by Joel Yalland
The effects of coronavirus/COVID-19 cannot be understated, and without a doubt it will be the subject of much academic interest among sociologists, political scientists and economists for years to come.
However, from the perspective of moral and political philosophy, how do we approach COVID-19, or pandemics in general? There are conflicts, dilemmas and trade-offs that we encounter regardless of whether humanity is facing a pandemic or not.
What is it about the current situation that makes it so unique or noticeable? It is, I argue, because COVID-19 is simply a no-win scenario–a situation where governments are not choosing between "good" and "bad" outcomes based on rational moral principles, but rather between two unavoidable bad outcomes. However, with both empirical expert disagreement and moral disagreement rampant, governments are forced to become moral and political arbiters in an uncertain situation that produces substantially greater moral bad than good.
Governments ordinarily could and would compromise between public health and economic stability, and other such critical needs. However, COVID-19 has already fundamentally impacted both. There is no ideal or perfect solution and however we try to balance the need for a balanced economy with the maintenance of life, we inevitably lose out and governments are "damned if they do and damned if they don’t". So, where does this leave us?
Outraged, more than likely, perhaps disgusted or distrustful of our governments and world leaders. Naturally, we want to lambast and criticise them for not doing better. However, outrage and disgust will do little by themselves. We need to direct these feelings appropriately and rationally. Where governments are doing what they can just to limit or curtail the damage, if not to attempt to make reparations, should we be surprised if our criticisms fall on deaf ears?
If governments make uncomfortable moral decisions, are they more or less likely to reverse them when counter-arguments are made based on competing moral arguments and personal appeals, rather than empirical evidence?
Consider Prime Minister’s Questions this past week, where Keir Starmer and Ian Blackford both unsuccessfully challenged the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the health immigration surcharge – a fee that non-EU migrants pay to access the NHS. Among such migrants include many frontline workers – nurses, carers, cleaners – some of whom helped to care for Boris Johnson while he was in Intensive Care as a confirmed COVID case.
The Prime Minister did reverse his decision a day after, but this certainly feels like a rare exception. If rival political parties cannot reach compromises on difficult and discomforting decisions, then what hope does the ordinary citizen have to effect change? It does little good to despair in misery, but surely we are justified in wanting to express outrage, disgust, and lack of confidence in decisions made on our behalf?
Yes, we are. The pandemic ought to motivate us, our emotions ought to motivate us. But we have to balance our political emotions, and direct them only at those with the power to influence and generate change. COVID-19 is a no-win scenario forcing a choice between saving lives or the economy, despite both having already lost out and likely to suffer further.
We can critique governments for their response and lack of readiness now, and indeed where justified with empirical data, but it is likely only going to be effective as the pandemic becomes more predictable and the impact more manageable. This isn’t defeatist concession, but it is my attempt at balancing our justified emotions with practical limitations of an imperfect political system.
Sooner rather than later, I hope we will see and hear of returns to work across all industries, flattened curves of infection and death rates, the beginning of recovery and normality for education and the economy. But laying blame at and ascribing responsibility to politicians and authorities now will do little to resolve the pandemic and its mass impact.
This will not offer comfort, granted. What it ought to do is motivate us. It is fine to disagree with one another over whether saving the economy or public health is the bigger concern, wherever and whenever that occurs. But this is merely a minor battle which bears little on the war against COVID-19.
Though individuals may disagree on what to prioritise, we cannot necessarily deny that other priorities are morally wrong. As Isaiah Berlin observes, some values are simply incompatible and incommensurable. We cannot unite them coherently, and nor can we presume to devalue them given our own preferences, desires, and biases. To try and bring every value together or have everyone value the same end will inevitably require coercion, so ultimate ends essentially risk authoritarian regimes that pluralistic societies rightly resist.
I don’t mean to say that anyone who doggedly pursues one value over another is an authoritarian, and neither does Berlin. Rather, it is quite the opposite, there will always be values that are under-represented, and policies that aren’t legislated. To some extent, this is simply a fact of the matter, yet to others this is fundamental wrongdoing.
So, again I ask, where does this leave us? We can’t pursue either economic stability or public health exclusively, a compromise (as has been shown) still results in death, debt, and mass debasement. The point, unfortunately, is that there is no solution without sacrifice. Everyone loses out somehow, quite probably in multiple ways.
But, as far as our criticism goes, we need to pick our battles carefully. Just because we can disagree with each other, doesn’t mean that we should. Critiques are better targeted at those making the decisions, but we must remember that we will not and cannot know whether the alternative choices would have brought about better results. Again, in this regard it sems that no answer is perfectly effective or impactful.
COVID-19 isn’t just a no-win scenario for the needs of society, but an irresolvable conflict between our political emotions and the need to criticise political decision-makers effectively. If we have reason to believe the decisions being made are wrong, then we ought to make this clear, but this comes with the very real possibility that our protests and challenges will not be heard. If so, then it presents an opportunity to learn, reform, and progress.
About the Author
Joel Yalland is a Philosophy PhD student at the University of Kent. He is currently writing a thesis within social epistemology and the philosophy of language, focusing on the phenomena of agreement and disagreement. He has wider interests in moral and political philosophy, the philosophies of religion and law. When not writing, he would otherwise be found recommending real ale in London pubs.