Guest Post- Pandemic Ethics: Your Freedom Really Matters. So What?

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

The coronavirus pandemic rages on. To the surprise of many, the enforcement of mask wearing, imposition of lockdowns, and other measures taken to try to halt the pandemic’s march have been met with some heavy and vocal resistance. Such resistance has materialised into protests in various countries against these measures taken by states, companies, and other organisations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

There are a range of reasons one might object to these measures. One reason that has repeatedly been voiced – sometimes shouted through angry un-masked mouths – is that these measures unjustly affect the freedom of those subject to them. The thought is that, for example, being forced to wear a mask, or denied entry into somewhere without a mask, is an unjust restriction of one’s freedom, presumably either to wear whatever they choose or to be free from the interference of others in going about one’s business.

Whatever good reasons there may be to object to these pandemic mitigating measures, I believe this one is simply a mistake. It is certainly true that our freedom, both to do things and from unjust interference, matter morally – they matter a lot too. But the moral significance of freedom, and the mere fact that measures like enforcing mask wearing, imposing lockdowns, and restricting movement do curtail such freedom, does not show that these measures unjustly restrict the freedom of those subject to them during this pandemic.

Failure to see this may be due to a failure to recognise the distinction, drawn by the moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, between the infringement and the violation of a right.

Suppose I have a moral right to bodily security. You would infringe upon that right if you physically harmed me. But you would violate that right if you physically harmed me and acted wrongly in doing so. This distinction is morally crucial. For notice that, despite this right, you could cause me physical harm under certain circumstances where it looks morally permissible (perhaps even obligatory) to do so, such as if harming me is required to save a thousand people from death. In such a scenario, you only infringe my right to bodily security in doing what that right normally protects me from, since you do not act wrongly when doing so.

Now suppose I ordinarily have a moral right to refrain from wearing a mask. You would infringe upon that right if you prevented me from not wearing a mask, like forcing me to wear one to travel in your taxi. But violating my right to not wear a mask would require you to both prevent me from not wearing one and to be acting wrongly in doing so.

So, the question is not whether mandating mask wearing, lockdowns, and the like curtail certain freedoms we ordinarily enjoy. They do. Nor whether such freedoms morally matter. They do. Rather, it is whether these measures constitute violations or merely infringements upon some of our rights by those imposing them. The answer, I think, is that these measures are merely infringements of certain rights.

This is because we act wrongly in imposing significant risk upon others if we refuse to follow these measures, and in some cases we actively harm others by unwittingly infecting them with the novel coronavirus. Such harm is not minor, sometimes fatal, and, as we are increasingly learning, even if not fatal can lead to lasting health complications. Such measures are justified, in short, by those imposing them doing so in what is a large-scale case of the justified defence of, and prevention of imposing gratuitous risk upon, others on their behalf.

So, whilst our freedom matters, and the measures discussed above clearly do curtail our freedom, such restrictions under the current circumstances at most constitute mere infringement upon certain moral rights we enjoy. To think they violate them is to ignore the strong moral reason to follow such measures, which themselves show that the measures only infringe upon said rights.

Some, however, seem to think the value of freedom outweighs any other moral consideration. This would mean that any imposition on one’s moral rights concerning their freedoms are always violations, since any restriction of freedom would be wrong. I suspect many who believe this actually hold inconsistent views, since they likely accept restrictions on one’s freedom under different circumstances, such as thinking it permissible to make it legally mandatory to wear one’s seat belt whilst driving. But even if consistently held, the view is extremely implausible. It entails that there are never any circumstances where one’s freedom to, say, conduct one’s daily life as they wish can be justifiably infringed upon. That is clearly false. It is easy to conceive of situations where that freedom can be infringed and others can justifiably stop me from doing as I wish, such as if I were causing others harm, or exposing others to the high likelihood of experiencing harm.

And once we admit that freedom’s value can in principle be outweighed by competing moral considerations, it becomes very hard to justify thinking both that freedom’s value can be outweighed but that the risks of harm we impose on others during a pandemic by flouting public health measures – taken to prevent the spread of a potentially fatal and otherwise harmful disease – do not outweigh it. The value of your freedom to not wear a mask is, I think, clearly outweighed by the value of preventing the loss of a morally innocent life.

Like anything else we have moral rights to or from, our freedom can be justifiably infringed upon under certain circumstances, such as the current pandemic. Those who deny this, objecting to pandemic mitigating measures on the grounds of freedom curtailment, likely either fail to understand the distinction between violations and infringements of rights, mistakenly believe freedom is so valuable that it can never be justifiably restricted, or implausibly think that freedom can be justifiably restricted in principle but that the present pandemic does not constitute conditions that justify such restrictions.

So, your freedom morally matters – a lot. But, in this case, so what?

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10 Responses to Guest Post- Pandemic Ethics: Your Freedom Really Matters. So What?

  • Sarah says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I wonder though what constitutes ‘significant’.
    Early in the pandemic, I was in a pharmacy which was still running its usual advertisements. On the screen above me a woman with terrible flu symptoms took a pill that enabled her to get back to work and go about her day regardless. It made me realise how irresponsible the advertising was even though a few weeks before I wouldn’t have noticed it.
    Flu is not as deadly as COVID-19 perhaps, but it kills thousands (up to 30k in a year in the UK), mostly elderly but including some younger people, and can lead to severe and longterm complications.
    Why do we ordinarily have the right to freedom from measures like masks but not now?
    It seems to me that either there is a duty of easy rescue to other people from the risk of a fatal or serious disease, in which case we should wear one all the time since it is a low burden and could be life saving, or it is more about accepting the lesser of two losses of freedom (either we wear masks during the pandemic or everyone gets it at once because no-one has immunity and so we have to lock down to protect the health system).

    • Farbod Akhlaghi says:

      Thank you for your interesting comment and questions, Sarah!

      You raise an important and difficult question about precisely what constitutes sufficiently significant risk to make the prevention of imposing it a case of mere right infringement and not violation. And you are right that both influenza and the novel coronavirus are harmful, sometimes fatal, and can lead to lasting health complications.

      I take the risk to be sufficiently significant in the case of the novel coronavirus, but not so in the case of common strains of influenza, due to the uncertainty regarding the precise nature of the longterm complications from the virus, uncertainty over exactly how deadly the virus is all things considered (though it seems already clear that it is at least as lethal as influenza), the higher prevalence of super spreading events of COVID-19 than influenza, the lack of an effective vaccine, and the lack of highly effective and readily available treatments. Since we are clearer on the nature of influenza, often have effective and easily accessible vaccines for strains of it, and, crucially, highly effective treatments, that is why I suspect mandating the public wearing of masks due to the possibility of transmitting influenza would be a violation of our rights to freedom at least under ordinary circumstances.

      But I also think that if there was a certain strain of influenza that we lacked an effective means of prevention and treatment for, did not adequately understand, and which risked or already had generated a global pandemic, then it would be a mere infringement upon our freedoms to mandate measures that would curtail its spread. That situation would, I believe, be relevantly morally analogous to the current coronavirus pandemic. I also think that if we were mandated to wear masks to prevent the spread of influenza in circumstances where vaccines and effective means of treatment are not readily available and we would be interacting with those vulnerable to it then this, too, would be a mere infringement upon whatever rights ordinarily protect us from such measures. So, I think, there is a third option to your two above: that the measures taken to curtail the coronavirus pandemic – given the apparent nature of the virus, our relative lack of understanding of it, its having generated a pandemic, and our present lack of means to adequately vaccinate against or treat it – are currently mere infringements upon certain rights and not violations. But there is plenty to think about there, and my thanks again for your comment.

      • sarah says:

        Thanks for your response. I do see that there is a scale, however, I wonder how much we do know about/ are able to treat flu (apparent from a somewhat/ patchily effective vaccine), and how much we are simply used to it as a background risk- after all 30,000 dying is quite significant and there seems to be an element of randomness in the young people who get heart problems etc from it. But I take your point that we do have other ways of mitigating it, such as the vaccine.

        I also wonder about whether it is really a new restriction on freedom After all, if I went topless to the supermarket, I could be prosecuted and would certainly be banned, and that would only be unpleasant/ culturally confronting for others, not potentially deadly. But no-one cares about that freedom because it’s so much part of our culture. But in reality, I already have limited freedom over my clothing and a mask would only be a moderation of the rules that society enforces- but perhaps it would be the most defensible part (assuming they work)

  • Ian says:

    The overall impression of the post is that the social aspect must generally be prioritized, i.e. always respect groups rather than the individual. That balance between the social and individual more easily leads to situations where unbalanced views can be further extended. This stated perspective becomes illustrated by observations such as sacrificing the individual for the good of a large group, and what that means when applied to providing protection for any particular social structure, which is then only ameliorated by the point of infringement or violation. So is a simple application of a concept of morality as emerging simultaneously with social formations enabling stable structures to coalesce taken as a given for the origin of morality, or are such worldviews seen as merely reflecting the focus applied by the abilities of historical research rather than any broader more inclusive outcome?

  • David says:

    The validity of the argument in this post relies on the belief that non-medical masks curtail the spread of coronavirus. There is currently no strong evidence to support this. Therefore mandating the use of masks are an unreasonable infringement of freedom.

    • Andy says:

      Quite, I think they might find conferring with colleagues at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine would enhance the relevance of these posts.

      • Farbod Akhlaghi says:

        Thank you, David and Andy, for your comments.

        You both express scepticism about whether the use of non-medical masks (I assume you mean cloth masks?) curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus. David states that there is currently no strong evidence to support that claim and suggests that the alleged absence of evidence for it means I’ve failed to establish that mandating mask wearing is merely an infringement upon our freedom.

        The post does assume that implementing a policy of public mask wearing in a population would help curtail the spread of the coronavirus. But there is currently ample empirical evidence that suggests that masks of various kinds do help curtail the spread of the coronavirus. It is, in part, such evidence that has led to both the CDC in the US and the WHO recommending that cloth masks be worn in public. The question, of course, is not whether wearing masks (or any other measure) lowers the chances of transmission to zero but, instead, of whether it would be an efficacious means of lowering the chances of transmission. Some masks seem to offer more protection than others (e.g. N95 masks appear to offer more than surgical masks, and surgical masks more than cloth), but the evidence is there that they all offer some effective means of protection. Overviews of such evidence can be easily found online, a good one of which is available on the University of California, San Francisco’s website (I would link to it here but links are disabled in the comments section) and is entitled ‘Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus’.

        Indeed, Oxford’s own Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science has recently conducted a study that has found that cloth face coverings, even homemade masks made of the correct material, are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 both for the wearer and those around them. You can read about the study and find a link to the study itself in an article on the University of Oxford’s website entitled ‘Oxford COVID-19 study: face masks and coverings work – act now’.

  • Andy says:

    Thank you Farbod,

    I admit that masks may confer some protective advantage (although Sage’s opinion is that there is but ‘weak evidence of a small effect’ and Public Health England are not enthusiastic either) but the problem is that the degree of moral obligation to wear one depends on the prevalence of the virus, which prevalence Oxford CEBM would be able to inform you about (the virus has not been at epidemic levels in the UK for the past two months, despite it being a global pandemic).

    For instance, the Norwegian health agency recently calculated that 200,000 Norwegians would have to wear masks in order to prevent one infection. The harms incurred by wearing masks (as conceded in our own government’s list of exemptions) would outweigh the benefit in Norway’s case and so they are not currently mandated there.

    Attempting to make a case for moral obligation while one of the premises is compromised undermines the same case made in more relevant circumstances.

    Personally, should prevalence return to March levels (in London, 1/50 rather than 1/1000 now), I would wear a professional mask that is fit for purpose and that doesn’t rely on other people’s behaviour.

    • Farbod Akhlaghi says:

      Thanks very much for your further reply, Andy.

      Whilst I appreciate there is some disagreement persisting over the protective efficacy of masks, I think its clear from the work I mentioned in my last reply that the evidential case for their efficacy is growing more robust at pace. I am glad that you acknowledge that masks may confer some protective advantage.

      You helpfully highlight what I believe is an important point of disagreement. You state that ‘the degree of moral obligation to wear one depends on the prevalence of the virus’. On this we disagree, if by that claim you mean that the sole or most important factor in determining the strength of the moral reasons to wear a mask is the prevalence of the novel coronavirus in a given population such that prevalence alone (or mostly) determines whether those reasons make imposition of mask wearing a mere infringement.

      This is because I think it is not only the *level or amount* of risk in spreading the virus (prevalence of disease and chance of catching it) that is morally relevant, but also the *nature* of the risk, which in this case is determined by the nature of the virus, our level of understanding of it, our ability to effectively treat it, and our ability to vaccinate against it. Since we lack the means to effectively treat the disease at present, are unclear on its lasting effects (and already have some worrying indications these are not minor), and presently lack an effective vaccine for it, then I think if the disease is present in a population we have sufficiently strong moral reasons to prevent the spread of the disease on the grounds of other-defence, making mandating mask wearing merely an infringement and not a violation of our freedom-related moral rights. Of course, should the situation change and we find a highly effective treatment or a vaccine, then I think the moral situation becomes different because the nature of the risk will dramatically change.

      That is some further explanation of the view I defend in the post in reference to your last comment. I hope it at least clarifies my position, which you’ll understand I wont be able to defend here ad infinitum! But my thanks again for your incisive comments, and for prompting these further clarifications.

  • Andy says:

    Thanks, Farbod; I appreciate your forbearance!

    I chose Sage and PHE as a sensible constraint, as they summarise the UK’s scientific position and – as important – its application as policy, taking into account human factors and – to some extent (in Sage’s deliberations, especially) – wider effects, positive or negative.

    I would take prevalence to be important as a variable considered in conjunction with the effectiveness of the mask, the immediate context, one’s personal risk, the personal risk of those who one is near and other relevant factors. Below a certain prevalence, the other factors might be validly disregarded (cf. Norway); above a certain prevalence, other factor/s might become the most important to consider. Maybe this could be expressed mathematically.

    All the best, Andy

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