Guest Post

Guest Post: Frances Kamm- Harms, Wrongs, and Meaning in a Pandemic

Written by F M Kamm
This post originally appeared in The Philosophers’ Magazine

When the number of people who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. reached 500,000 special notice was taken of this great tragedy. As a way of helping people appreciate how enormous an event this was, some commentators thought it would help to compare it to other events that involved a comparable number of people losing their lives. For example, it was compared to all the U.S lives lost on the battlefield in World Wars 1 and II and the Vietnam War (or World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam). Such comparisons raise questions, concerning dimensions of comparison, some of which are about degrees of harm, wrong, and meaningfulness which are considered in this essay. (Since the focus in the comparison was on the number of soldiers who died rather the number of other people affected by their deaths, this discussion will also focus on the people who die in a pandemic rather than those affected by their deaths.)

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Guest Post: What Is The Case For Virtual Schooling?

Written by Thomas Moller-Nielsen

News that children in England were to switch to online schooling as part of the country’s third national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 global pandemic was met with widespread support in the British press. Doctors, public health specialists, and even teaching unions similarly applauded the decision. (Nurseries, which have remained open during the latest lockdown period, have also been put under heavy pressure to close.)

The justification for the suspension of in-person schooling during this pandemic, however, is far from obvious. Indeed, there are at least two prima facie plausible reasons for scepticism. Firstly, children are far less susceptible to serious infection or death from Covid-19 than adults are. (While the precise figures are open to dispute, the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge has estimated that the infection-fatality rate for 5-14 year-olds in England is 0.0013% – which is roughly 24 times smaller than the infection fatality rate for 25-44 year-olds, and approximately 9000 times smaller than the infection-fatality rate for 75+ year-olds.) Secondly, virtual schooling – in addition to being a poor substitute for in-person schooling – is widely recognized to be a key contributing factor in students’ increased feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety during the pandemic, and has been similarly linked to many physical paediatric disorders such as juvenile hypertension and obesity.

In other words, it seems that: (i) children are not in serious danger of being (directly) harmed by Covid-19; and (ii) children are in very real danger of being harmed by online schooling. Why, then, should students be required to attend virtual school? Continue reading

The Ethics of Age-Selective Restrictions for COVID-19 Control

Written by: Bridget Williams1,2, James Cameron3, James Trauer2, Ben Marais4, Romain Ragonnet2, Julian Savulescu1,3

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

One of the major controversies of the COVID-19 pandemic has been disagreement about whether age-selective measures should be introduced, with greater focus on preventing infection in older people but tolerance of some transmission amongst younger people. Some have advocated a path of focusing efforts on protecting those most vulnerable and tolerating transmission in younger people. Others have argued for minimising community transmission. This debate involves important empirical uncertainties; including the feasibility of effectively isolating older people and the consequences of allowing infection in a large number of younger people, as well as the feasibility and consequences of alternative measures such as strict border control and quarantine. It also raises ethical considerations, including whether introducing age-selective restrictions is unjust, and whether it is acceptable for a policy to tolerate foreseeable harms.

Here we address these ethical questions and suggest that, although the appropriateness of age-selective approaches requires further consideration of the empirical evidence, ethical concerns should not prevent its consideration as a policy option.

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Guest Post: Why Philosophers Should Write More Accessibly: Towards A New Kind of Epistemic (In)justice

Written by University of Oxford student Brian Wong

Philosophy should, to some extent, be a publicly oriented activity: we hope to make sense of first-order questions concerning how we ought to live, what existence is, what we know, and also deeper questions concerning our methodologies and ways of thinking. Yet philosophical writing has long been panned by some for its inaccessibility to the public.

I’ll take ‘accessibility’ here to mean understandability to the layperson – this metric is by no means uncontroversial, but I take it that at least a healthy number of us write with the public being among the potential beneficiaries of our scholarship. In moving from the claim that the public should benefit from our scholarship to the claim that they should be able to access our scholarship, I aim to establish that academics have a pro tanto (to a certain, limited extent) duty, to make their writing more accessible. Continue reading

Climbing the Pension Mountain: A Review of Michael Otsuka’s 2020 Uehiro Centre Lecture Series

Written by Professor Larry Locke (University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and LCC International University)

On three successive Tuesdays last November, Michael Otsuka of the London School of Economics delivered the annual Uehiro Centre Lecture Series.  The Series, entitled “How to Pool Risk Across Generations”, focused on the ethics of pension reform.  Otsuka attacked the real-world problem of low bond yields producing a crisis of pension funding with three alternative models.  Echoing Derek Parfit’s magisterial work, On What Matters, Otsuka presented his proposals as three alternative means for scaling the dangerous summit of pension obligations.

Otsuka’s proposals are important.  Ethics issues rarely come with this much money at stake.  In 2018, the Office of National Statistics published a study showing that UK pension schemes were underfunded by over £5 trillion .  That is an attention-grabbing number but not extraordinary in the context.  The Trustees of the US Social Security system recently published their 2020 report indicating this scheme alone anticipates a shortfall of US$16.8 trillion over the next 75 years.  Like scientists employing standard form when the numbers they use become too large to comprehend, the US Social Security Administration now refers to its shortfall in terms of percentages of total payroll taxes.

The proposals Otsuka has set forth are not amoral financial models.  Each involves shifting risk and responsibility among parties, and sometimes across generations, with diverse arguments as to the fairness of these shifts.  Any resulting pension system’s impact on lifestyles and liberty for workers, employers, and governments may strain the social contract between these groups and set them up for a potential fall. Continue reading

Cross post: Pandemic Ethics: Should COVID-19 Vaccines Be mandatory? Two Experts Discuss

Written by Alberto Giubilini (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and WEH, University of Oxford )

Vageesh Jaini (University College London)

(Cross posted with the Conversation)

 

To be properly protective, COVID-19 vaccines need to be given to most people worldwide. Only through widespread vaccination will we reach herd immunity – where enough people are immune to stop the disease from spreading freely. To achieve this, some have suggested vaccines should be made compulsory, though the UK government has ruled this out. But with high rates of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the UK and elsewhere, is this the right call? Here, two experts to make the case for and against mandatory COVID-19 vaccines.

 

Alberto Giubilini, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

COVID-19 vaccination should be mandatory – at least for certain groups. This means there would be penalties for failure to vaccinate, such as fines or limitations on freedom of movement.

The less burdensome it is for an individual to do something that prevents harm to others, and the greater the harm prevented, the stronger the ethical reason for mandating it.
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Guest Post: A Relentless Focus on the Given – Reviewing O. Carter Snead’s What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics

Guest Post by Charles Camosy

Professor Carter Snead, at least in my world, is about as important a contemporary voice in bioethics that we have today. A professor on Notre Dame’s law faculty, he is perhaps better known as director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture—one of the most significant positions in the United States for doing public bioethics. He was heavily involved in the topic before coming to Notre Dame, including when serving as general counsel to the President’s Council on Bioethics chaired by Leon Kass. He currently serves on the Pontifical Academy for Life and as an elected fellow of the Hastings Center.

When Professor Snead came out with a book on public bioethics from Harvard University Press this month, that became good reason for many of us to pay close attention—especially when Alasdair MacIntyre gave a back cover endorsement calling it “indispensable reading” whether “you agree or disagree with Snead’s perspective.” Indeed, Snead makes it clear that he’s not merely preaching to the choir in this book, but instead aiming at making his case to folks with  different perspectives in “the spirit of friendship” and “anchored in the firm belief that we can only govern ourselves wisely, humanly, and justly if we become the kind of people who can make each other’s goods our own.” Continue reading

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.

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Guest Post: Is it Wrong to Lower Your Chances of Doing What You Ought to Do?

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

Suppose you have a moral obligation to take care of your ailing parent tomorrow. If you did something that would lower your chances of fulfilling that moral obligation – like going out partying all night tonight – would you thereby have done something morally wrong?

We do things that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations all the time. They range from the most mundane, like taking a specific route from one place to another where you ought to be doing something at the latter place, to acts like smoking, abusing drugs, or severely neglecting one’s physical and mental well-being. Call actions that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations in the future chance-affecting actions.

Whilst moral obligations are hotly debated in moral philosophy, there has been little to no direct discussion of the moral status of affecting the chances of fulfilling such obligations. This should surprise us. For they are a pervasive feature of our lives: many daily choices we make affect our chances of ultimately doing what we ought to do in the future. And the mere fact that it is, other things being equal, right to do what we are obligated to and wrong not to does not settle whether it is right or wrong to affect our chances of meeting our obligations. So, it seems morally urgent to ask: might we, for example, act wrongly when we make it less likely that we will fulfil an obligation in the future?

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Pandemic Ethics: Moral Reasoning in a Pandemic [Guest Post]

Cross-Posted with The Boston Review

By Professor Frances Kamm, Harvard University

Policy discussions during the pandemic have raised concerns for me, as a moral philosopher, about how policy analysts and policy makers are thinking about deaths from COVID-19 and the right way to combat them. The policy discussions I have in mind have ranged from broad issues about how and when to open the economy to more focused concerns about how Intensive Care Units in hospitals should allocate scarce medical equipment (including ventilators). I will here consider three areas of concern about how people are reasoning about what is morally right in the pandemic.

Interpersonal Aggregation 
How should we weigh the economic costs of keeping the economy shut down versus the lives lost to COVID-19 from opening it up? Speaking on the PBS evening News Hour June 18, economist Nick Bloom calculated that the experience of being shut in and suffering economic trauma could result in the loss of a year of life for a person. I do not want to second guess his estimate, but to ask about the use it might be put to in reasoning about what to do.

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