The Ethics of Re-Opening the Economy

Brad Patty

2 months ago

April 20, 2020

The heated debate on when and how to re-open America’s economy is often portrayed as a conflict between “safety versus economics.”  Those on the side of economics point out that there will be much bigger consequences to remaining closed than admitted by safety advocates.  Those who consider themselves to be on the side of safety warn that re-opening poses unacceptable risks because it can lead to new virus hotspots, which can lead to more deaths.

This is a bad frame for this discussion.  Safety does not exist.  As the United Nations points out in a new study of the economic consequences of these lockdowns, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of children will die from starvation from the predicted economic collapse.  All roads lead to death.  Such safety as we can have comes coupled with economic collapse, harms centered on the poorest people, and starvation.  Alternatively, you can reduce the stress of the economic collapse on the poorest, but you have to accept an increased danger to others.  The ethical discussion should not be about “safety.”  It should be about proportionality and a fair distribution of risks.  This piece will explore a model for making the decision in an ethical way.  It does not endorse either course.

Because all of the options entail highly undesirable consequences, the ethical model that is most relevant comes from the ethics of war. If you want to explore the model carefully in the context of war, the standard work is Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. I am going to write today on how to apply the military ethic to the current crisis.

Let me give a brief example of the model for the sake of clarity.  Consider a wartime decision like bombing a arms factory run by a totalitarian enemy that employs unfree labor in round-the-clock shifts.  If you blow up the factory, you kill innocent workers but save whomever would have been killed by the arms your enemy would have employed against your own people.  If you refrain from blowing up the factory, you save innocent lives among the workers, but put your own people at additional risk of death.  Both decisions probably kill innocent people, so it is similar to the choice we face today.

In military ethics, there are two considerations that tell you whether or not it is an acceptable decision to bomb the factory. The first is whether the action is discriminate, and the second is whether the action is proportionate. An action is discriminate if and only if the harm you are causing to innocents is neither your end nor the means to your end.  There is an easy test for this:  if by miracle the harm did not occur as a result of your action, would you be satisfied with the result?  If you bomb the factory and by miracle all the workers survive and only the equipment was destroyed, you would in fact be satisfied with the result.  Thus, the bombing is discriminate.

A forbidden alternative would be to poison the workers, so that they could not operate the equipment.  Then, if the harm did not occur to the innocents, you would not be satisfied with the outcome.  This direct targeting of innocents fails the test.

Fortunately in the current crisis the options we are considering are all discriminate.  No one is actively trying to cause deaths among the elderly by re-opening, nor the starvation of children by keeping the economy restricted.  This is important to note, because whichever choice is made we are likely to hear voices from those who favored a different option declaring that political leaders “have blood on their hands” because of their decisions.  That is unfair.  There is no option of avoiding blood.  All of these choices are discriminate, even though they have unfortunate consequences.

So the second consideration is proportionality.  In the military example, it is satisfied:  you will probably kill some number of one shift of workers, but you will save the lives of everyone who would likely have been killed by the arms you kept from being made.  In the current crisis, proportionality is going to be the key consideration.  Steps will need to be taken to try to minimize the harms done by whatever choice is made.  The choice should be made based on ensuring that the harm done is proportionate to the good achieved.  If we risk an extra ten thousand American deaths by re-opening, might we save a hundred thousand children?  That would be proportionate.  If the math cuts the other way, then the other choice is the proportionate one.

That is as far as military ethics carries us.  There are a few other things about the current case that are different from the military model.  In wartime ethics, for instance, it is perfectly ordinary to favor the victory of your own nation.  This is moral in war in part because the other nations are actively trying to harm you.  There is an argument that China has behaved in a vicious way by hiding the virus, destroying scientific research, disappearing doctors who tried to give warnings, and allowing the spread to the rest of the world.  The Chinese leadership can be treated as an enemy.  Nations other than China, however, are in this with us.  It may not be moral to pursue the survival of ten thousand Americans over a hundred thousand African or Asian children.  They are not our enemies, and it is not fair to them to put them at greater risk to protect our own.

There are also considerations of justice as related to poverty.  Both here and abroad, the poor are necessarily more exposed to harms from economic closure, and they are also more likely to be forced into ‘essential work’ that requires them to expose themselves to the virus even during the lockdowns.  As a result, the lockdowns actively harm the poor while sheltering the relatively well-off, and also unfairly force the poor to assume extra risks that the relatively rich do not run.

It is also true that the poor have less access to healthcare resources.  Increased economic activity may impose an unfair burden on them by exposing them to more people who may be sick.  Whoever is performing these duties, because they are running enhanced risks for the benefit of everyone, their access to necessary healthcare resources becomes a public concern central to making an ethical choice.  How we address that concern is open to interpretation, but that we address it is crucial because we need these things done.

These non-military factors seem to me to incline toward re-opening as much as possible, taking whatever safety precautions are reasonable.  The proportionality requirement from military ethics may or may not, depending on how many additional deaths are likely from re-opening.  Whether the numbers can be kept proportionate is a question for medical experts, but that is the question we need to ask them to make the best decision we can.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.