You have to live like a church mouse and yet work on the one overarching project: saving the lives of others. You are required to live as a servant for the greater good, however that is understood. Some may easily embrace that vision of a good life, but most will not. And the central problem is that one loses the freedom to be anything other than a self-sacrificing, other-serving saint.

Here is the payoff in terms of the pandemic. Among the reasons we should be willing to accept serious economic pain now to save lives is that these are emergency measures adopted for an exceptional situation. These emergency measures need not prevent people from pursuing new projects in the future. The essential freedom to lead our lives, pursuing our own projects, can and should be limited by emergency situations, when many more lives are at stake than normal. But that sort of limit should not undermine the general rule that we each have our own lives to lead.

The implications of this point are two-fold. On the one hand, if we assume that this pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event, calling for once-in-a-lifetime sacrifices, we should be willing to do more than we would normally do to save lives. Even if the costs of opening up, at this point in time, are no worse than those of a bad flu season, we should push to do better.

On the other hand, it could be that this virus will plague human society for years to come. It could be that it will be as resistant to a vaccine as the common cold (to which it is related), and that it remains ten times deadlier than the flu. In that case, we will have to adjust to it as the new normal. We must open up to allow people to get on with their lives.

There is no clear line between these two extremes. As the economic impacts build, they start to create a new normal in many people’s lives. Our point is not that it is easy to tell whether we are in a once-in-a-lifetime crisis or on the cusp of a new normal. Our point is that we have to think about which better fits our situation, as that should affect how we make the trade-off of economic recovery and prevention of further infections. 

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Alec Walen is Professor of Law, Philosophy and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University.

Bashshar Haydar is Professor of Philosophy at American University of Beirut.

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