Recent estimates suggest that poorer parts of the world, including much of Central America, parts of Asia and almost all of Africa, will not achieve widespread COVID vaccination until 2023. What guidance can moral philosophy provide to those making decisions about global vaccine distribution? This piece from The Guardian (UK) compares communitarianism with utilitarianism.
"'Vaccine nationalism' refers to a ... kind of response to the issue, demanding 'My country first!' It assumes that each country is responsible for the safety and wellbeing only of those living within its territory, not abroad. This seems to be the approach of the UK government so far: if the EU has problems with the supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine, then tough luck. This argument finds justification in communitarianism, the philosophy that argues our identities and values are intricately linked to the communities we belong to, and therefore our moral obligations are first and foremost to those who belong to our community – in this case, our political community. But according to a different, more cosmopolitan, approach, moral responsibility doesn’t stop at a country’s borders. The value of a person’s life isn’t dependent on where they live: everyone has equal moral worth. Utilitarianism, the moral philosophy that measures the value of an act by measuring its impact on overall wellbeing, doesn’t discriminate between British, French or Brazilian wellbeing. It sees the preferential treatment of those close to us as immoral, and as an unfortunate feature of human nature. According to this framework, the UK shouldn’t prioritise its own citizens, but treat the citizens of the EU, and indeed of the rest of the world, as equally deserving of the vaccines it has secured. The most vulnerable from around the globe should, as in the domestic case, take priority. So, which of the two ethical frameworks gets it right?
"One way that philosophers assess ethical principles is by testing them in thought experiments. Imagine a neighbour asks you for a favour, say to help them move, and a stranger asks you the same. Would it be immoral to prioritise your neighbour? That doesn’t sound quite right. In fact, the special ties you have with your neighbour make helping them seem like a kind of obligation, one you don’t have towards a stranger. Now imagine a different scenario: your neighbour is again asking for help with moving, but a stranger is at the same time crying for help, drowning in the lake next to your house. Here your moral duty is to help the stranger, not your neighbour. Both the ethical principle that says we should always prioritise those we have ties to, as well as the one that suggests it is always wrong to do so, have their limitations. No one moral rule can capture the particularities of every ethical conundrum...
"Given the current situation, and the fact the UK is suffering one of the world’s highest number of deaths relative to population size, there is a moral argument for prioritising its people. But it’s important to keep in mind that even though the political leadership of the country is democratically accountable only to its citizens, its moral accountability doesn’t stop with them. If and when the UK finds itself in better epidemiological shape than other countries, it will be time to help them out."
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