JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening, good morning, good afternoon, and thank you all for Zooming in. Welcome to the Carnegie Council webinar series. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council.
Our topic today is "The Ethics of Lockdown," and our guest is Christian Barry. Christian is professor of philosophy at Australian National University, and he is Zooming in from Canberra, where it's Wednesday morning.
Good morning, Christian.
CHRISTIAN BARRY: Good morning, Joel.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Before moving to Australia, Christian directed the Carnegie Council's "Justice and the World Economy" program. I'm sure you have very fond memories of that, Christian. We did a lot of good work together.
CHRISTIAN BARRY: Absolutely.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: He was also editor of the journal Ethics & International Affairs, published by Cambridge University Press. You can find some of his greatest hits and our greatest hits from those years when Christian edited the journal in a book called Ethics & International Affairs: A Reader, which is published by Georgetown University Press.
Christian, we miss you dearly in New York, but we're delighted to be working with you regularly, and especially now, in light of the new essay you and co-author Seth Lazar have published. It's now on the Ethics & International Affairs website, and its title is "Justifying Lockdown."
I'm going to ask Christian to lead off with a few comments on the essay, perhaps a brief summary as well as a few thoughts since its publication just a few weeks ago. We are then going to have a short dialogue followed by questions and answers from the audience, so please use the Chat function to pose questions as we go.
Christian, maybe you could get us started with a few comments on why you and Seth wrote the piece and how the arguments developed as you and Seth went through it. So, over to you, Christian.
CHRISTIAN BARRY: Thanks, Joel. It's great to be back at the Council in its virtual incarnation. It's not quite the same as being there in person, but thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you and the participants.
I think like most people the public health crisis of COVID-19 took me by surprise. For the first several weeks—like I'm sure almost everybody logging in—I was feverishly trying to learn what I could about what this virus was, what were some of the basic facts about it, and trying to understand in my limited way what some of the models meant, what it meant that there were competing models, what it meant that there was expert disagreement about the aptness of different types of models, so really trying to up-skill myself in trying to understand some of the basic issues about the nature of this virus.
But I am a philosopher, not an epidemiologist or an economist, so as time went on I was trying to think about: Well, I work on politics and try to write in a way that has relevance for public affairs. What are some of the ethical issues that arise in thinking about not the virus itself but about different responses to the virus? What kinds of measures can be justified and on what grounds?
This became something that I was thinking about more and more as there was increasing conflict about whether or not lockdown restrictions were justified, whether maintaining them was justified, whether the form that they took was justified, and most notably where there were starting to be very visible protests in the United States and to a lesser extent in other countries, where people were basically challenging whether or not these practices were justified or whether or not they should be permitted to return to work.
Probably like most people tuning in, I was at first a bit taken aback. I had so internalized the worries about the virus, about the nature of the risks that it posed, that I was not entirely sympathetic with this idea, but then, when I started thinking about it more, I realized that I was not thinking as carefully as I might have about what some of the objections were that you might have to what is effectively a massive use of state coercion around the world to limit people's liberties, to limit various things that they can do, where the costs to them are not trivial.
So I started to think about: What general kinds of arguments can be offered for this kind of widespread restriction on people's liberties?
It struck us that there were three different types of arguments and that they were all interacting with one another in public discourse and that it might be valuable to try to distinguish them and try to think about how forceful these arguments were and about what their limits were. So although the essay is titled "Justifying Lockdown," our aim was not to justify lockdown, it was rather to try to distinguish it and articulate what kind of reasons bore on questions about what restrictions were warranted and when those justifications were no longer sufficient to warrant lockdown. The idea of the piece was that it could be of some use not just now, when we're thinking about other justifications for what is currently happening, but how to modify our responses as different factors of our context change.
The article is structured around three different types of arguments that could be made to justify these sorts of restrictions, again on the assumption that whenever the state is exercising coercive authority in a way that limits substantially people's liberties, it owes a public justification for these policies.
The first justification we refer to as a "paternalistic" justification. The idea is that even if people may want to no longer be so restricted, nevertheless we can justify imposing these restrictions on them because it's in their best interest.
To some extent, this can't be true. It can't be true that for every single person who is subject to lockdown restrictions their welfare will be better promoted than had lockdown restrictions not been in place. It just seems statistically extremely unlikely that that would be the case. So, from the ex post perspective in looking at how people are actually affected by a set of policies, it's very difficult to argue that the interests of all were better promoted by one policy rather than another policy.
But we could still potentially make the justification that even if it turns out that not everybody is benefited, when we consider in prospect what the likely effects of different policies are, we might be able to justify to each person that their expected welfare was promoted by these lockdown restrictions. It may have turned out that they would have been better off without lockdown, but nevertheless without knowing the specificities of how things would have unfolded we might nevertheless still say that it was justified.
An analogy here was with the process of something like vaccination. It's not true that every single person who is vaccinated will benefit relative to not being vaccinated insofar as there are even a tiny number of cases where people have strong adverse reactions or die—I'm not an anti-vaxxer; I'm in favor of vaccinations.
Part of the justification for vaccination is that even if it's true that not everyone actually ends up benefiting from the policy, you can nevertheless justify the policy to them because in prospect—before we knew how people would be affected—all stood to gain from this policy relative to in the absence of vaccination. One thought might be that you could make a similar justification of lockdown policies in this way.
The limitation of this sort of argument is that it doesn't seem quite as clear-cut a case like vaccinations, where we have clear models about what will happen in the absence of vaccination and where the risks are known and quantifiable, and we're confident about what it would mean to not vaccinate against some of the common diseases that would quickly become widespread in the absence of vaccination programs.
It's also the case that there are some distinct characteristics of COVID-19 that make it a little harder to make this justification, particularly the fact that it seems to have such different expected effects on younger people than on older people. If you are a relatively young person, it's certainly true that you can get very seriously ill and you might even die, but in prospect the chances of that happening are relatively small. That's not true of everybody, but it is true of some. But that makes it quite distinct from a program like vaccination, where you can easily justify to each that it's in their prospective best interest.
But there is another worry about these sorts of arguments more generally, which is that they're arguing that you can compel somebody to do something because it's in their best interest, whether it's in terms of what actually happens to them or what we can expect would happen to them. A lot of people resist these types of paternalistic arguments. They want to argue that there is a real good of autonomy and there is an obligation to respect people's rational agency, and when it comes to them assuming risks for themselves they should be permitted to do so.
Obviously, this is very controversial. There are lots of practices that we have in our societies that do seem paternalistic in part. A paradigmatic example is seatbelt regulations or helmet regulations. These look like self-regarding behaviors where people may want to assume risk and they are forcibly prevented from assuming risk.
Most people think we can nevertheless justify this kind of interference, but it's controversial. It's least controversial in cases where people seem to be making very obvious mistakes of facts when they're deciding what risks to assume.
John Stuart Mill had this famous example, where somebody is about to cross a bridge, and you know that the bridge is very badly damaged, and you don't know whether or not they know this. Unfortunately, they only speak Japanese, and you only speak English. His argument is that in that sort of case you might actually be able to forcibly prevent them from going across the bridge at least until you know that they know that the bridge is damaged. So the idea would be that certain types of paternalism can be justified when we're interfering with people who are doing things where they don't really know what they're doing.
It's interesting to think about whether or not that could be the sort of argument you could make with respect to COVID-19. There is certainly a lot of disinformation about COVID-19. But it's not completely farfetched to think that some people might have at least as reasonable an understanding of the risks that we have—my own understanding of what they are is minimal just because there are so many different models and so much we don't know. It's not obvious that people who want to be free to assume these risks would be like the man trying to cross the rickety bridge in Mill's example. It might be a different type of paternalism, a harder form of paternalism, where even if people think that something is in their best interest and they know some of the relevant facts about the situation, we can still intervene to prevent them from doing what they want to do.
I will leave that hanging, not to say that decisively settles the case of whether or not you can make a paternalistic argument that is effective in challenging the claims of people who want to ease lockdown restrictions very quickly, but at least as a set of considerations that might be brought to bear.
A second type of argument is one that doesn't appeal to what is in a person's best interest but appeals to certain responsibilities that individuals allegedly have to assume certain costs to benefit others. I talk about this broadly as an "altruistic" type of argument. The good appeal too could be the good of the community or could just be the good of people, but the basic idea is that we all live in different societies, and we have some collective responsibilities for the welfare of all, and there may be circumstances where we simply have to accept costs, even rather extreme costs such as various restrictions on our liberties, not because they're in our own best interest, but because they're in the interest of others.
This sort of argument might be made on behalf of people who are particularly made vulnerable in the absence of restrictions on movement and meeting to those who are less vulnerable. Again, there were some interesting interventions and public debate about these issues which seem to have that form, most notably with some people saying: "Well, look, the older people in our societies should say: 'Look, don't do this for us. You shouldn't make these sacrifices for us. I want you to live your life.'" That was an extreme sort of position sketched out.
The force of this argument again depends a lot on a number of different factors. One is how great are the costs that we're requiring people to assume for the benefit of others. For some people the costs are relatively trivial. If you're a privileged person like me with job security and who can work remotely, of course it's not very pleasant to not be able to go out, move around, and see people, but really it's very hard for me to say that the costs that are being imposed on me to protect others would not be justified, at least if COVID-19 was prevalent in my community. I don't take these costs to be very significant to me.
But that's certainly not true for everyone. In some cases, as we know, lots of people are out of work. They don't have security. A lot of what the costs are to people depends on the societies they're in and to what extent their societies are adopting further measures to offset the costs that might otherwise fall on them. This is where relief packages and unemployment benefits come very much into view because these are ways in which the costs that are being imposed on people can in some sense be mitigated.
I think correspondingly, to the extent that we can mitigate the costs for young people or people who are dependent on certain types of work that cannot transition to remote work, our justification for restricting that liberty becomes stronger when we are adopting other countervailing measures to offset those costs. And as we know, certainly in the United States and in Australia as well, those measures have been limited, partly necessarily limited because of resource constraints and partly limited just by constraints on political will, which raises an interesting set of issues.
I will leave that consideration there, noting that how strong an argument that is depends both on our moral understanding of what costs people can be required to bear for the benefit of others and also what those costs are actually likely to be in different societies, given all the other things that are happening there.
The third argument, which really relates to the idea that you can prevent people from doing things when doing those things will actually harm people or will impose a significant risk of harm on them.
Whereas the first argument appealed to what was in a person's best interest, and the second argument appealed to what is in the interest of others that can justify us imposing costs on still other people, this argument appeals to what we can do to prevent other people from harming still other people or imposing risk on them.
Of course, here too there are lots of public policy measures where we do this all the time. Unlikely the paradigmatic example of seatbelts, which can be justified, it seems to me, on the first type of grounds, here are things like speed limits and restrictions on what kinds of foods can be sold under what conditions. All these measures are partly protecting people from having risks imposed upon them by others.
It was interesting how this argument didn't seem to me to be taken seriously, by many people at least, who were arguing that lockdown restrictions were no longer justified, the whole discourse of appealing to: "Well, look, I'm tough. I'm a warrior. I can take on these risks. I should not be so worried about it. I'm not a coward."
That's all well and good. Certainly not being a coward is a virtue, but it's not a virtue to be willfully imposing excessive risk on others. That doesn't seem to be part of the virtue of bravery. That's not bravery; that can be recklessness or negligence. This argument again is a justification on the grounds that we can restrict certain types of activities under certain circumstances, when allowing them would involve some people imposing very significant risks of harm on others.
I have included a lot of things in that description that should already alert you to some of the limits of this argument. One is: What does it mean for a risk to be excessive? There is no obvious answer to that, so we have to think about: Well, what would I have to learn about my behavior in terms of the risks it imposes upon others, if somebody said, "Look, there's a risk you could get people sick at work today." It's impossible to say that we can avoid imposing any risk on people. We are always imposing all sorts of risks on people all the time.
Then there is the question of, "Well, at what point will we say they will be excessive?" Again, I think there is no obvious answer to that. I think collectively clearly many people were thinking that the types of risks involved in circulating freely about where there was COVID-19 prevalent would involve excessive risks because of the fact that you could pass it on so easily and because the consequences of people getting it was quite high relevant to other types of conditions.
This is—I'm going to refer back to the great liberal Mill again—a different type of argument from Mill. While Mill was quite skeptical about the scope of paternalistic arguments, he was more sympathetic to arguments that had this form, which he sometimes referred to as under his "harm principle," the idea that we could limit liberty when it was essential for the prevention of harm.
There are still a couple of interesting challenges here to the straightforward application of an argument like this to COVID-19. One is that the risk that you impose on any particular person when you're moving about may be quite small. I don't know even remotely how to compute this; I don't know if anybody does, but you could think that the chance of you infecting any particular person—that is, not knowing that you yourself have the virus; you don't know if you're asymptomatic or if you're fine—might be very minuscule.
So one question is: When we're thinking about what counts as "excessive" risk, should we be thinking about the risks that we impose on any particular person, or that the risks that, taken together, our behavior may impose on others?" I will give you an example that brings out the difference between these two types of risks. You'll have to indulge me. I'm a philosopher, so we have to have at least one farfetched example.
Suppose that I am very strong, and I like to hurl coconuts up into the air for fun, very high up into the air. I live in a very densely populated place. But any time I throw my coconut up into the air there is lots of wind blowing and lots of things going on, so for any particular person who is down below it may be that the risk of my coconut throwing is very small. But nevertheless we might, given the dense population, expect that somebody is going to get hit by the coconut.
The first perspective says, "Well, a risk is excessive whenever it imposes too much risk on any particular person," whereas the second perspective says, "Look, so long as the expected harm for somebody is high, then that is sufficient."
You can probably foreshadow my answer. If you think that overall your freely circulating about somewhere down the line is likely to result in harm for one person, then that seems to be a pretty important consideration, even if the risk that you impose on anyone is quite small.
A second issue is that the way in which you might end up affecting people might be mediated. Even if I am infected with the virus, I may infect three people; they may be young people, they may be asymptomatic, they may infect three other people, each who are asymptomatic. So it may end up to the fourth generation of transmission before we hit someone who actually gets very sick. So there is this question about: "Well, to what extent should we count that as my risk imposition given that it was mediated by all these other people?"
Here I think the relevant issue is to think about, Well, is it foreseeable? If we know that we're likely to infect two to three other people, and they are likely to infect two to three other people in the absence of certain types of restrictions, then it certainly seems foreseeable that somewhere down the line it's not going to be too long before somebody might get infected who would actually be quite ill. So that should be a risk that I should take into account even if I don't think that the risk that I will directly infect someone who will then die or then become very ill is rather slight.
A third interesting consideration is this issue of, "To what extent can we even think that I will make a difference?" If we, for example, in the absence of lockdown lots of people are moving around, we can expect huge spikes—I assume—in the incidence of COVID-19, and it's quite possible that even if I stay home as opposed to going out, it may be true that I don't end up infecting somebody who then infects somebody who then infects somebody who gets very sick, but it doesn't follow from that that the person who ends up getting sick as a result of me wouldn't otherwise just get sick anyway as a result of somebody else.
This is what philosophers sometimes call a "problem of overdetermination," the idea where while it may be true that I am causally responsible for some harm and somebody suffers, if the harm is overdetermined, does it really make that much of a difference because they're going to be harmed anyway, so I bear a cost, and they're no better off, or so the thought goes. I think this is a very interesting challenge. It's not one that I think people who have been writing about this type of argument for lockdown have been focusing on.
But I don't think it's decisive. For one thing, while it's true that what happens to people depends on what we collectively do, what you individually do has some effect on what others do. If I signal my willingness to refrain from imposing risks on others, that can make differences to what others will do and their willingness to impose risk, whereas, on the other hand, if I make it clear that I am happy to go out and impose risk on others, that can also have a signaling effect. At the very least, that feature of the situation does not seem to me to make it the case that we can't still use this argument to justify imposing some costs on people.
I will conclude with these last comments. It's quite obvious that this argument from risk depends very much on contextual features. Just how much risk you as an individual will be imposing depends very much on things like the prevalence of COVID-19 in your environment, the availability of various protective measures, the ability to determine whether or not you are infected if you are infected, and to track and trace, and all these other things. All these contextual features can change the calculus that we face in thinking about risk.
So too, of course, is the cost to the person. If it's a question of going about with the risk that I have a one-in-ten chance of infecting someone who might get seriously ill, but my life is at stake, that's a harder type of restriction to justify, that I can be required to accept my own death to avoid imposing a risk of that magnitude. It's not obvious that I can't be, but it's at least questionable. Clearly just what the cost to the person who is being restricted is makes a big difference, where—as discussed in the context of the previous argument—various other things that our societies can be doing can make a big difference.
This is not just true in advanced, wealthy societies that many of us live in, where there are really strong capacities of the state to at least offset some of the costs that we would face. There are countries—like Brazil, for example, which itself is a middle-income country and not the poorest of the poor—where it's extraordinarily costly, especially for people working in the informal sector, to be able to work, or where the capacity to offset the risks that they face is quite limited. Ironically, of course, that is a country where things have been extraordinarily mismanaged.
In any case, I will conclude by saying these were three different types of arguments, each of which has some complications, and thinking about how they might apply to this particular type of case, and how I hope they provide some tools for thinking about what kinds of measures might be justified in different types of contexts, even if they don't give us a decisive answer about what is justified here and now.
Thank you for letting me sum that up. I hope that was sufficient to give you a sense of the flavor of the argument.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That is great. That's a really great summary, and thank you for taking us through it.
I have some questions about each, paternalism, altruism, and harm, but I want to start by a flash-forward to the present moment. When you and Seth wrote the piece, the protesters that you were referring to were those who were protesting against lockdown and to open up, that their livelihoods depended on it, and so on. Now the context has changed in just a few weeks, and the protests we're seeing are people in the streets in massive numbers throughout the country and throughout the world in protests for racial justice.
What struck me is there was an open letter that was signed by over 1,000 health care professionals saying, "Don't shut down the protests for racial justice using the coronavirus as an excuse." So we have a total flip, where these were the health care professionals who were arguing the need on a public health basis for lockdown now signing the permission slip—if not that, actually endorsing people to go into the streets to protest for racial justice.
I'm teeing it up for you. I'm curious to hear your thoughts about that big question.
CHRISTIAN BARRY: Yes, absolutely.
I have been thinking about that, and I have read some of the things that some of the health professionals have written about it. I think it's worth thinking about some of the arguments that they are giving and what weight they have and what other considerations seem important in this case.
Some of the arguments that people are giving is that, while they're acknowledging that the protests will increase risk of transmission and therefore there will be clear public health costs in terms of permitting them or not urging strongly against them, they appeal to various ways in which systemic racism in the United States itself has rather significant health costs as well.
What they are doing there, I take it, is acknowledging that, yes, in fact this is a very significant risk imposition, and they could acknowledge that it therefore requires a very strong justification. Then the thought would be that one potentially strong justification would be if this imposition of risk nevertheless has the long-term effect of shielding others who would otherwise be exposed to risk.
That argument obviously requires some pretty strong premises, for example, about the prospects that engaging in protest will be an effective means of so altering society that some of the risks that would otherwise be imposed upon these vulnerable groups are no longer imposed upon them. What to think about that is a really hard question. It's an extraordinarily uncomfortable position to even think that you could be—especially as a privileged white person in societies like the United States or Australia—waving your finger at people and telling them not to protest in the face of what seemed to me to be outrageous practices that are widespread in these countries.
But I do think we have to take these arguments seriously. One thing that can be said on behalf of this argument is that there is some historical basis for thinking that particular moments in history with particular intensity of protest can make significant differences to societies in which they occur. Certainly there seem to be some changes in public opinion about a range of different things regarding criminal justice in the United States.
But I don't think the public health argument for the protests is going to be a very effective one if you're looking narrowly at the public health effects. I think you would have to make a broader appeal to the necessity of reforming our societies in ways that make them much more just with respect to racial minorities, and you would have to be saying that the kinds of injustices that people are suffering are so severe and so widespread that even the chance that you would make some impact on that is worth the fact that you would be causing harm.
So even if you think that their real duty is not to cause harm to others or to impose risk on others, unless you're an absolutist you think there are certain things that can justify your harming others or imposing risk of harm on others. The argument has to be that this is a case where those prospective benefits justify these types of risks that we're imposing.
Going back to the original protests, the same question is, can that justification be given there? Again, we have to ask: What are they asking for? What are they protesting against? What is the risk that is being imposed by their gathering, and can that be justified in terms of the benefit that they're struggling for that might be realized as a result of this protest?
I won't go further into the details of what that is. I think different people were wanting different things. If it's just the freedom to go back to your gym because you're annoyed, because you're tired of working out at home, that seems maybe not like something that would justify the imposition of risk. But I am sympathetic with some people, that if they feel that they're facing very severe economic problems in feeding their families, that does seem to me at least the right type of justification that you would give for justifying your imposing risk by gathering with others in this way.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. Thank you, Christian.
I'm going to ask one more question. I can see there are lots of questions rolling in, so I'm going to limit my next question just to the paternalism theme and maybe try to poke a little hole in it. This is an empirical question, but I can't resist asking you because I'm curious what you think about this.
You described paternalism as the government forcing you to do something because it's in your prospective best interest, the idea that the government "knows something," if you will, and can force based on that. How does that comport with the general mood—and I'll speak for people in the United States right now, but I think you can see it in populism generally—of skepticism of expert knowledge, whether it's climate denial or whatever. There has been a failure of expertise, whether it's the financial crisis or misbegotten wars or corruption, and now we have both misinformation and willful disinformation, the point being that there is a general skepticism of expertise. Does that undermine the paternalism argument in some way, or is that just an empirical issue that doesn't affect the reasoning?
CHRISTIAN BARRY: That's an interesting point. I guess I would say a few things about it.
Some people think that the form of a paternalistic argument is okay, but they are very wary of the actual use of paternalistic arguments in practice. The thought is that their objection to "paternalistically imposed policies," let's call them, is not that justified paternalism is impossible but rather that they lack confidence that those who are actually going to be in a position to impose policies on paternalistic grounds are more likely to get the facts right than people deliberating about what's in their own interest.
There is a broad range of anti-paternalistic thought. It is not challenging these simple hypothetical cases where you're interfering with somebody who doesn't know the facts, but they are resisting the idea that you should be strongly empowering governments to do this given that we know that governments may be responding to all sorts of other incentives in making these decisions, or they may not be particularly good at figuring out what's actually in people's interests, and so on.
I think that is a reasonable worry to have. Whether or not it's completely warranted in all cases of all institutions is another thing. I retain some faith in scientific expertise and the capacity of bodies to make—again, always uncertain and provisional but nevertheless well-informed estimates about what different likelihoods are going to be.
I think that's another point to make, that unlike the simple case—like the Mill case with the bridge—usually it's not like that. It's not that we absolutely know with certainty that it's going to be in someone's best interest or in the best interests of all that we do that, but rather that we have evidence that we take to be sufficient for that purpose. That makes it even more complicated.
So I guess I would say I think there are good reasons to be skeptical of paternalistic justifications, and there are good reasons to limit them, but nevertheless there can be some scope for them, at least if we have some faith in institutions.
That's one of the reasons why it's important to try to foster trust in institutions so long as trust in them is warranted and why it's so worrisome when trust in them erodes because then it just looks to people that these entities are purporting to have knowledge which they don't actually have, and they're restricting me on the basis of what they take to be the facts, which I am contesting.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. Thank you, Christian.
I'm going to turn this over now to Alex Woodson, who is going to pose some of the questions to you from the chat line.
ALEX WOODSON: This is from Dr. Adiat Abiodun at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. The question is: "Can lockdown policy be morally justified in a low-income country where the government has no power to provide adequate palliatives for the people?"
CHRISTIAN BARRY: I have been thinking a fair bit about how this looks from the perspective of low-income countries. It's interesting because there are some features of their circumstances which make lockdown easier to justify, and there are other features of their circumstances which make it more difficult to justify.
The things that make it easier to justify is that often they lack robust health systems that can absorb huge upticks in the number of patients experiencing severe respiratory infections. That is going to be a very significant determinant of what the death toll is going to be of allowing people to move around freely. That militates strongly in favor of lockdown policies because you're not trying to overburden a health system which is less able to cope with it.
But on the other hand—and I think this is where the question is coming from—the other set of considerations comes from the fact that if you are preventing people from earning a living and you lack the capacity to find ways to offset these costs so that they can meet their basic needs, then the justification is much more limited.
Rather than saying anything conclusive about this, I just want to point out that these are two very different considerations that pull against one another, and each country's capacities are different to deal with these different things.
Obviously, one hopes that there is scope for help and assistance in offsetting some of these costs. Even in some poor countries—I know the case of Brazil—there have been at least limited efforts to provide basic baskets of minimally adequate nutrition to offset the costs faced by people who are restricted and who were working in the informal economy especially.
But even countries which are poor vary considerably in their health systems and also vary considerably in terms of how densely populated they are and what climate they're in. All these factors can make a difference on how quickly the virus will spread and how lethal it will be. This would weigh significantly in the balance of making these sorts of decisions.
ALEX WOODSON: A somewhat related question from Lara Akinyemi: "The lockdown in all parts of the world, especially in Africa, has generated a lot of controversy as to abuse of human rights. In Nigeria, precisely, the citizens continue to experience different kinds of abuses such as assault and beatings by security operatives in an attempt to enforce lockdown. Can we now say all these acts are clear and legitimate practices in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19?"
CHRISTIAN BARRY: That's a great question.
One of the worries that people have about lockdown policies generally is that it depends on their understanding of how states work and what people in positions of authority in states try to do. The idea would be that what they do is they try to seize power when they can; they try to get more authority and more control whenever possible. The evidence you could give is in responses to things like terrorist attacks and so on. What you see is trying to pass lots of legislation, adopting new protocols which allow for interference in ways that would not have been previously justified.
The question is whether or not all of these things are going to be warranted and then whether or not they're going to be exercised in a way that is quite damaging. Because when you are allowing a restriction you are giving additional grounds for people to interfere in other people's lives.
That's true, by the way, of even something as seemingly innocuous as seatbelt restrictions. There is an interesting philosopher, Jessica Flanigan, who has written against seatbelt restrictions, partly on the grounds that it really seems to concern only the person. But then the fact that we have this means that, for example, the police can stop people more easily because they don't have seatbelts on, and that can lead to search and seizure and all sorts of other consequences which we have reason to be worried about.
Again, all I would say as a general thing is that it's correct to be wary about the ways in which states and authorities can try to use new restrictions as a means of exercising unwarranted authority—and surely it should be denounced—but I also think that's not a decisive reason against having lockdown generally.
The other thing that was implicit in that question relates to questions of proportionality, which is that even if you think that the society is justified in imposing lockdown restrictions, it doesn't follow that you think that those who are using force are within their rights to do anything required to achieve this. There are proportionality constraints, just as we would say about things like protests.
Even if you think that the public authorities have a right to try to protect public spaces and to prevent looting, it doesn't mean that they can do just anything to do those things. There can be circumstances where even if you are justified in having the lockdown policy, you may be put in a situation where the only means of enforcing it would impose such high costs that it's not justified for you to impose it in that case.
Some of the cases that were being described by the participants sounded like that, a case where someone's rights are being violated, which is a very high cost, to prevent someone from moving about. That seems like it would be potentially a very disproportionate response to something that was even a justified restriction.
ALEX WOODSON: Going to Becky Papp. This is a big issue in the United States and maybe in Australia too: "What are your thoughts on the perceived level of callousness about people who refuse to wear masks, when it is an easy measure to take? People who wear masks as a general precaution are judging people who do not wear masks as selfish. This often escalates mask-wearing to a political statement when there are real scientific reasons to wear them."
CHRISTIAN BARRY: This is very much one of the dangers of polarization and playing identity politics with what are essentially public health measures. The irony is that—again, insofar as the science is sound, which I am assuming, that wearing masks reduces the transmission—this is a relatively non-costly restriction of liberty, namely, the liberty to move around without a mask, that could make it the case that moving around rather than being sequestered at home is less costly.
You would think that those who regard being sequestered at home [as an imposition] would embrace a measure that makes it less costly for them not to be sequestered at home, which then makes their justification for not being sequestered at home stronger. But I think it's very unfortunate that it has become such a political hot-button issue that people are fighting over this relatively trivial restrictive measure, which again seems so much less dramatic.
Similarly with people getting incredibly upset about the idea of tracing apps. There are legitimate concerns about data usage and surveillance and those sorts of things, but when compared to real full-lockdown restriction, that kind of impingement on your liberty insofar as it actually helps reduce the chance that you will pose risks to others, seems very hard to argue against if they're effective.
ALEX WOODSON: The next question is from Carl Becker in Japan; Joel Marks has a similar question: "Can—and if so, how—can philosophers actually influence policymakers outside of court cases? Your writings and certainly the work of Carnegie Council have important reverberations on policymakers who read your books or attend your sessions, but in agreement with your presupposition that clear ethical argument should ground good policymaking, how can ethicists best promote dispassionate analyses over special interest groups pushing private agendas over public benefit?"
CHRISTIAN BARRY: I wish I had a good answer to that question. The capacity of philosophers or most academics to influence policy is limited. It's particularly limited for people who are not looked to in the first instance about public policy questions.
We have seen recently the stature of epidemiology as a discipline and as a group of people who are looked to for guidance increase dramatically as a result of this pandemic, sometimes in ways that I think have been perhaps uncomfortable for epidemiologists themselves because they are comfortable talking about their models and what their models would say under different circumstances, but they are being looked to as telling us what to do. Of course, no model tells you what to do; it just tells you what you can expect to happen under different circumstances, and what you ought to do depends on a whole range of practical and moral considerations that an epidemiologist is not obviously any better placed than anyone else to think about.
I guess the hope is—and what motivates me in trying to do work—the thought that you can get some purchase in the way in which arguments can affect people and their way of thinking about it. It's maybe like the transmission of a virus. Maybe somebody reads something, and it gets reflected in the way they think about it, and then it may reflect in how somebody else thinks about it, and then a certain type of argument becomes part of the public discourse, and it enriches the discourse, and over time maybe that could have some moderating effects on some of the social ills that you referred to.
It's a tough question. The thought is that to try to intervene in this way and to adopt this tone and this perspective maybe has some chance of getting people's attention, when they might not be paying attention if I came out arguing very specifically in favor of something and browbeating people if they didn't agree with me.
Thanks for the question. It's an uncomfortable question for people like me, I have to say.
ALEX WOODSON: This is from David Miller: "You seem to draw largely on various forms of utilitarian logic and reasoning. Did you consider the possible contributions that deontological logic might make to this ethical analysis or virtue of ethics? Would they lead you to different conclusions or problematics?"
CHRISTIAN BARRY: Good question.
I wasn't actually taking myself to appeal to utilitarian reasoning in talking about these different grounds, certainly not solely. It's true that I was talking about what the consequences of different policies would be, and I take that to be relevant, but I'm not assuming that's the only thing that's relevant.
For example, some of the worries about paternalism that I mentioned can't be so easily captured within a utilitarian framework. From a utilitarian framework basically if I can promote the good by compelling people to do things, I ought to do so.
The worries that I was articulating about paternalism are much more deontological in flavor or more consequent with that sort of approach to ethics because it's thinking that there is something particularly important about an individual's rational agency and their autonomy such that we're not justified in interfering with it, even if it does promote the general good. That was one way in which I was departing from a utilitarian framework in thinking about this argument.
Another is—just in terms of this argument from risk imposition—very much a deontological type of worry. The thought is not that we can compel people to stay at home because it promotes the good, but rather we can compel people to stay at home because it is a way of forcing them to comply with their duty not to harm others, or that is a particularly stringent obligation that they have.
This goes back to Joel's question about the public health professionals signing this document about the protests. I saw a few of them writing in various forums, saying: "Well, we shouldn't assume utilitarianism in thinking about these issues. Maybe they are somewhat less fraught if we think about them as a deontologist."
But I don't actually believe that's true because I think that, when we're thinking about something like the protests, we're thinking that we have certain duties not to harm others and not to impose risk on others, and that is competing with other duties we have, namely to protest injustice and not to become complicit in widespread injustices in our societies. So even if I'm not a utilitarian, I'm just a deontologist, but I think that we have these different duties, I'm still faced with a fraught situation.
I was hopefully not assuming any particular ethical orientation in thinking about these issues. I guess the only extent to which utilitarianism influences my thinking is in the way in which I would hope it would influence everyone's thinking, which is that any moral theory which doesn't take some consequences to be unimportant considerations is not a very plausible theory. Whether or not that is all that matters is a different question.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I'm going to bring the session to a conclusion. Christian, I want to thank you for all of this and for the article. People should look at it. It's on the Ethics & International Affairs journal website. You should all take a good look, and I think there is a comment section there, so we can continue the conversation.
I just want to say how much we miss you in New York. I wish we had the opportunity to do this at the Council in the boardroom around the table, but the benefit of doing it this way is that we had hundreds of people all around the world from Japan to Nigeria to Canberra to New York able to participate. We will take that as a benefit.
I will just conclude by saying that I appreciate Carl Becker and Joel Marks' question about ethics in public life. This conversation made me feel even better about what we do, the fact that we take moral argument seriously, and that this is what underpins public policy, and the idea of open debate, spirited debate, the power of persuasion, and the power of moral argument. We demonstrated in this hour how important that is.
We live in an open society where the power of these arguments matters over time. That's what the Council is dedicated to, and I know that's what your work has been dedicated to. We thank you for that, and we look forward to working with you more in the future.
I want to tell everybody that this webinar has been recorded, so you can find it on the Carnegie Council website and on our YouTube channel. We have more upcoming, so please be alert to our emails and our social media for announcements of our next program.
Thank you, Christian. Thank you all for tuning in, and we will see you again soon.
CHRISTIAN BARRY: Take care, everybody. Thank you.