The Ethics of Lockdown
When governments deprive us of fundamental freedoms, we should always question their right to do so.
Like many millions of other people around the globe during this coronavirus pandemic, I’m currently in lockdown.
I’m concerned about the coronavirus. It is clearly very dangerous. But as a fierce defender of freedom, I’m even more concerned about the loss of liberty we’re experiencing as governments impose lockdowns on their populations.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a very reasonable person. I’m broadly supportive of social distancing, if scientists say that will save lives. I would have happily cooperated with ‘stay at home’ advice if requested to do so. But in my mind, there’s a huge difference between people being asked to stay at home and people being ordered to do so and threatened with fines or arrest if they don’t.
Advice is one thing. Imposition by force is something else.
If we value freedom, therefore, it is very important indeed that we stop and think about the ethics of lockdown. Under which conditions and on what terms are our governments justified in taking away our freedoms, such as our freedom of movement? And do our current circumstances justify such extreme measures?
The scale of the coronavirus epidemic as a medical emergency should not stop us being deeply concerned about the abandonment of what used to be considered basic human rights.
These lockdowns constitute perhaps the most widespread crackdown on fundamental freedoms in human history. It is absolutely right that we rigorously question whether our governments should have any right to impose them upon us.
An enforced lockdown may be a practical response to the coronavirus threat. But is it an entirely ethical one?
It’s not just about the numbers. There are principles at stake.
In some people’s eyes, the justification for a lockdown depends almost entirely on an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of such a policy. To them, if a lockdown can save lives at not too high a cost, then it may be morally justified.
But I’m not one of those people. For me, the ethics and morality of lockdown can’t be assessed by merely crunching some numbers and proving that the total societal benefits of a lockdown will outweigh the costs. To me, it’s not really a question of costs and benefits. It’s a question of principle. It’s a question of right and wrong.
The simple principle I’m referring to is the generally accepted one upon which free societies are supposed to be based; that the government should have no right to restrict your freedom, except to prevent you causing harm to others.
According to this principle, for the government to justify putting me under lockdown, it would have to argue that I would be harming others if I was allowed out of my house.
The harm they would presumably have in mind is that I might pass on the coronavirus to someone and they might die from it. But it’s not easy to make a convincing case that I, as an individual, am likely to harm anyone in this way, if I go outside.
For one thing, there’s not the slightest sign I have the coronavirus. If the government were merely requiring people with symptoms to stay indoors, that might be different. But the lockdown is for everyone.
Furthermore, there’s little evidence that there is a serious danger of passing on the virus when outside, away from a crowd. Again, if the government were enforcing social distancing measures when people are indoors, they might be justified in their actions. But my government, like others, has even made it illegal for me to go outside and sit completely on my own.
In any case, if I do catch the virus and pass it on to someone, there’s a good chance they would have picked it up from someone else anyway, if they hadn’t got it from me.
If they do pick up the virus, they’ll probably have either no symptoms at all or very mild symptoms. And if they develop complications, those complications may have arisen largely due to their existing health conditions — such as obesity. They may have caught the coronavirus from me, but they didn’t catch obesity from me. Their obesity is their own responsibility.
If they develop complications because of their age and weakened immune system, then perhaps they should have stayed indoors themselves, instead of going outside and catching the virus from me.
All in all, it adds up to a very tenuous argument that me going outside causes anyone else harm — and almost certainly not enough harm, on average, to justify keeping me under house arrest.
After all, there needs to be some sort of threshold level of harm required to justify taking away people’s freedom, because taking away people’s freedom is itself a form of harm.
I don’t agree that the likely harm caused by me going outside meets that threshold, especially given that I’m perfectly happy to follow reasonable social distancing advice.
I’m just not dangerous enough to justify locking me up.
The chances of me picking up the coronavirus when outside, then going on to infect someone else, who didn’t themselves have any choice about going out, who wouldn’t otherwise have caught the virus and who then dies from the virus, through no fault of their own (e.g. not largely as a result of obesity or other self-imposed health problems) is tiny.
It’s probably on the same scale of risk as me running someone over with my car or accidentally passing on the flu to an elderly person who subsequently dies from it. And yet I’m not banned from driving and people aren’t ordinarily put into forced isolation even when they’ve clearly got flu symptoms.
And it’s also probably tiny compared to the risk of passing on the virus in a supermarket when shopping for food — something that I am still allowed to do.
Aren’t we just harming Peter to help Paul?
What the lockdown is essentially doing is substituting one form of harm for another. It is directly harming people’s freedoms, mental health and economic interests, largely for the sake of merely postponing the date on which other people will catch the coronavirus.
It’s sacrificing freedom for the sake of attempting to prevent (or perhaps just delay) what may not be preventable; the deaths of thousands of elderly people and people with serious health conditions, from the coronavirus.
Whilst freedom of movement is well-established as an important right for the welfare of individuals and entire societies, there is no established freedom to go around in public free from the threat of catching a virus — and there never has been.
For me to pass on the virus to someone else outside, that other person is probably going to have to get very close to me. But so long as they aren’t forced to do that, what possible complaint can they have about me going outside?
People who wish to reduce their risk should be free to take precautions for themselves — such as reducing their contact with other people or wearing a face mask. They can be offered help to enable them to take such precautions. But they shouldn’t have any right to dictate that other people must sacrifice fundamental freedoms on their behalf.
Is the coronavirus really a threat to society?
But what about the threat to our society as a whole? Doesn’t that justify a lockdown? Arguably, however, the coronavirus itself poses no serious threat at all to our society.
Realistically, the overall death rate from coronavirus, once we take into account all the asymptomatic cases, may be somewhere in the region of one in a thousand — mainly the old and people with serious underlying health conditions. And for many individual families, that is of course tragic. But does it constitute a serious threat to society? No, it doesn’t.
If, before the coronavirus crisis, I had said that a lockdown — effectively placing the population under house arrest — was a measure that should only be considered in the most extreme circumstances, it might have been difficult to find anyone to disagree with me.
And whilst I agree that coronavirus presents us with serious problems, I do not agree that it constitutes ‘the most extreme circumstances.’ This is not a threat on the scale of a major war, a nuclear attack or the Spanish Flu. Environmental problems arguably pose a much bigger threat to our societies, as could economic shocks or financial crises.
The risk of catching a virus from other people is an everyday part of normal life. Viruses have always been with us, but our societies have thrived and grown and advanced nonetheless.
There are other, more freedom-friendly alternatives.
Most of all, the argument for an enforced lockdown falls down because it can’t explain why such a policy is necessary, when there are obvious, more freedom-friendly alternative measures available to us.
And the most obvious alternative is for most social distancing measures to be undertaken on a voluntary basis. They can be encouraged. They can be strongly advised. People can be educated. They can be convinced through arguments, hard data and government transparency. For those not open to rational persuasion, social pressure can be applied.
An enforced lockdown, however, is probably not justified if voluntary arrangements were not even attempted.
And if voluntary arrangements prove insufficient because people start having house parties, then the government could ban house parties. But stopping me going outside because other people might have house parties? That’s just not on. The government should take enforcement action against the willful troublemakers — not against the entire population.
Perhaps it could be argued that a short-term compulsory lockdown was needed in order to give a clear, sharp message that, ‘This is serious!’ But that message has now been given and accepted and acted upon by the public.
My view, therefore — and I think it is a very reasonable one — is that the enforced lockdowns currently in place should be transitioned into a voluntary arrangement, based on common sense and our humanitarian concern for others — not on the threat of fines and arrest.
That threat is not currently justified. And perhaps it never was.
Update, 6th January 2021: The UK government has again made it illegal for me to go outside and sit down on a bench alone to enjoy the sunshine. They have given no rational reason for this horrendous violation of my fundamental human rights.