Although nationwide lockdowns are unprecedented in modern history, there’s been remarkably little public debate about whether they are justified ethically. Vague appeals to ‘protecting the NHS’ will not do, especially since the U.K. Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011 says that halting the spread of pandemic influenza virus would be “a waste of public health resources”.
In a paper due to appear in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Samuel Director and Christopher Freiman examine the two main justifications that have been given for lockdown. And they find both of these justifications wanting. In particular, they argue that each one has implications that most people would not accept.
The first major justification for lockdowns is that we have to minimise lives lost (or perhaps life years lost). In other words: we should adopt whichever policy minimises the total number of deaths, and since lockdown is the policy that achieves that, we should implement lockdowns.
As an example of this justification, the authors quote the former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said, “We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs.”
Yet upon reflection, this justification makes very little sense. For example, it would imply that governments should drastically reduce speed limits to prevent all road deaths – at the cost of time, convenience and economic efficiency. (Or perhaps they’d have to ban cars altogether.)
As I’ve previously noted: “Society has functions other than simply extending people’s lives for as long as possible. If it did not, we’d spend a much higher fraction of GDP on healthcare, and we’d ban alcohol, smoking and extreme sports.”
The second major justification for lockdowns is that we must defer to experts. In other words: we should adopt whichever policy the experts advocate, and since the experts advocate lockdown, that is what we should do.
Aside from the fact that many experts were against lockdown – not to mention the difficulty of even defining ‘expertise’ in this area – insisting that we must defer to experts has implications that many people would reject.
For example, it would imply that we should adopt free trade, open immigration, legalisation of some drugs, and perhaps even markets in human organs – since these policies all receive support from academic economists. Note: I’m not saying these are all necessarily bad policies; but they can’t be justified purely on the basis of what ‘the experts’ believe.
According to the authors, the only justification that actually makes sense is that lockdowns have large “net welfare benefits”, i.e., their benefits in terms of lives saved outweigh all the costs they impose on society. However, as a matter of empirical fact, the authors doubt that lockdowns do have large “net welfare benefits”.
For example, they entertain economist Bryan Caplan’s argument that the reduction in quality of life alone may have offset any lives saved by lockdowns. (Though of course, there’s not much evidence that lockdowns have saved lives in most of the countries where they’ve been tried.)
Director and Freiman’s paper provides a good overview of the debate over the ethics of lockdown, and is worth reading in full.