Pandemic Ethics: Utilitarianism and the Lockdown

by Roger Crisp

Utilitarianism is in the news. It was widely believed that the UK government’s so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy, which involved sacrificing the important interests of a relative few for the sake of benefits for the many, was motivated by a commitment to utilitarianism. Now several commentators around the world have suggested that decisions to ease lockdowns so as to ‘open economies’ can also be seen for similar reasons as utilitarian.

As far as political motivation is concerned, these suggestions are implausible. In the UK, for example, Boris Johnson may have some vague memories of skimming through Mill while studying for his Moral Philosophy paper at Balliol, but it’s unlikely that they are influencing his political decisions. Indeed as the Sunday Times article cited in the first link above mentions, the government was keen to deny any conversion to utilitarianism.

But whatever the government’s motivations, perhaps it has utilitarianism on its side? According to utilitarianism, the right action is the one that produces the most happiness overall, and it might be thought that, though easing the lockdown will cause a good deal of suffering in the short term, it will produce a greater sum of happiness overall through the longer-term economic effects of enabling people to go back to work.

Brad Hooker has raised a powerful response to this claim about utilitarianism as made in a blog by the CNN Religion editor, Daniel Burke. Hooker points out that, at present, from the point of view of happiness overall the deaths and suffering which would be caused by easing the lockdown would clearly not be counterbalanced by the economic benefits of so doing.

But if, as Daniel Burke did not, we extend the scope of utilitarianism indefinitely into the future, we have to balance the losses of current well-being through deaths against the potential benefits in future that might arise from use of the resources which would otherwise have been used by those who have died, and the resources created through a rebooted economy. The problem is that we have no precise idea of what, from the utilitarian point of view, the optimum number of living people would be in the UK at the present time. (This means that it is a mistake to think that utilitarians should favour saving the young over the old, in ICUs for example.)

Of course, utilitarians do have to take into account the immense grief and long-lasting suffering that a person’s death can cause their family and friends, and it may be thought that, if this suffering is given its proper weight, the utilitarian position will favour continuing the lockdown (and thus avoiding preventable deaths through an otherwise increased risk of contagion).

But lockdown itself is causing great suffering, through increases in intimate partner violence and mental illness, and we have to remember the high levels of poverty and unemployment which are likely to be caused by the recession which has now begun and may go on for a long time. One report last year, for example, estimated that the government’s austerity programme had caused 130,000 preventable deaths since 2012.

So again it’s difficult to say what the utilitarian view is on easing the lockdown, if the debate assumes that everything else remains much the same. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption, and a utilitarian should not. Once we recognize the huge inefficiencies of current distributions of wealth, it is clear that utilitarianism will favour continuing the lockdown, with gradual but large redistributions of wealth from rich to poor to ease the economic and social misery caused by the lockdown.

According to utilitarianism, all happiness (and unhappiness) counts, however and whenever it is produced. To decide what it recommends requires that all sources of happiness have to be taken into account.

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10 Responses to Pandemic Ethics: Utilitarianism and the Lockdown

  • N.D says:

    Excellent article, which I firmly agree with.

    Would just like to know what are your views of Utilitarianism and the pandemic in light of denying elder patients of the virus, treatment as opposed o the youth?

    • Roger Crisp says:

      Thanks, ND. Since we have no idea of whether treating one patient or another will lead to greater happiness in the longer term through the value of the saved patient’s extra years of life , and if all else is equal (e.g. the side-effects of the death of each are equal), utilitarianism does not require us to treat younger rather than older patients. But the ‘fair innings’ principle does speak in favour of treating the younger person, and our following this principle — along with many other common-sense principles — can plausibly be said to be overall beneficial. My blog was primarily about whether applying utilitarianism directly has the implications these commentators are suggesting, so thanks for raising this important point about real-life decision-making.

  • Sub specie aeternitatis says:

    First two minor complaints and then a gigantic yet very easy knock down argument against Crisp’s analysis.

    “Of course, utilitarians do have to take into account the immense grief and long-lasting suffering that a person’s death can cause their family and friends, and it may be thought that, if this suffering is given its proper weight, the utilitarian position will favour continuing the lockdown”

    Most who die from COVID-19 are quite old they would die anyway within a decade or two and would then be similarly grieved. So that factor cancels out.

    “But lockdown itself is causing great suffering …”

    But also great reductions in suffering. Less intoxicated social gathering means less male och male violence. Not net calculation that weigh all such effects on humans has been done.

    “According to utilitarianism, all happiness (and unhappiness) counts, however and whenever it is produced.”

    The overwhelming number of existing individuals capable of happiness/unhappiness are non-human and the aggregated plight from business as usual “animal rearing” easily outshadows all harmful effects on humans from COVID-19. Any utilitarian analysis that does not put non-humans front and center is therefore deeply mistaken. But this practical ethics blog and the whole oxford philosophy elite that it orbits around is deeply speciesist so this comes as no surprise.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, SSA. (1) You are probably right about ‘most’. But the others may tip the balance. (2) Agreed– there are many other sources of happiness and unhappiness which would need to be taken into account. (3) I agree with you about the significance of non-human animals, as I suspect would many of my colleagues. My blog was just about the lockdown.

  • Sub specie aeternitatis says:

    Roger Crisp wrote “I agree with you about the significance of non-human animals, as I suspect would many of my colleagues. My blog was just about the lockdown.”

    It is difficult to believe that assertion in light of your, and this blog’s, very long track record of writing text after text that caters to human interests and does not give equal consideration to the interests of non-humans.

    • Keith Tayler says:

      What do you mean by ‘equal consideration to the interests of non-humans’? Two days ago I had to shot a rat because it was a health hazard. I did not enjoy it and felt sorry for the poor sod, but I had to protect my environment and health. The rat had no concept of ‘interests’ but would no doubt have avoided me if it had seen me. From a behavioural perspective, we could ascribe ‘interests’ to it in order to explain this behaviour, but that, as with so-called AI, can lead to absurdity. As sentient beings, I would not wish to unnecessarily harm a rat, or any other sentient non-human, but I do have to place my interests above its continuing existence if it presents a risk to my health and, in this case, the health of other non-humans. Unfortunately, those non-humans do not presently include a cat that could save me the problem of too many rats.

  • Sub specie aeternitatis says:

    @Keith Tayler: I posted a reply to you but the moderators did not let it through. Here is a second attempt. You don’t sound Wittgensteinian, you sound bad excusian. You have felt pain and suffering in your life, you know how bad those states are. You know that others, also other animals, can experience similar states. That and a few other well established premises is all you need to get to the conclusion. Of course like all other systems of oppression throughout history those with privilege tend to make bad excuses to shy away from engaging with the arguments.

    What does “agree to disagree” mean here? Does it mean that you will continue to fund the violence documented in the films Earthlings and Dominion?

    • Keith Tayler says:

      I said I am a pluralist and indeed, regardless of what you think I sound like, a Wittgensteinian when it comes to describing and understanding “mental states” and the like. I’m certainly not making bad excuses to shy away from engaging with the argument. I was giving you an extremely brief indication as to why our beliefs and values differ, and that I can quite understand why they do and can accept the divide. You must realise that your use of the word ‘interests’ is somewhat problematical, as is the use of language on the website you linked. Anyway, we certainly cannot engage in a detailed discussion of each other’s philosophical positions here, so, as I said, I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

      I have seen Chris Delforce’s film and have for much of my life been broadly in agreement with many of argument he makes. However, we depart on some issues and the underlying “philosophy”.

      SFP

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