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Why You Should Not (Be Allowed To) Have That Picnic in the Park, Even if it Does Not Make a Difference

Written by Alberto Giubilini


(a slightly longer version of this blogpost will appear in the journal Think. Link will be provided as soon as available)

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, early spring. The kind of afternoon that seems to be inviting you out for a stroll by the river. Maybe have a picnic on the green grass, in that spot over there, away from everyone. Why not?

The simple answer is: because there is a pandemic and the Government is enforcing a lockdown. You should stay home. End of the story.

And there isn’t a complex answer. The simple answer really is the end of the story.

But why? You probably understand the reasons for the lockdown. But that is a matter of policy, a general rule for the population. What difference does it make if I just go over there, where there is no one, keeping at distance from everyone? I am not going to harm anyone.

You are (probably) right: it (likely) does not make a difference, and you are (likely) not harming anyone. However, that is not the only relevant question to ask when we ask what we morally ought to do, or what a Government may permissibly require of us.

Let us consider the ethically relevant aspects of this situation.


“Social distancing”

The keyword underpinning the current lockdown, in the UK and elsewhere, is “social distancing”. We need to (try to) stay at least 2 meters apart from each other – except for members of the same household – to (try to) block the transmission of this coronavirus (Covid 19). Covid 19 is thought to be twice as contagious as the flu and much more lethal (though the actual morbidity and mortality rates are still uncertain). Ideally, we need to stay home, but the Government understands how demanding this could be. It therefore allows “one form of exercise per day” outdoor, as well as going out once per day to buy basic necessities, or for essential work that cannot be done from home.

What you might be thinking

“I understand the rationale behind the lockdown. The whole point is to keep distance so that the virus cannot be transmitted from one person to another. But I don’t need to comply with the policy in order to comply with the rationale. It won’t hurt anyone if I sit by myself in an empty park, or if my family and I have a picnic far away from others. It’s exactly the same as staying at home or in my own garden. Except that it’s Sunday, it’s springtime, and the weather is so nice (not really the best time to enforce a lockdown, admittedly). So maybe I can just go out and do what I would still be doing at home, as far away from people as I would be at home.

Actually, I can make my case even more compelling to myself. Suppose my neighbour and I both decided to have a picnic in our respective gardens. That’s allowed by the current Governmental measures. If we both do that, we would likely be closer to each other than we would if we both, or if one of us, had the picnic in the park.

I do not think everyone should feel free to have a picnic in the park. But since very few are doing it, I don’t see the problem in me having my picnic outdoors”.

Enter ethics

The story you have just told yourself is a nice one. Unfortunately, there is a different and, I will argue, more convincing story that makes it unethical for you to have your picnic in the park.

One common-sense approach to morality that might be used to explain why it is wrong is a simplified version of what moral philosophers would call ‘universalisation test’.

Very simply, the universalisation test consists in asking: What if everyone did that? It’s not that you are special or more entitled than others to break the rule. If you had your picnic just because you enjoy it and in spite of the rules, then everyone else who is as non-special as you may do the same. There are two ways to explain why this conclusion might make having the picnic morally wrong.

First, one could tell you that this conclusion would contradict the very notion of ‘rule’: if everyone thought that they could break a rule whenever they feel like, the very concept of ‘rule’ would become self-contradictory and therefore meaningless and unusable. By definition, a rule is something that people ought to respect even if they preferred not to.

Second, someone else could tell you, in a more pragmatic and intuitive fashion, that if everyone adopted the same approach, soon the park would be full of people. Which would make the virus very happy.

(These two approaches, roughly, reflect a Kantian approach and a rule-consequentialist approach to ethics, respectively).

Admittedly, by itself the universalisation test as presented is not too convincing (unless you really buy into Kant’s rationalistic approach, which is very unlikely, unless you are a certain type of philosopher). You might want to reply to the common-sense universalisation test that the maxim – or principle of action – you are following is not the quite general one: ‘I am going to have my picnic in the park even if the law does not allow it, just because I like it’. You might be holding a more specific and sophisticated one, along the lines of: ‘I am going to have my picnic in the park even if the law does not allow it, just because I like it, but only as long as very few other people do it”. This maxim does survive the universalisation test (at least within the consequentialist framework): if everyone did that, it would still be possible to have the required social distancing and, on top of that, some people would be able to enjoy their picnic in the park. It seems optimal.

(This is, roughly, how the philosopher R.M Hare defended his version of rule-utilitarianism, i.e., by building the necessary or desirable exceptions to general rules into the rules themselves, making them universalisable in their more specific form).

Problem solved, then? No way.

Maintaining social distance is a collective action problem. It requires cooperation by a sufficiently large portion of the population. No single individual, or no small group of people within a community, can successfully ensure that social distancing is maintained. Granted, we can tolerate a small number of people acting upon that very specific maxim, as long as we have the assurance that the number remains small. But here are 2 problems:

1) how do we pick out the few privileged ones that can enjoy themselves in the park while the others stay home?

2) how do we have the assurance that enough people cooperate?

The first question shows why there is a moral obligation not to have that picnic even if it does not make a difference – i.e. even if no else is in the park. Very simply, it is unfair. If the obligation to maintain social distancing is a matter of collective responsibility, then the burdens of this collective responsibility ought to be fairly shared across the individual members of the collective. To the extent that we value fairness in itself – as many of us do – then there is a moral obligation on each of us to make our fair contribution, even if it does not make a difference. It is fair that each of us stays home, especially given that each of us will benefit from the good that social distancing will bring about.

You might not be convinced by all this. You might think that yes, fairness is a nice idea, but it can’t be that important. What really matters is not harming others.

Even if you thought that, you might still want to consider why it is that people value fairness. We are less inclined to make our contributions, where our contributions make a negligible difference to the collective good and when we know that other people are not doing their fair share. That’s just part of our psychology. Fairness is one of the foundations of human interactions and societies. We make our contributions but we want to know that others do the same. You hold yourself up to a certain standard to the extent that you expect other people to live up to the same standard.

It is easy to see this mechanism at work in many everyday situations, including in these days. Suppose there is a rule in place – e.g. prohibition of picnics in the park, but it can be something else – and you make some sacrifice in order to respect it. But then you see that other people are not making the same sacrifices as you. You take your daily walk in the park and you see people having their picnic there. Your immediate reaction would probably be either to tell these people that they should not do what they are doing – thus creating some form of social pressure to comply, at the cost of coming across as the annoying moraliser in the park; or to relax your attitude and to feel inclined to break the rule as well. That is because you perceive that fairness requirements have been violated.

This is an instantiation of what philosophers call the ‘problem of assurance’: we need some reassurance that everyone makes their fair contribution in order to be motivated to make ours. We don’t tolerate freeriders because freeriders bring to light how worthless our individual efforts are if not everyone cooperated (there is a plausible evolutionary explanation for this, but that would take us too far away from the focus of this article).

How can we be reassured that everyone makes their fair contribution, so that we can feel motivated to make ours? This is the second aforementioned question.

State coercion

Often collective action problems require state coercion to ensure that everyone makes their fair contribution. State coercion might, for instance, remove incentives to free ride by imposing large enough penalties – if the state merely asked people to please pay their taxes or to please pay for the bus fare, many (most) people would not do it. Without tax revenue and revenue from tickets, state services and bus service would no longer be guaranteed. State coercion is the more justified, the more important the collective good at stake is, and therefore the more important it is that people cooperate. State coercion gives me enough reassurance that whatever sacrifice I am required to make, other people are likely to do the same. And it gives the same reassurance, and therefore the same motivation, to everyone. We don’t need to worry about other people’s sense of fairness, because by coercing me the state is automatically coercing other people as well. Maybe some people could get away with having their picnic in the park – or with evading taxes, or not paying the bus ticket, and so on – but it is no longer up to me to check whether they comply. The state is assuring me that there is a mechanism in place that motivates or forces them to comply whether or not they would independently want.

State coercion is necessary to solve the problem of assurance, thus preserving fairness and making it more likely that the kind of cooperation necessary to achieve the collective good is realised.

You ought to (be coerced to) stay home, even if it makes no difference.


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55 Comment on this post

  1. You should be able to go into the park with those from your household, provided you stay 3 metres from everyone else. Apply your universalization test: what would happen if everyone did that? No one would be harmed and people would be much happier. Of course there is not enough park space for everyone to go out and have a 3m ring around them. As the shopping crisis shows, we are incapable of voluntarily allocating scarce resources amongst ourselves. And the government won’t be able to enforce a 3 m rule. So we end up with blunt, draconian coercive rules enforced by the government. No park for anyone.

    You should go into the park but you must stay home because you are unfit for more freedom. Unless of course you live in Sweden.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks Julian. Yes of course, all this is based on the assumption that space is a scarce resource (as apparently are masks, hand sanitisers, and apparently in the UK pasta and toilet paper). I should have made that more explicit. One problem is precisely that if I sit in the park, I take way more space away from others than I would do in normal circumstances

      The way you rephrase the point – basically: not enough for everyone, so no park for anyone – is, as I see it, one implication of fairness in regimes of scarce resources. There are alternatives, of course, but difficult to implement, e.g. having a fair lottery to determine who the few lucky ones are who are allowed to go to the park for their picnic.

      So yes, we need state coercion to limit freedom fairly, as we obviously cannot do it ourselves (especially those who come out of supermarkets with tons of pasta and toilet paper)

    2. Dunno, where I live we got space and nature in abundance. That argument is kinda a self-fulfilling prophecy. Oh look, if everyone obeyed the 2m or 3m rule we would have a problem. Well yes, if you are stuck in a place with high population density. Make that premise clear, may be Alberto’s argument would fly, but even then, anything relying on rule-utilitarianism aims for sub-optimal. Once it aims for optimal it collapses into act utilitarianism. Can’t see how act utilitarians would find the analysis agreeable, even in high density places. You’d think how you could facilitate avoiding to keep people stuck in their homes, given the staggeringly high psychological cost, rising domestic violence, et etc. How is any that accounted for?

      1. Alberto Giubilini

        Thanks Udo.
        On the ethical theory point, yes, I agree utilitarians (act or rule) would not find my analysis agreeable. But I am not sure that they would be right: the way I have described it, that kind of fairness has an instrumental value that would foster compliance. Rule utilitarians might like it after all: they would need to stick to fairness in order to avoid collapsing into act-utilitarianism, true, but fairness itself can be accounted for within a rule-consequentialist framework.

        About the psychological cost, I agree with you in principle (I have touched on that point in some responses to some comments below): ideally, you’d want people with certain mental health issues – and only them – to be allowed to use the parks, as they need it more, and ‘need’ is a relevant criterion for fairness. Ideally. But in practice, I don’t know how you can reliably identify those who would need the parks most. It also seem to require comparing things that are not really commensurable (the need of people with depression, the need of families with many children, the needs of those who suffer from vitamin D deficiency, and so on…).

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. I’m not so convinced that fairness is satisfied by no-one using a park. I have a garden, and can get vitamin D and enjoy the weather at home. But at other times in my life, I have lived in a studio flat with no garden. It would be fairer I think if those who had gardens stayed home and those who did not were allowed to (safely) use parks. There may still be overcrowding if everyone in that situation went at the same time, but that applies to all public resources: sometimes you can’t use the swimming pool because others got there first. So we could allow those who don’t have gardens to use parks in a first come first served basis, and that would be I think fairer than the current situation.

    Of course there are practical problems with using parks: no matter how good your intentions, it can be hard to stay 2m apart, and it is too difficult for law enforcement to check if people are only using it have gardens, and/ or are only close to those who live with. I think it is reasonable in the short term if it is an important time-sensitive restriction (as this is) to have an unfair situation imposed for the sake of easy enforcability. But I don’t think we should kid ourselves that this is fair. It is a rough and ready solution to prevent a bad health outcome.

    I would also resist the notion that we should be accepting of unfair rules for the sake of those who want to police other people’s self-isolation but accept that psychology might work the way you describe to produce a bad outcome and again this should be avoided. Again though, I think that the solution of denying everyone is only allowable for a minimum time while a better solution can be put up (such as entry checks to parks that assure everyone that a robust system in place).

    I agree with your conclusion but think that the situation is more that we must accept an unfair situation because in the short term we are not able to put in place practical measures that would enable a fairer one to be put in place. Levelling down equality should be avoided- especially when other forms of inequality persist and combine to make the worse off even worse off. In the face of an important and time-sensitive problem, expediency might trump these issues. But I hope that if the situation persists longer term, we find ways to safely reinstate fairer use of resources.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thank you for the comment Sarah.

      Your application of the notion of fairness (only the ones without garden can enjoy the park, on a first-come first-served basis) is more sophisticated than the one I have provided. In principle I agree with you. One problem is of course practical: as you mention, enforcing this policy would be very difficult, and would probably itself take away resources that might be better used elsewhere. I am not entirely sure fairness would be completely satisfied by your policy either (for instance, the park is much nicer than most people’s garden, so maybe those without the garden would actually be better off), but a perfectly fair policy that takes into account all the relevant factors is really impossible to implement. If your suggestion were feasible, I would certainly prefer it to mine

      The other solution you suggest – entry checks to parks – seems similar to what we already see in supermarkets. I would agree with that but only if we find a system of allowing people that is both safe and fair. But again I see practical problems (e.g. people lining up outside parks, which is not ideal).

      Levelling down equality is not what we should pursue, of course. And I don’t think we should pursue equality either. What we want is fairness, not (necessarily) equality. But I would say levelling down equality is at the moment the best we have, given feasibility constraints (the lottery system I suggested in the reply above and your suggestions here are probably preferably because they preserve some form of fairness without levelling down, but at the moment hardly implementable).

      Thanks though, your comment certainly emphasize how talk of fairness is more complex than a blogpost like this might suggest

  3. Richard Yetter Chappell

    The relevant moral rule here is surely just “keep a safe distance from others”. Having a picnic in the park, while a safe distance from others, does not violate this rule. So it raises no ‘free-rider’ or ‘assurance’ problems. It may indeed undermine other rules, like ‘keep out of the park no matter what’, but that isn’t the right moral rule anyway. We should just want everyone to keep a safe distance from others.

    The real problem, I take it, is just that many people would predictably fail to comply with this rule & keep a safe distance from others were they to go out. But it seems to me that this is the moral failing of just those people, and does not necessarily mean that one who safely picnics is doing anything wrong in the least. (It’s hardly fair to blame or punish them for others’ moral failings.)

    Perhaps the State can justifiably impose a strict “don’t go out!” rule, given their inability to distinguish between those who are vs aren’t capable of safely following a more fine-grained rule. But again, I don’t see any good reason to obey such a rule if you’re reliably able to break it without harming anyone. (This is perfectly universalizable: anyone capable of reliably breaking laws without harming anyone should feel free to do so. Optimal non-compliance is a familiar phenomenon, and one we should generally welcome.)

    Some people may then be motivated to break the law in the *mistaken* belief that they were capable of doing so without harming anyone. Those people act wrongly. But what’s the justification for blaming the right-doers for the actions (and reactions) of the wrongdoers? Even if the wrongdoers are reacting (e.g. via inept mimicry) to what the rightdoers are doing, they are reacting wrongly, and that’s their responsibility.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks for your comment Richard.
      I see your point about the problem of blaming (and indeed punishing) someone for the moral failings of others. However, I don’t agree this is the right way to frame the issue.
      As I see it, the problem here is that the rule as well as any exception one would want to make for oneself would be implemented in a context of scarce resources (scarce space, in this case). The taking up of too much space is not necessarily the result of someone’s moral failing (someone taking up more space than they would be allowed), but the inevitable consequence of there being too many people for the space available in parks, if we assume that everyone could have their picnic in the park. You say: “I don’t see any good reason to obey such a rule if you’re reliably able to break it without harming anyone” and you say that this is universalisable. But given the limited resources, this is only universalisable if we assume that few people go to the park for the picninc – that’s the only way you can go to the park ‘without harming anyone’. And this raises the issue of who the few people should be, which raises fairness considerations. Any one individual adopting that maxim is not harming anyone, of course, but when you universalise the maxim, harm does not seem the only relevant consideration anymore. Fairness becomes relevant.
      Once we consider fairness, it seems to me the distinction between wrongdoers and rightdoers is different from the one you picture, because the criterion for right and wrong is fairness, not harm. So it is not so much that you punish the rightdoers for the mistakes of the wrongdoers, but that once we accept the universalisation test as a relevant criterion and consider the limited resource, your criterion for right and wrong (harm) does not seem to me to be the correct one.

      1. Richard Yetter Chappell

        I worry that you’re conflating separate issues here (universalizability vs ideal allocation). The rule I discuss remains universalizable given scarce space, it’s just that once the space is filled the only way to follow the rule is to avoid filled spaces. That doesn’t for a moment change the fact that the rule can be universally implemented, including by those who got to the park before it was full. It just means that we can further ask *additional* questions about fair or ideal allocation.

        But that is a further issue. I meant to be replying to your ‘problem of assurance’, which you offered in response to the thought that “fairness… can’t be that important. What really matters is not harming others.” If you grant that your argument there fails, and are now just retreating to the idea that fairness trumps all else, then we can move on to discussing that now.

        You assume a levelling-down conception of fairness: that if not everyone can fit in the park, it’s fairest (and hence overall morally best?) if no-one at all gets to go. This strikes me as pretty obscene. You might as well argue that it’s wrong to enjoy one’s backyard, because some other people don’t have backyards. (Do you think this? If not, why not?)

        Or consider parks in ordinary circumstances. Playground equipment is scarce, and sometimes there are not enough swings for all the kids who want to play on them. Does it follow that no kids should be allowed on the swings, on grounds of fairness? Again, this would be an obscene suggestion. Usually, we default to a kind of ‘first come first served’ approach with queueing, and norms against “hogging” the scarce space for too long when others want a turn. The very same norms could be extended to our present circumstances. Perhaps we could improve on them by invoking broader notions of need (as other commenters have mentioned, families without private greenspace are plausibly in especially high need now, so it would be generous for those with less need to move aside here). But “nobody gets the good” is about the worst allocation proposal possible, and certainly worse than the standard little kid norms.

        1. Alberto Giubilini

          I don’t think I am conflating issues. Your rule is not universalisable given scarce resources, unless we mean different things by “universalisable”. You say that “it’s just that once the space is filled the only way to follow the rule is to avoid filled spaces”. That means that universalising your rule implies a contradiction and it is impossible to follow when the space is filled up. Hence, the rule is not universalisable (even by using your perspective only focussed on individual harm: if the park is full, people will very likely get infected)

          The rule I was using included the clause “only as long as very few other people do it”. That is universalisable (within a consequentalist perspective) if you think the only criterion to assess morality is individual harm to others. But my point is precisely that that is not the only criterion. What you are focussing on is collective harm, but addressing how to avoid collective harm requires addressing additional issues of fairness, or at least that is what I argued.

          (so no, I don’t grant that my argument there fails, as you suggest)

          My levelling down solution might strike you as “obscene” – which is quite a strong term which I normally reserve for other things. But as long as we use it to describe ethical views, to me it seems more obscene to think that one can break rules whenever doing so doesn’t harm anyone, which is your view in the first comment: this would justify tax evasion, freeriding on public transports, and many other things that many consider unethical (again, I am talking about individual, not collective harm)

          I addressed the concern about “levelling down” in a reply to a comment above. It is not ideal, and I don’t think it is what we should aim for in normal circumstances (nor do I think equality itself is what we should aim for, for that matter). But these are not ideal or normal circumstances. So what you present as things we “usually” do – e.g. first come first served basis – is not necessarily relevant to addressing the current, very unusual circumstance.

          First come-first served solutions are often fair in normal circumstances for certain type of goods (e.g. playgrounds), but they don’ t seem to be fair when it comes to very important goods, i.e. goods people care more about and are more important – even vital – in a certain situations (which is why I think your playground example doesn’t work). For instance, supermarkets had to justifiably limit the number of important goods that people could purchase to address the issue of panic-buying: first-come first-served basis in this case was not seen as the fair criterion, and rightly so. Same goes for space in the park.

          Need might itself be a fairer criterion in this case, as I said above, but very difficult to implement in these circumstances (would an elderly person living alone and with mental health issues need the park more than a family with 2 or 3 children? I honestly don’t know)

          1. Richard Y. Chappell

            We may be getting into diminishing returns here, but let me clarify a few points.

            (1) My rule was “keep a safe distance from others”. Scarcity of space merely makes a difference to how one implements this rule, it makes no difference to its universalizability. Suppose the park can safely fit just 10 people. Then my rule is successfully universally implemented if people enter the park (while maintaining safe distance from each other) only while fewer than 10 people have already done so, and all subsequent visitors — seeing that the park is now full — stay clear. (The same applies to the rule, ‘break the law against picnics only if you can do so without endangering anyone.’ Again, this can be universally followed by everyone doing the following: (i) check if the park is full; (ii) if it is already full, then do not enter; (iii) if it is not yet full, then feel free to enter while maintaining a safe distance from others. There is plainly no contradiction here, so I don’t understand why you keep insisting that there is.)

            Since safe picnickers do not violate this rule, their actions shouldn’t undermine others’ motivation to also follow this rule, so no ‘problem of assurance’ would seem to arise (in relation to this rule).

            (2) re: allocation, the key question is how your leveling down / “nobody gets the good” proposal compares to others. The fact that the status quo approach is imperfect (which I agree) is no reason at all to propose an alternative which is plainly worse.

            Supermarket purchase limits help to achieve a better allocation, by contrast, so do not support you here. Of course, they still sell out anyway, so I’m not sure why your principles don’t lead you to think that supermarkets should level down by refusing to sell toilet paper to *anybody* now! What exactly is the justification for leveling down in parks but not back yards or supermarkets? Saying “these are not ideal or normal circumstances” is not yet to give any sort of reason for aiming at a positively bad outcome, which in any other circumstance we recognize as a positively bad outcome.

            As a point of ethical theory, I should think that circumstances (odd or otherwise) should not change our fundamental moral goals, but only how best to achieve them. So no, you have not adequately addressed the objection to levelling down, which is that it’s always and everywhere morally wrong to gratuitously (in a way that helps no-one) make things worse, or bring about a Pareto-inferior outcome.

            P.S. I disagree that my principle “would justify tax evasion,” etc., since I think such acts can be straightforwardly harmful. At any rate, I do not endorse bringing about worse results. If necessary, one could weaken my original principle to explicitly disallow being part of a (uniformly motivated) group that collectively causes harm (if you think excluding individually harmful acts doesn’t suffice to already cover this). I just left it out since I consider it redundant.

            1. Alberto Giubilini

              “so I’m not sure why your principles don’t lead you to think that supermarkets should level down by refusing to sell toilet paper to *anybody* now!”

              Because my principles aim to reconcile effectiveness with fairness. Actually, effectiveness through fairness. The point of limiting number of items purchased is to make sure everyone gets some. Everyone=fairness in this case. If everyone gets some, the system is fair and effective. You cannot have the same with space in the park. If everyone gets some, people get infected.

              You acknowledge that the reason why your alternative principle does not justify tax evasion is that you think individual tax evasion is harmful. So you acknowledge individually produced harm is the criterion for rightness and wrongness. But if you evade taxes, the difference you would make to the economy of your country, and to your country capacities to provide a certain level of services, is literally 0. So your individual tax evasion is not harmful, by itself. So your principles justify tax evasion. It is not enough that you “think” that it is harmful. It is not. You need fairness to make it wrong

              1. Richard Y Chappell

                (1) As there are still TP shortages, it is simply not the case that “everyone gets some”. Many people are still without, so by your principles the system is “unfair”. (This is even more obviously true of backyards: not everyone has one, so by your principles nobody ought to!)

                Limiting items purchased instead serves the goal of optimizing allocation by *increasing* the number of people who get to access the good (even though this number still falls short of “everyone”). If we took the same goal of wanting *as many people as safely possible to have access to the good* to apply to the good of park access, that leads to my view that some (safe) picnicking is better than none.

                (2) Very small differences are not “literally zero”. (If they were, multiplying them by millions of contributors would still equal zero, which we know is not the case.) Further, even if (per impossibile) individual contributions literally made “no difference” in collective harm cases, it still would not be true that “you need fairness to make it wrong.” Read Parfit on moral mathematics.

      2. Harrison Ainsworth

        “And this raises the issue of who the few people should be, which raises fairness considerations.”. Well, but how does ‘fairness’ enter this?

        Fairness is not the aim here; the aim is beating the pandemic. People will be, and ought to be, treated differently: some need hospital, others not, some need public parks, others have gardens, some are working in healthcare, others in food supply. The more sophisticated, and hence probably effective, the system of response, the more precisely it will differentiate people’s needs and abilities.

        How would you adjudicate possible alternative rules? It would not be fairness, it would be whether they work; fairness could only be secondary. ‘Fairness’ is a misleading term/concept here: it is a kind of proxy for the real distinctive feature of moral systems: that everyone shares the same goal rather than acting individually.

        A perfectly fair (in the sense of treating the same) moral system would be incompetent. It could never work as a coordinative means because it could never resolve any resource contention: if everyone had to be treated the same, it would yield only stalemate. Given a resource that only a single person can use, who should get it? Fairness cannot solve this – the premise has intrinsic unfairness. And this is the very premise of any interesting moral problem! There must be some local asymmetry to build the globally shared structure. Moral systems work not by fairness but by their clever arrangement of (inevitable physical) *un*fairness, in service of some other shared end.

        1. Alberto Giubilini

          Thank you. Fairness can be one aim, if you value fairness intrinsically, as many people do. But I agree that the primary aim here is effectiveness. The problem of assurance, though, means precisely that there is an instrumental value in fairness: people are more likely to comply under some fair arrangements (maybe this is close to what you meant when you say that fairness is a proxy: I agree on that on this understanding). A fair system is more likely to be effective.

          Fairness does not necessarily means equality. Actually, most often it does not. You assume that a perfectly fair system is one where everyone is treated the same. But I agree that that is not necessarily what we should aim for or what is fair. But it is what we should aim for in this case because alternative fair arrangements are not implementable, as I see it. You say that some people ‘need’ resources more than others. Need is itself a criterion for fairness. The problem is that it is sufficiently easy to implement in certain settings – e.g. hospital beds: you can easily determine who needs them most – but not in others – parks: I really don’t know if someone with depression needs the park more than a single parent with children. You cannot have that fairness criterion, but you do need one. And you want one that miniizes the risk of contagion.

          I really don’t know what the alternative would be. Even if we agreed that we should leave fairness off the table, I don’t know how you could have an effective system that is feasibly implementable

  4. A growing trend across many countries is a further, and arguably necessary requirement to restrict the travel of all people to within their own immediate parish or similarly smaller political geographical boundary. With parks being funded by local authorities in the UK it would appear that the volume difficulties parks could experience in many areas then becomes resolved, provided people behave sensibly, but it seems that sensibility is generally not expected to be exercised. An additional local benefit in the above is those who pay for the parks could reap the value from their contributions without outsiders crowding them out. Clearly this is a very simplistic and selfish scenario, but coherent with the one many nations states are following more largely in closing their borders and turning their backs upon others in need, even for others where no alternatives are available (e.g. cruise ships).

    Whilst hierarchical systems can be viewed as a measuring method used to validate access or priority for scarce or distant resources and were historically acceptable they are largely loosing their sustainability with many probably subsequently becoming more secretly exercised allowing societies to initially ignore/deny they happen. Membership of a nation state involves hierarchy, as defining access to parks by the type of property occupied falls within a hierarchy and becomes included. It would be equally arguable that families with children have more need and could benefit most from access to those facilities at this time, that would certainly have an additional advantage of baring lone dog walkers who have been historically accused of causing a fouling problem, but should dogs be denied because of a lack of proper social action by their keepers?

    The main facet coming out of the COVID-19 tragedy appears as the largely missing good neighbour/samaritan spirit within the political classes where a necessary focus upon the utility of needing to keep each nations own health provisions functioning is frequently resulting in the denial of others and exhibiting a very selfish (not unexpected due to egoism) just in time pandemic resourcing trend even while attempting to project, or ride upon a more widely acceptable cultural facet in attempts to outlive the pandemic. There are of course laudable exemptions.

    This all results in the questions;
    Why does any prioritization so often merely reflect existing hierarchical/organizational structures? At a nation state level when is prioritization acceptable, and when is it not?
    If perceptions of need mainly drive ethics, can ethics be truly moral, or do they merely reflect particularly focused social needs? Do ethics arise before, after or within? Does ethics extend prejudice as morality previously has and mainly still does? I suppose for many that will depend on the assigned definitions, for others the chosen philosophy.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thank Ian.
      Your first scenario – limiting movement to restricted areas, say one’s neighborhood – would only be fair and effective, it seems to me, on the assumption that each neighborhood (or otherwise specified area) has green spaces that are large enough to accommodate everyone in the neighborhood and thus preserving social distancing. That does not seem to be the case. Maybe this is a case where it is ok to sacrifice fairness – if you’re unlucky enough to live in a neighborhood without enough green space, then too bad for you. That’s unfortunate, but it’s just how it is. But as I say in the post, violations of fairness could result in lower compliance, so I am not sure it would be effective. But that is very much an empirical question. You might be right.

      I am not sure I understand your point about hierarchical systems. Access to public parks and to other public goods (e.g. a public health care system) is, almost by definition, not defined by hierarchical structures: everyone has an equal right to access the park and allocation of scarce public health care resources is normally determined by need, not by hierarchy (with notable and probably justified exceptions, e.g. if you are the Prime Minister it is probably right that you have priority access to testing and treatment, in the interest of the country).

      Need is certainly a relevant ethical criterion – probably more in the case of allocation of public health resources than in access to public parks. But if I understand your point, it seems you want to suggest that in this particular situation, ‘need’ should be used as a criterion to allocate access to parks: those who need it the most should have priority. This though seems to beg the question: who needs parks the most? People might be thought to need access to parks because they have mental health problems, or because they have children, or because they live alone with a big dog, or because of whatever else you might think creates a special need for using the park for a picnic (lack of vitamin D?).

      If we could answer the question about ‘need’ satisfactorily, maybe that would be a relevant criterion to take into account to determine fair allocation of space in the park.

      1. “violations of fairness could result in lower compliance”

        Do not violations of fairness cause lowering levels of compliance. They frequently paradoxically appear as cause and effect, often linking into selfishness, depending upon the interpretation applied to any perceived violation. As a normal rule could it not be said they can also result from emotional reactions to perceived violations of expectations.

        The point regarding hierarchical systems included hierarchies of need and links into prioritization processes. e.g. If societies/civilizations (Social Groups) may be viewed as creating rules/laws which confirm and affirm their existence. With many rules/laws increasingly becoming seen as banal over time (see Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ to understand the limited meaning applied in that word) as consideration of needs causes prioritisations supporting other needs and structures each gradually excluding others (people not within the focused social group and as a result some of the regulations may then be seen as evil either at that time or later as understanding increases). In those contexts the perceived utility of individual nation states in closing their borders down when under threat (albeit by something unseen which does not recognise political divisions) appears as a denial of others and a banal reaction. Closing down a local area to assist contain a health threat of this type is possibly sensible if other measures cannot immediately be used, but many of the decisions since that time indicate a high probability other factors are being given priority in the decision processes.

        Utilising that viewpoint; Using only focused hierarchical considerations can create supportive ethical arguments which are dangerously misleading where wider moral or ethical considerations are concerned, and in my view a global pandemic would be a wider consideration. Considering the global situation only from a privacy perspective and nation states are mainly exercising ordinary, common, privacy mechanisms rather than considered ethical responses, which reveals much of the utility of most of the actions..

        That hierarchical conceptual viewpoint also seems to answer your question of ‘need’ as a basis of ethical fairness. But you may not necessarily be limiting that particular word to physical need, in which case other facets and scenarios exist.

        Luckily my circumstance is one where no park is required, which would complicate the subject.

  5. It’s a pandemic, people are dying, the ethical thing to do, on your own, is just stay home. I live in a Canadian province with one million people, we have space galore. Four weeks ago we were told to stay home … We did and currently have 240 cases (we test alot) 2 in ICU in different cities & 4 new cases today. We can go for a physically distanced walk in our parks PERIOD. Alberto is correct if for no other reason than what’s fair is not always about your individual rights & freedoms.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      thanks for the input Marcia. Very glad to hear that measure is working in your province. I very much agree with your last point: what’s fair is not always about your rights and freedoms. This situation very much requires to shift the focus away from the individual on to the collective good.

    2. Isn’t the point though that you could have socially distantly sunbathed in the park as well as walking around it and still limited your region to 240 cases? The virus doesn’t know the difference between walking and sunbathing.

      It is not impossible that this situation will go on for a year, which might be 1/80th of someone’s life. Therefore, adding restrictions that do not go directly to limiting transition is not nothing/ insignificant. It means poorer people losing access to public resources that are an important part of having a life with greater wellbeing. We should at least think about it and whether there is a way of safely doing it if this goes on longer term.

  6. Another attribute of a good rule is that it should be simple and verifiable. Of course, it is more optimal to allow people into parks on condition that they maintain 3m distance. However that’s a much more complicated rule than don’t go to the park at all. Immediately, you’d have minor violations – children or animals violating the distance rules or non-family groups joining together. You couldn’t prevent those minor violations and any attempt to do so would result in social tension (arguments between people) or accusations that the authorities are being heavy-handed. The net result would be more social interactions, more infections and more deaths. The only practical choice is to make an overly conservative rule: don’t go to the park. Of course, many people really need the park – living in a flat with no garden or for brief exercise. It’s impossible to write down a comprehensive set of rules about whose needs mean they can use the park, we just need a simple rule. Then we calibrate enforcement – by having a proportionate sanction (level of fine, level of policing, social approbation, sensitive policing) – so that people who really need the park break the rule but not too many of them. Then it becomes an empirical question about whether the level of violation discredits the rule as a social norm.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thank Ian. Yes one of the tenets of rule consequentialism is that the rule should be relatively easy to follow and apply. But the problem here is rather that what would make the rule difficult is not so much the complexity of the rule itself, but the limited space. Keeping distance might be not just difficult, but physically impossible. Hence, for the sake of both fairness and effectiveness, your conservative rule seems the most appropriate to me.
      I am not so convinced about your solution of setting up the policy such that some people can afford breaking the rule. That might turn the breaking of the rule into a privilege (e.g. of the wealthy that can afford paying the fine – which is what happens in other contexts of course, but which does not seem right, ethically speaking). We might want to allow for exceptions based on need – those who need the park the most are allowed to use it. In principle I like this solution, but as I wrote in replies to other comments, it is very difficult to implement as it is very difficult to establish who needs it the most, I think. But I would definitely prefer that solution if it was feasible

  7. In Poland it is now forbidden to enter forests as well as parks for similar reasons. Some forests are close to cities and attracted the same crowds as parks. However I am on the edge of a forest where few people go. If I enter the forest secretly and meet no one then I am certainly not risking any infections (plus I am improving my mental health). The fact that I secretly violate the rule means there is no problem of assurance as no one else can be influenced by my secret actions. My new moral principle becomes: it is ethical to violate the rule on condition (a) I can do no one harm and (b) no one else knows about it. My new principle is self-limiting; if many people adopted that moral principle, and wanted to do the same, then I might begin to encounter people (to my surprise) in the forest. In that case I would – at least on ethical grounds – have to stop entering the forest because of the problem of moral assurance, fairness and solidarity. My behave becomes unethical only at the moment when I am found out. In that case, a fine or similar state sanction is a suitable remedy to maintain the legitimacy of the rule.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks Ian. This is very interesting indeed. Actually, violating rules secretely is considered acceptable by (some) rule consequentialists. I would not have a problem with that. The problem, though, is that without some form of state coercion, people might still suppose that someone is secretely doing that, and just that hypothesis might be enough to reintroduce the problem of assurance. And of course, even more so if, as you hypothesize, you encounter someone in the forest. So it seems to me, all in all, outright prohibition for everyone is still the best option we have, at the moment.

  8. Thank you for your article. It’s fascinating. I have no background in ethics or academia. My daughter wanted to sit n the front garden with two friends who live locally. They promised to stay more than 2 metres apart . I said no and gave the rationale that if everyone did that the ‘Stay home’ message would be pointless. I’m now hugely unpopular! Comforting to read this at a difficult time.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks Louse. Yes this is the kind of things that make you unpopular. Feel free to blame this blogpost if that makes things easier for you .But jokes aside, I do think you did the right thing, especially if other people would have seen your daughter’s friends in the front garden. I don’t see any reason why some people would be allowed while others would not. Your daughter’s friends would not have harmed anyone directly, but this does not mean you were wrong in doing what you did, as far as I see it.

  9. I found this interesting although somewhat “heavy” in places.
    As Marcia of Canada said “We have a Pandemic” surely that tells us that we do as we are asked undeniably hard for most of us – but to keep others safe.
    To help the NHS cope what do these people not understand?
    I do feel very sorry for those trapped inside in flats with children must be very difficult and for those who need to use the lifts to go outside to shop. Squashed in a lift – dreadful and scary. They have it hard. But Not people with pretty gardens to sit in!
    To go out puts others at risk the instruction to stay in with infrequent visits outside needs to be followed for the good of all, the selfish few who still go hiking or rambling (some who actually live close to me) saying they never meet anyone are fooling themselves. They handle gates, they touch stiles where other selfish ramblers may have been they then visit shops touch goods, door handles, and return home smug that they have had their day out as planned.
    If anyone outside falls, or has an accident who do they call the NHS Ambulance Team, they then need care from the NHS Nurses and Doctors. And they will get it! but strain the NHS resources even further, thoughtless behaviour .

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks Mary.
      On your comment, I think you make one very good point when you suggest that people with gardens have an even stronger moral obligation not to gathers in park. Everyone has that obligations for all the reasons you mention, but those who can enjoy green spaces at home even more so, as it is a smaller sacrifice to them

    2. People who go hiking or rambling, unless they drive to get there, are in fact following the government guidelines exactly.

      If you visit a shop and touch things you will have a risk whether or not other people who touched things in the shop also used a gate or stile. As for the risk of accidents, there is likely similar or more risk of falling on your stairs at home and requiring NHS care than on a hike. If you stay home and drink alcohol you increase risk of accidents that need NHS care. If you stay home and cook you increase risk of accidents that need NHS care. If you stay alone in a small flat and develop mental health issues, you risk needing NHS care. But none of these are selfish, they are just part of life.

      Clearly we need to minimise interactions between people, and we need to reduce the risk of needing NHS care. But we need to do it with a view to long term sustainability and especially according to their effectiveness at the goal of reducing infections, which is presumably what the public health advice is intended to do.

      1. Alberto Giubilini

        Yes I agree. The current lockdown – at least in places like the UK, where I live, or even more so in Italy – is not sustainable in the long term. But at the moment, we are not yet at the point at which it is no longer sustainable. My post referred to the current situation – in the UK we are just 2 weeks into the lockdown. In the long term, we would need to relax the rules at some point, which will have other kinds of costs. Including perhaps sacrificing fairness.

        I am not sure the risk of domestic accidents is higher than the risk of contracting a severe form of coronavirus. That is an empirical issue that it might well worth looking into. It’s certainly relevant for the overall assessment of the cost-effectiveness of current measures.

        1. I was not referring to your post but to the comment here.
          I agree the current rules are sustainable at the moment. I think removing walks would be unsustainable for the longer term (I heard they were thinking of relaxing that in Italy actually?)- which is what this post seemed to suggest.
          Likewise I in no way meant to compare the risk of coronavirus to the risk of domestic accidents!! I meant to compare the risk of falling on a hike with the risk of domestic accidents. Also an empirical question of course, but I think one more likely to be comparable!
          Sorry it was not clear. I was responding only to the issues in the comment above and not to your post.

  10. Rebecca Roache, Royal Holloway University of London

    I’m not at all convinced by this. A form of the universalisation test applies even without the pandemic: what if everyone went and had a picnic in the park? The result would be, presumably, that the parks become so crowded that everyone’s picnic becomes cramped and less enjoyable. So, the pleasure of having a picnic in the park even in normal circumstances depends on not everyone doing it, to such an extent that if the parks were too crowded with picnickers, some people who would otherwise have liked a picnic in the park will choose not to do it – this attitude of ‘I’d like to go to the park/beach/other open space but won’t do that today because it will be super busy’ is common. (An analogous point applies to many (most?) other things we do in public.)

    Another point is that the government already recognises the importance of leaving one’s house during the pandemic, to exercise and perhaps also just to enjoy the mental health benefits of being outdoors and getting a change of scenery. To enable people to do this while also keeping a proper distance between each other, we need as much outdoor, publicly accessible space as possible. And having people sitting down having a picnic makes them easier for others to avoid than people who are walking around, especially walking round on narrow pavements where they need to pass others.

    There’s also the important point that the lockdown is more difficult for some people than for others. People with spacious houses and pleasant gardens can enjoy a picnic privately. Those living in small flats without outdoor space can’t. People with children at home probably need to get outdoors more often than they would if they lived alone because their children get whiney and squabbly if kept indoors for too long (speaking from experience here). Some disabled and ill people can’t spend their outdoor time walking around, yet might still want to enjoy the outdoors. These inequalities are more pronounced in built up, urban areas, where it can be difficult to go outdoors without encountering many other people. Parks are especially important in these areas, as expanses of open space with a clear view of how close other people are.

    Finally, we don’t know how long this situation is going to last, and many people are already finding it difficult. Continued public support is more likely if the policies involved are viewed as fair and sensible. Telling people that they should not enjoy picnics outdoors, when they are taking care to stay appropriately distant from other people, is not likely to viewed as fair and sensible, I think. If it turned out that allowing people to picnic in parks resulted in overcrowded parks and a consequent public health risk and over-burdened police force, then more draconian measures can be introduced – but without such consequences, those measures are unjustified. This situation is stressful enough without Kant running the government 😉

    1. Thanks Rebecca

      I think the main issue is to find a criterion for applying the social distancing at the collective level (not just between any 2 individuals or small group of individuals) in a way that is fair.

      Now, from your post (and from others too), it seems that we agree on this general principle, but that the point of contention is what counts as fair. I have suggested ‘no one goes to the park’ – because if 1 goes, then everyone else feels and is entitled to go as well (it is unfair if only that 1 goes, or if only that small group go). This is not the only criterion possible, of course. You suggest ‘need’ as a plausible alternative (some people need the park more than others for a number of reasons, as you say: they don’t have private gardens and/or they have children and/or they have mental health problems, etc). I agree on this in principle – as I have said in response to a few other comments, and as I explain a bit better in a version of this post that is coming out in Think. But I really don’t know how you could assess ‘need’ in a way that would allow to prioritize people. If that was feasible, I would agree with you. But I really don’t see how. Many people could claim they ‘need’ the park. Maybe everyone could claim that. And then you’re back with more or less the same problem. Maybe we could start with a basic distinction: those who have private gardens can’t use parks. But I am not sure even that would be fair (how many people share the garden? Is it noisy and unpleasant? etc)

      If we accept that fairness matters (leaving aside for a moment what a feasible and fair arrangement is), then the universalisation test by itself is not enough to determine what the ethical thing to do is, because it does not account for fairness. So, with regard to your first point, I agree that also in normal circumstances the universalisation test would not work. But my point was precisely that we need a criterion for fairness when the test is applied in contexts of collective action problems. The test itself is not sufficient. In normal circumstances, a first-come first-serve basis would probably be fair enough. But in these circumstances I am not sure: you might end up with people with big gardens going early to the park to spend the whole day there. This does not sound fair in these circumstances. Maybe you could combine a first-come first-served criterion with a need criterion: only those who need parks the most are allowed, but only on a first-come first served basis. But this would be even more difficult to implement. As I see it, the fair thing to do, given the circumstances and feasibility constraints, is to distribute the burdens equally, even if it is a levelling-down solution. Even more so considering that the fewer people around, the better from an epidemiological perspective.

      One problem is that at some point we will need to decide that the epidemiological perspective is no longer what matters the most, because the toll for people in terms of mental health and economic loss will be too great. Maybe this is a practical considerations in favour of having less draconian measures now., as you say. I don’t know, it is very much an empirical issue. Less draconian measures now also mean increased risk now, which does not seem consistent with the strategy of “flattening the curve” in the UK. But this is not sustainable for too long.

      About your point on picnic vs walking: it’s something I was wondering as well. It would seem easier to keep distance from people who are staying in one place having their picnic than from too many people who are moving. But I am not sure that is true. First, people who have picnics usually don’ t really stay in the same place. Second, part of the strategy is to minimize time outdoor. You can walk or run for an hour, but a picnic could last the whole day. I suppose this is what makes walking/running less risky.

  11. I feel that in theory I agree with your point, however, in practice it feels a little unobtainable. Me and my parter today were guilty of sitting for approximately 20 minutes in our local park remaining as far away from others as possible as we have no access to a garden or any other outside form of outside space from our second floor flat. I can understand why those with the luxury of a garden should enjoy the sun from within them, as I do not have this privilege it makes it difficult to enjoy any of the sunshine; or indeed fresh air and thus a walk through the park, or even sitting down on the grass (for short periods) seems to be the only option. This then of course then begs the question whether those without gardens should be ‘entitled’ to sitting in parks where those with gardens are not, which again seems to be another issue.

    1. Thanks for the comment Hollie.
      Yes I agree, if people have a garden, they are much better off and maybe it would be fairer to only allow those without gardens to the park. However, I think that would be unfeasible (almost impossible to police), and that people without gardens would still be too many to guarantee social distancing. I understand how difficult this is for certain people, especially those without gardens, and those with mental health problems, and those with children, etc.
      It is also true that often parks are better than private gardens, so it very difficult to come up with an alternative arrangement that is fair and feasible.

      But with regard to your specific case, the Government does allow walking in the park (it is just sitting down that is prohibited at the moment). So there is an alternative way of enjoying the sun and fresh air that is within the rules. That seems a good compromise at the moment, as long as one keeps the 2mt distance from others

  12. The overlords are very pleased by your absolute obedience.

    I couldn’t read past the opening paragraphs of this article. It’s clear right away, you expect to be heard, but have no willingness to listen… (quick wave & walk away)

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks. If you read past the opening paragraphs down to the end, you will see that there is quite a rich discussion in which I have replied to every single comment – including harsh criticism – on this article. I would be very happy to read and reply to any objection to this you might have.

  13. I just want to know why I (EVERYONE/ANYONE) can’t just sit on the grass as long as I keep distance? Why does one have to keep on the move? Also shouldn’t there be special times for families in high rises?

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      Thanks. Why I think you should not (be allowed) to sit in the grass, given the current situation and social distance requirements currently in place, is explained in the article. In a nutshell: because if everyone did that, there would not be enough space, and as I see it there is no way to make exceptions that is fair, effective, and feasible. But this is more extensively explained in the article. As I have written in response to other comments, I am not sure families in high rises need the park for a picnic more than other categories of people. But more in the post.

  14. I only want to know if I can go and sit in my neighbours garden 3 meters away from them! Can I??

  15. Using glassware – we ask that you use plastic cups and bottles where possible. Broken glass is a hazard to other visitors and wildlife and very difficult to remove from parkland. Playing ball games – ball games are only permitted in certain areas of some of the parks. If you want to play ball games, please contact the park office to find out where you should play.

  16. This text fails at a very basic level. Here’s why:

    The author assumes the validity of (1) Principle of Universalisation and (2) Rule-Consequentialism.

    (1) requires that *everybody* stays at home. However, how can we guarantee no one will leave? “By state coercion”, the author says. There you have your contradiction. “people have to stay in their homes because of the Principle of Universalisability” AND “the state can violate the Principle of Universalisability to ensure people are staying in their homes”. By creating an exception for the state, the author is denying the validity of the Principle of Universalisability. He claims the simultaneous validity and invalidity of the principle, which is a self-contradictory absurd.

    (2) the ought he tries to derive comes from an is, which makes it a logically invalid argument (anyone interested in knowing why this is the case should research about Hume’s Law). Therefore, no justification for state coercion was provided and even worse, he contradicted himself in trying to do so.

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      As for comment 1), I don’t see the contradiction you are referring to. I don’t see in what way state coercion violates the principle of universalizability. They seem to me to be 2 separate issues.

      As for comment 2) , I can’t see what are the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ you are referring to. In any case, the fallacy of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is not due to contradiction (which is affirming x and its negation at the same time).

      1. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. My comment was originally written in reply to someone who was arguing against people’s right to leave their houses based on your text.
        I realized later that there were some minor differences between her argument and yours but there’s no editing option enabled in this comment section.
        Nonetheless, I still hold my criticism regarding the is-ought fallacy committed in your article and I shall make my argument more clear now.

        Right away, a statement which resembles an is-ought fallacy occurs in the beginning of the text:

        “The simple answer is: because there is a pandemic and the Government is enforcing a lockdown. You should stay home. End of the story.”

        This resembles an is-ought fallacy because:
        PREMISE: “there is a pandemic” (descriptive statement)
        PREMISE: “the government is enforcing a lockdown” (descriptive statement)
        CONCLUSION: “you should stay home” (normative statement)

        Maybe you were just trying to speak simple language there, but this obviously can’t be considered a philosophical argument given that it is logically invalid and lacks objective justification. And maybe you could argue that this is not an is-ought fallacy and say that you were implicitly considering some subjective values there, but I’d counter-argue that this “loose” way of reasoning would lead you to a fallacy. And I believe I’d be right, since that in the following lines you indeed committed the fallacy I’m talking about.

        ” 1) how do we pick out the few privileged ones that can enjoy themselves in the park while the others stay home?
        The first question shows why there is a moral obligation not to have that picnic even if it does not make a difference – i.e. even if no else is in the park.”

        No, it doesn’t because the question itself is already wrong.

        But independently of the validity of the question, what follows isn’t logically valid:

        “If the obligation to maintain social distancing [no proof was provided there’s such obligation, but I can ignore this for the sake of the argument] is a matter of collective responsibility, then the burdens of this collective responsibility ought to be fairly shared across the individual members of the collective.”

        PREMISE: “the obligation to maintain social distancing *is* a matter of collective responsibility” (descriptive, is-statement)
        CONCLUSION: “the burdens of this collective responsibility *ought* to be fairly shared across the individual members of the collective.” (normative, ought-statement)

        This is an is-ought fallacy.

        But I see you try to avoid it in the next sentences:

        “To the extent that we value fairness in itself – as many of us do – then there is a moral obligation on each of us to make our fair contribution, even if it does not make a difference.“

        If a person values fairness, then you could indeed try to make the argument she has to stay home and it would be a valid argument (at least from the logical point of view). However, since there is an “if” in game, the duty to stay home can’t be deduced as a categorical imperative. It is merely a hypothetical imperative. Hypothetical imperatives are subjective (they depend on what people value) and can’t be given as an objective foundation for law. Thus, you’re making the case for the use of force against people based on a subjective preference.

        But not only this, even for people who value “fairness”, your argument doesn’t hold. You can’t objectively measure, calculate or impose the “fair distribution” of this “collective burden”. Even if two different persons are prohibited from having a picnic at the park, this doesn’t mean they’re sharing a “fair” or “equal burden”, for person A may like having picnics and person B may not like it. Therefore, it’s not a burden for person B to be prohibited from doing this, since he would not want to do it in the first place. So you’re placing a burden on person A but no on person B, even though they’re both fulfilling their responsibility.

        In summary, in this paragraph you:
        – Have not established the categorical imperative/objective duty to stay home;
        – Failed to demonstrate how the law you propose makes the “distribution of the burden” fair;

        Moving on, the rest of the article you have limited yourself to talk about why people value fairness and the “problem” of free-riders. All descriptive talk.

        And then you conclude the article with an ought statement:

        “You ought to (be coerced to) stay home, even if it makes no difference.”

        You have not provided any objective and rational justification for this statement. You have only provided a bunch of descriptive and potentially hypothetical statements, both of which are also very questionable in the manner you presented.

        Your basic idea is “I believe free-riders are a problem and I don’t know how to solve this problem in a pacific way, therefore the state has the right to use violence against pacific people”. I’d say that even in this blog we are debating right now there are free-riders: people who paid absolutely nothing for this article or haven’t made any contribution to the blog and still are getting benefits from it. The same could be said about YouTube: people use AdBlock and watch thousands of videos that are only being produced because other people are paying for it. And this is not a problem, this does not require state violence.

        From 0 to 10, I believe this article deserves a 0, for it gives absolutely no contribution to the study of applied ethics. Or maybe it should be a -10, since you wrote all those paragraphs just to advocate for state violence as a solution for something that isn’t even a problem. You want punishment for a “crime” that has no victim. This is pure tyranny and has nothing to do with applied ethics.

        1. Alberto Giubilini

          Thanks for the lengthy reply. Many of the ways of you reconstruct the argument omit some implicit normative premise (e.g. that there is a prima facie reason to respect government’s directives) or fail to see the normative nature of some premises (e.g. that there is a collective responsbility to do something is a normative claim, because ‘responsibility’ means a moral obligation to do something).

          As for your last paragraph, you’re quite a harsh marker. I think this would deserve a 5.

          1. That simply doesn’t solve the problem.

            “there is a prima facie reason to respect government’s directives”
            This itself needs justification, you can’t just assume it’s “prima facie” and move on like it’s an a priori true sentence. It’s not. I see no reason to respect government directives. In this part you’re acting like some religious folks who try to justify their beliefs with “because God”. Without proving God, the belief isn’t justified. Without proving the need to obey the government, your argument isn’t justified. And I doubt you can justify this “principle” you’re assuming without committing the is-ought fallacy in the process as well.

            As for the second part…
            “there is a collective responsbility to do something is a normative claim, because ‘responsibility’ means a moral obligation to do something”

            I don’t know if you noticed it, but I pointed out that you tried to implicitly make the case for this normative “principle”. Here:
            ” [no proof was provided there’s such obligation, but I can ignore this for the sake of the argument]”
            There are two problems with this you’re trying to do.

            First, it’s the fallacy of circular reasoning. You’re assuming as a premise what you wish to prove, that is, “we have the responsibility to stay home”.
            Second, even considering you’re assuming that (and I noticed you were assuming it), your argument STILL falls for Hume’ Guillotine. Even if it take this unproved premise to be true (as I did), your argument isn’t logically valid. Notice that in the is-ought fallacy I pointed out it makes no difference whether you assume this “obligation” to be true or not because the premise is still a descriptive one:

            > “we have the obligation to do X” (*descriptive* statement about a supposed and unproved normative obligation)
            > “thus the burden of this obligation ought to be distributed like X2” (*normative* conclusion)

            Even if we assume that supposed normative obligation to be true, your argument is still invalid because it isn’t logically deduced from it that “the burden ought to be distributed equally”. That in itself is the is-ought gap.

            Sorry, you wont get away with trying to justify state’s violence.

  17. Monika Terlecka

    If I do not harm anyone, can I have a picnic in the park?
    Yes, you can. But only if the antecedent is always true. And in real life you don’t have the power to prove that you will not cause harm to somebody. A person’s responsibility is not only to follow the rule but to do it with its proper understanding. So far, in the UK, the rules are based on finding the best spot on the 0-to-10 scale, where 0 is the absolute freedom (freedom of movement and pre-pandemic activities) and 10 is the absolute lockdown (nobody can leave their homes, food is delivered to the doorstep by the designated forces, no exercising). As we understand coronavirus at the moment, 0 can lead to uncontrolled and deadly spread of the virus, with millions of fatalities, but life goes on as normal (more or less). 10 is the elimination of the virus over the course of a few months, but we give up personal freedom. Both scenarios harm many: the former – the vulnerable or unlucky enough to have a worse immune system/body response to the infection, the latter – those with pre-existing conditions, which require special treatments, those with mental health problems, those who are forced to share households with abusive cohabitants, etc. As poorly as they do, the government tries to find the best solution between the two extremities and they decided that going out is an important activity for one’s wellbeing but it is safe only if it is relatively short, done in solitary and is unobstructive to others. So, if I believe that such is the safest way to go out/exercise, then I need to admit that having a picnic, which displays none of the aforementioned features, may lead to somebody’s harm. If I have a picnic, maybe I am forcing by-walkers to move closer to each other as I am blocking the space. Maybe I am an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and by staying in one place for longer I increase the risk of contracting the virus by the others. Maybe my actions will persuade somebody else to flout the rules in a similar or different way. “I don’t think it will happen” does not equal “I know it won’t happen”.
    There is unfairness in it, of course. When you live in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, the possibility of your actions causing any harm is close to zero. If you live in a separate house with a big garden, you don’t even see the problem. But the unfairness existed before the virus appeared and will be with us for much longer than the pandemic itself. Unfairness or inequality are hard to implement or be taken as a point in the discussion, as they are a part of a much bigger problem (putting aside the fact that they are, actually, hard to define, beside general terms).
    Of course, as we cannot know for sure what consequences our actions will bring, we might be tempted to give up trying. But those unknown consequences shouldn’t be syllogized ‘ad absurdum’ but taken as a helpful tactic to decide if and how we should act or behave. If we work for charity which helps domestic abuse victims and a pretend picnic is the only way to talk to a victim in a safe space, then we will decide to risk the possibility of spreading the virus, as there is a bigger harm in not meeting the person in need. Yet for most of us, this is not the case. We are not all exceptions.

    1. “If I do not harm anyone, can I have a picnic in the park?
      Yes, you can. But only if the antecedent is always true. And in real life you don’t have the power to prove that you will not cause harm to somebody.”

      So everyone is guilty unless they prove the contrary? Absolutely not. It’s coercion that needs justification, not freedom. It’s you who have the responsibility to prove I’m doing harm to others, otherwise you’re building the road to tyranny.

  18. Dorothy Hickson

    If you are allowed a picnic how can you go if you have no one to take you as my daughters are not allowed to come and see me and why do i have to keep my distance from my daughters as I haven’t seen them for 6 months and very upset they live along way away

    1. Dorothy
      I am sorry your in this situation and hope you are making the best out of this situation. Take care

  19. For one, I really don’t appreciate the term or label, freeloaders. Or whatever it is you call “those people”. You make a very detailed explanation to what you believe and seem to be passionate in your thoughts. I will give you credit for that. I can respect that. But, what you propose I almost completely disagree with, for too many reasons to go through at this time. But a few things that dont make much sense to me are one, why anyone believes or can pretend to believe that staying indoors for this amount of time, in a stuffy house and that going to a park for a picnic in the sunlight and adhering to the distancing from others guidance recommend, is going to be helpful to our immune systems. Do you believe that this is helping our immune systems? And how about the big name grocery stores, hardware stores being mainly the most visited places by huge amounts of the public, is the best thing to do to decrease the spread of any virus? The reason here where I live that lockdown and social distance was implemented was to help slow the spread to limit the load on hospitals. Our hospitals were never overrun. Many of the pop up tent hospitals and the ships were all taken down and not being used due to the fact that they were not needed. We have done what was set out to do by implementing lockdown and so on. The risk of continuing these draconian measures is well above the risk of covid-19, according to the recent finding out of the mortality rate, being well below what was projected by the models. Also, Dr. Lockdown, I am sorry I believe his name is Dr. Ferguson, recently was caught breaking self quarantine and visiting a girlfriend, when he had been tested positive. All the while telling people to stay home and so on. Many people in govt and even at least one in media have been found to abiding by the principle of “rules for thee, not for me”, by telling the people they have to stay locked down and then they go out to gyms,( Mayor Diblasio), or go to salon, (mayor of Chicago, Illinois USA), and Mr. Chris Cuomo and family being seen in the Hamptons when they had covid-19. Something isnt right and I would hope you would reconsider your thoughts on how this pandemic should be handled.

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