Philosophy Prof. Peter Vernezze: Pondering how to weigh COVID-19 decisions
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Philosophy Prof. Peter Vernezze: Pondering how to weigh COVID-19 decisions

Peter Vernezze compares those who want to end the lockdown with a group seeking to wait longer and avoid unnecessary deaths.

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

As we are a divided nation, it is no surprise that we are split on how to move forward in this pandemic.

In extending the stay-home order until May 15, Gov. Ducey referenced this divide. Thirty-percent of us, he said, were ready to go out for dinner tomorrow. The rest, according to the governor, are split between 30% who won’t resume normal activities until a vaccine is found and 40% who would consider going out with proper safety measures in place.

Interestingly, the governor’s analysis closely parallels national polling that two-thirds of Americans worry restrictions will be lifted too soon while one-third think they have gone on too long.

Although the governor presents both positions as equally valid, from a moral perspective they are anything but equivalent.

Morally speaking, we can classify the first group (call them the “End-the-Lockdown” crowd) as utilitarians. Utilitarians believe the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences, specifically, by what brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Since each person’s happiness counts equally, utilitarians admit that the suffering of a few may be necessary for the happiness of the many.

The End-the-Lockdown group (or those among them who want to be taken seriously) accepts the evidence that the current restrictions have saved lives. And they concede that lifting the restrictions immediately would result in more lives lost than utilizing the phased-in approach recommended by the CDC.

But they argue that when you weigh up the consequences, the benefit gained through current restrictions (i.e., lives saved) has not been worth the economic cost and, furthermore, that the economic benefits resulting from lifting the restrictions will outweigh the additional suffering that will result.

In response, the second group (call them the “Keep-America-Safe” set) points out the ethical peril in appealing to consequences for moral vindication.

To begin, we don’t appeal to the consequences of our actions when we decide not to lie, steal or murder, because we know that consequences are not what determines the moral worth of those actions.

Why should it be different in the case of responding to a pandemic?

In addition, numerous morally heinous actions could readily be justified if you use as your standard the overall economic well-being of society.

But what is most troubling is that opening up the economy in the way the End-the-Lockdown group envisions not only violating our obligations to the sanctity of life by knowingly sacrificing some of our citizens for the happiness of the majority.

It specifically puts at risk the most vulnerable among us. For it is not just random citizens who will die if restrictions are lifted in the abrupt manner the End-the-Lockdown crowd suggests.

The additional deaths will largely be among those who currently are more likely to die from the virus: the elderly, the physically compromised, low-income workers and the minority community.

It is bad enough to sacrifice some of our citizens. To sacrifice the most powerless is a moral stain we will carry for generations.

Hubert Humphrey declared that the moral test of a government must include how it treats “those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

This is a standard only one of the two groups the governor mentioned can be said to honor.

Peter Vernezze, PhD, is an emeritus professor of philosophy and a Tucson resident.

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