Harms, Benefits, and Trade-Offs in a Pandemic

Written by: Dale Dorsey


A crucial topic in moral philosophy involves the aggregation and comparison of harms and benefits.  How many, for instance, minor headaches relieved is worth a single human life?  How many people being able to travel 75 miles per hour rather than 70 miles per hour are worth some number of additional car accidents and deaths?

And while some of these topics may seem abstruse, during the time of COVID-19 we are seeing the aggregation of harms and benefits play out in real time.  To prevent deaths as a result of COVID-19, hundreds of millions of people have had their freedom of movement curtailed, some tens of millions have seen their employment end, their mental health degrade, their children fail to go to school.  Untold numbers have been trapped in homes with domestic abusers, or in circumstances that are otherwise unsafe.  People have been unable to take pleasure in the simple joys of social interaction, of sharing a cocktail with friends, of sending their kids on playdates. Given the economic effect of shutdowns, many millions on the margins will have their quality of life substantially diminish, many will be plunged into homelessness as the inability to pay rent or keep up with a mortgage forces them out of their homes.  The economic consequences of the coronavirus shutdowns are, in addition, likely to be felt for years, if not for generations, and will likely negatively affect the employment and life prospects of untold millions, a burden that will fall disproportionately on the young.

These are serious harms.  But the benefits are serious, too.  And though not a universal sentiment, polls show that support for lockdowns that result in these harms are supported for the sake of curtailing the spread of a virus that has killed nearly 500000 people.  Surely many more were spared as a result of lockdowns.  And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that, even if you don’t die of COVID-19, for those who are not asymptomatic, this illness can be really nasty.

How are we, in a principled way, to determine whether public sentiment has a moral basis?  Are we, in supporting lockdowns, actually in favor of a state of affairs that features more good than its alternative?  (This is neutral, by the way, concerning whether the shutdowns were imposed or spontaneous—the key question is whether we should support widespread shutdowns whether or not they are ordered.)

Of course, it will depend on what we think is ultimately of intrinsic value—what we use to figure out how good states of affairs are in comparison to others.  But it’s hard to see how support for lockdowns could be justified on your run-of-the-mill theories of value where goods can be straightforwardly aggregated and compared.  Take hedonism, for instance.  (Note: I’m going to be making some empirical suppositions in this paragraph that I don’t think are particularly crazy, but may not prove accurate in the long run.  Part of the problem in confronting the moral consequences of COVID-19 is that we are operating very much in the dark.)  Hedonism holds that states of affairs are rank-ordered by the extent to which they feature a greater balance of pleasure over pain.  And while rampant coronavirus infections certainly present very significant pain, including death, that pain is likely to be distributed over a far smaller population than those that are affected, and will be affected, by the problematic consequences of lockdowns.  This is especially true given that COVID-19 deaths are far more likely to fall upon those who are older, rather than younger.  Hedonism would seem to say that those deaths don’t present a comparatively large bad given that those who died, while they suffer tremendously, would have had comparatively fewer years to live anyway.  (In other words, while you would gain in pleasure by saving the life of an older person, you wouldn’t gain in pleasure as much as you would saving the life, or livelihood, of a young person.)  Indeed, it’s hard to see how any straightforwardly aggregative theory—that is, a theory according to which benefits and burdens can simply be summed and compared—could possibly justify the moral attitude toward shutdowns that many (and, I must say, I) maintain.  If we accept, say, a desire-satisfaction view, or a perfectionist view, many of the same considerations will be relevant.

My suspicion is that in judging shutdowns to be worth it, we are implicitly committing ourselves to a view according to which goods and bads cannot simply be straightforwardly aggregated.  We seem to think that deaths are a special kind of bad—even if, say, the death of a person from COVID-19 involves a comparative loss of, say, 100 hedons, this cannot simply be made up for by preserving 100 hedons elsewhere (i.e., by granting, or preventing the loss of, 10 hedons for 10 other people).  We may think that, e.g., the harms of not being able to send one’s kids to school, or on playdates, are very serious—but they simply do not “add up” to outweigh the value of the lives saved by shutdowns.  The key question, however, is whether this attitude (even if rational) is sufficient to justify shutdowns as we see them.  If we presume, for instance, that it is not simply playdates that are affected by shutdowns, but the long-term livelihoods of generations, the avoidance of a homelessness epidemic, and so forth, these things seem as if they may start to add up against the significance of preserving life.  And though these questions may seem impolitic, and we certainly don’t have all the answers, they are questions that must be broached—preferably in a public way.

The Basic Minimum by Dale Dorsey
The Basic Minimum by Dale Dorsey

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About the Author: Dale Dorsey

Dale Dorsey is Dean’s Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas. His publications include The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Limits of Moral Authority (Oxford University Press, 2016)....

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