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Ethics and the Value of Lives

The London Interdisciplinary School
14 July 2020
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4 mins read
COVID-19 Language


Let’s look at the ethical questions raised by COVID-19 and its social consequences, questions not just about facts, but about how we should act. Applied ethics of this sort is never pure philosophy – it draws on a range of different disciplines, including medical science, healthcare economics, and law, and is intrinsically interdisciplinary, as you will see from the various discussions below. Beyond that, any approach to the pandemic whatsoever, if it results in action, has an ethical dimension, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.

💡 Read the article ‘Preparing for Influenza Pandemic: Legal and Ethical Challenges’​ by Lawrence Gostin and Benjamin Berkman (you’ll need to scroll past the introductory section to find this). This paper was published in 2007, long before the current pandemic. But it sets out clearly many of the ethical issues that arise from dealing with any highly contagious disease).

As you read, make some notes on the key ethical issues mentioned. Then compare your notes with Nigel’s feedback below.

NHS language


Here are Nigel’s key points. Don’t worry if you picked out slightly different aspects in your notes.

– The authors summarise their stance in the final section of their paper: ‘Public health emergencies raise serious ethical issues which are central to society’s commitment to freedom and social justice.’

– These two categories – freedom and social justice – provide a useful starting point for discussion on this topic. Therapeutic countermeasures include vaccinations and treatments.

– Public health interventions include quarantine and social distancing.

– Surveillance is the backbone of public health – this poses privacy issues. Only the minimum necessary of specific identifiable data should be released outside the public health system.

– Informed consent is needed for testing for disease, but compulsory testing may be required in certain circumstances (though this should be a last resort).

– There is a need for adequate clear and informed information – not least because misinformation impacts worst on marginalised and disadvantaged members of society.

– Social distancing can have knock-on consequences on individuals such as loneliness and economic difficulties. Any penalties for non-compliance should be proportional to offences.

– Workplace and school closings raise particularly pressing ethical issues, especially in terms of distributive justice. The least advantaged in society are typically worst affected.

– Freedom of movement is a basic right, yet pandemics necessitate restrictions on travel for the sake of public health. Isolation and quarantine may have to be coercive and conflict with civil liberties.

– The interests of the society have to be balanced against the rights and interests of the individual. All restriction of liberty should be legal, proportionate, necessary, and achieved by the least restrictive means available. There is a risk that governments will extend their control beyond what is necessary.

– Quarantine should be voluntary wherever possible.

– Pandemics require solidarity and collaboration between nations – this means setting aside national interests to some extent.


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