The online journal The Conversation has been running a series of articles in which an ethicist responds to questions raised by COVID-19. Is it ethical to take a cab or an Uber to the hospital if I'm sick and don't have a car? Who should go to the grocery store? What are the ethical implications of ending state lockdowns? This excerpt is from the latter discussion:
"If we are willing to trade risk to human life for expected economic benefit, it requires us to engage in a sort of analysis employed by utilitarians – moral philosophers who believe in promoting the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people – and also to put a price on human health. This may sound shocking, but people do this every day: Insurance actuaries, military strategists and traffic planners routinely face difficult questions on how much a human life will 'cost.' ... If we reopen the economy, will the death toll surge again? Will employees even come back to work? ... If we reopen the economy too soon, we might face both a worse health outcome and further economic downturn. With such uncertainty, how can we possibly know whether the 'cure will be worse than the disease?'
"But there is another ethical consideration here: Precisely whose lives are we talking about? And whose economic benefit? People may have a choice whether or not to drive. But if forced to go to work every day, they may not be able to avoid the risk of being exposed to a life-threatening illness. And not all work is the same: Does a transit worker face the same risk as a tax planner? Twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls embraced the idea of “justice as fairness” – the idea that judgments about morality are inextricably tied up with questions of equality. Rawls described how a “veil of ignorance” could help guide a person’s moral judgment by asking them what distribution of rights they would choose for an ideal society, without telling them the place they would hold in that society once the veil was lifted. ... In the real world, of course, we know full well whether we will be the one delivering the packages or staying home for a Zoom conference. To risk someone else’s life where you would not risk your own – for your own economic benefit or otherwise – seems deeply immoral."
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