The Big Question with Iskra Fileva: Ethics of freedom vs safety during a pandemic

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Iskra Fileva, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In her academic work, she specializes in moral psychology and issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry. The focus of her current research is on the connections and tensions between conscious and unconscious motivation, the nature of moral emotions, and the boundary between bad character and personality disorders.

She is, however, interested in all things human: how and what we remember, how we achieve intimacy, what makes some people good at relating to others, why we misunderstand each other, why we fear death, whether adults understand a child’s mind, and many others. She enjoys writing for a non-academic audience and has previously written for The New York Times.

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What is the biggest ethical or philosophical question that has arisen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

I think that the pandemic raised several ethical and philosophical questions, for instance: how should we allocate scarce resources such as ventilators and hospital beds? Should we invest a lot more time and effort into preparing for disaster scenarios such as pandemics before they occur? But the ethical (and philosophical) problem that stood out for me has to do with what I would describe as a conflict between freedom of choice and preventing risks to other people.

As it turns out, there are many who don’t want a lockdown – they want to go back to work, or go to the beach, or go to a restaurant. I think it would be difficult to argue – and no one is in fact arguing – that those people should stay home for their own benefit. After all, we allow many dangerous activities such as car racing, because we think that paternalistic restrictions are rarely justified, at least when it comes to adults.

The argument for imposing restrictions on freedom of action and movement, then, is that certain activities such as going to a restaurant impose risks not on the people engaging in those activities but on innocent bystanders. The question then becomes: What risks can we permissibly impose on other people?

Some level of risk must be seen as acceptable. Whenever you drive, you impose risks on other people on the road (and if you ride a bike, you impose risks on pedestrians on the sidewalk). Any time you light a candle, you run a risk of starting a fire. When you convict a person for a crime, you risk doing a grave wrong to someone completely innocent since no matter how good the evidence of guilt is, there is always a chance the defendant you’ve convicted is in fact innocent. So the question is not can you risk the lives of others but what level of risk is morally permissible?

Why is it significant?

What policy responses to the pandemic are acceptable depends on the answer to the question about permissible levels of risk. This is what makes the question significant.

How can it be addressed?

Perhaps, I should start by saying what I think is the wrong way of addressing the issue: turning the problem into a battle of wills, so to speak. There are many people protesting lockdown measures, both in the US and around the world. On the other hand, there are many others who harshly criticize protesters on social media and occasionally stage counter-protests. I think it should be clear upon reflection that demonstrations and Twitter wars are not a good way of answering the (difficult) question of the boundary between permissible and impermissible risk. A view is not more likely to be true in virtue of being more loudly asserted. (It may also turn out, ironically, that the risk you impose on others by going to a restaurant during the pandemic is permissible but that the risk you impose by participating in a large demonstration is not permissible.)
My own preferred way of addressing the problem would involve public discussion. It will also involve consulting people who work on calculating risk. If you ask me in the abstract, I have no intuition about the level of risk it is permissible to impose on other people. One in a million probability of death? One in half a million probability of serious injury? It is difficult to say. But I think the issue becomes more tractable if we make an attempt to estimate the levels of risk we already consider acceptable and compare those to the novel risks we are dealing with currently. For instance, what is the probability you’d kill someone if you drive for an hour every day? How does that compare to the risk you’d kill someone if you are allowed not to practice social distancing during the pandemic?

For more information about Iskra Fileva visit her Psychology Today page.

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