COVID-19, is utilitarianism the answer?

Saskia Kirkland

5th Year
St Andrews College

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory that states when making decisions we should look at the total good or bad an action produces and follows the maxim “The greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people". It was developed by British philosophers John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in the 1800s. Their philosophy still has a large impact on the way politicians are making decisions today, from taxation of the rich to provide for the masses, justification for participation in war. This way of thought has guided world leaders in some of the most challenging times, but often faces criticism. Will it hold up to the most modern threat, COVID-19?

Most politicians use utilitarianism instinctively when putting forward policy, but often fail to address the serious underlying problems. This is particularly important now as choices made by the government are impacting our lives more than ever. The decision has been made to put not only our economy but also our lives on hold in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable people. However, this comes with a price. Is pressing pause on our lives worth it or is this an example of utilitarianism failure to consider the emotional and physical effects on people's lives?

When applying utilitarianism to covid-19 many general problems arise, it is too cold and calculating, doesn’t account for the emotional or spiritual needs of people and fixates too much on rational thinking and calculations of happiness, something deeply individual and subjective. However, there are also more unique issues directly relating to covid-19. For example, the distribution of medical attention, whether heard immunity will save more lives in the long run, and the consequences for our economy, a serious risk to our total happiness or “utility”.

If we take Philippa Foot’s, “Trolley Problem”, where you have the power to pull a lever on a train track diverting a trolley away from five workers and towards one, and apply it to covid-19 many ethical questions arise. For example, imagine you are a doctor in one of the many overwhelmed hospitals, and you only have access to one ventilator. There is one young patient who needs full access to it to survive, and five elderly patients who can take turns and survive, what do you do? The utilitarian answer is take the ventilator and try to distribute it among the elderly patients who need it, but this has ethical consequences for the doctor whose actions may lead to the death of a patient even if they save 5. It is these questions that doctors, and nurses face every day, and our government face when deciding our health care policies.

At the beginning of the covid-19 lockdown Prime minister Boris Johnson talked about heard immunity being a possibility for the UK, in order to reduce the potential future spikes in cases , but this policy was quickly switched out for a more conservative lock down one. However, heard immunity, or infecting enough people to provide immunity for the population, has some utilitarian aspects. By exposing a large amount of people with the virus we may limit our future deaths as well as reducing the need for lock down, something that would provide happiness to many people stuck at home right now. although this comes with the large potential price tag of the deaths of many vulnerable people and further overwhelming of our health services. In a perfectly utilitarian society heard immunity would be considered the best option as it provides the most amount of happiness, but again it fails to consider the emotional effects this kind of policy has.

Finally, many leaders, are eager to reopen their economies to reduce economic suffering. Reopening the economy may provide the most utility to the greatest number of people as Businesses would be less likely to fail or close and many jobs and livelihoods would be saved, especially in a country like America who are facing their highest unemployment rates ever seen. However, reopening the economy too soon could risk the lives of thousands who must go back to work, potentially a perfect breeding spot for the virus. Here we see again the potential for utilitarianism to focus too much on the outcome of the action and less on the original morality of the action itself.

A government's aim is to provide happiness to its people, but they must remember their responsibility to ensure liberty and equality to all. It is important that the policy makers of today find a balance between ethical and potentially lifesaving policies. They must examine their choices at each step and ask themselves, is this a just policy, that provide happiness to society without infringing on human rights. Sometimes the answer to this will come in the form of simple utilitarian policy, and sometimes it will be more complicated than just looking at the ethical consequences of our actions. Kant's theory of the publicity requirement, or public deliberation and transparent policy making may be one way of ensuring this, but there is no clear path, and covid-19 provides distinct ethical questions and unique challenges.


• Utilitarianism Defined, By WILL KENTON, Updated Mar 13, 2018:

•  The Failure of Utilitarian Ethics in Political Economy September 1, 2002 By PAUL A. CLEVELAND

• “COVID-19 and the Global Ethics Freefall", By Sridhar Venkatapuram,Published on: March 19, 2020 Published in: “Covid-19, Ethics, Global Health, Hastings Bioethics Forum, Pandemic Planning”