As Melbourne goes into the most intense lockdown measures we’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, activity in the state grinds to a halt. 

In media outlets around the country, contrarian commentators are running pell-mell to explain why the lockdowns are the wrong move, and why we should be hastening to open the economy, even if it means paying a price in lives.  

Others have been sprinting at a similar speed to disprove them – perhaps moving too fast, and in so doing so, having the argument on their terms.  

Consider two of the loudest critics of the purpose of the lockdown: UNSW Economics professor Gigi Forster and Adam Creighton, economics editor at the Australian newspaper. Forster has argued that the costs – measured in terms of overall wellbeing – are more greatly increased by our response to Covid-19 than by the virus itself. 

Creighton’s arguments are related, though he has emphasised more the difference between quantity and quality of life. On the lockdowns in Melbourne, he recently tweeted “What’s the point in being alive if you can’t live?

Perhaps the loudest response to each of them has been to say that a successful economic exit from the COVID-19 pandemic relies on successfully controlling the virus through measures like lockdowns, social distancing and so on. Even on economic terms, it won’t work to allow the virus to run through the community. We can’t come back economically unless we succeed medically. It’s not a zero-sum game. 

I’m not the right person to decide whether or not that argument is correct. But that’s not my primary concern either. Instead, my concern is that in arguing the facts on this particular issue – that economically we are better off by controlling the spread of the virus – we have granted them their first principleNamely, that the correct course of action is whichever one makes the most sense economically and does the most work to maximise quality of life for the largest number of people.  

In granting this principle, we’re rushing over a lot of controversial territory. For instance, we might want to take issue with Creighton’s argument on other grounds – that whilst it is important to be able to live fully, in order to so, we need to be alive. The idea that ‘life is for living’ only makes sense if we also say that some people shouldn’t be permitted to stay alive. And many people won’t want to say that.  

The point is, the ‘maximise wellbeing’ argument implies a harsh form of utilitarianism. It suggests we accept that there are some people who will have to pay the price for our flourishing.

Maximising benefit still leaves some people to suffer. Usually, it means leaving the same people who have suffered before to suffer again. After all, the most vulnerable already have a low quality of life, so if they end up dying, statistically speaking, it doesn’t show up as much of a loss.  

When we encounter arguments like those of Creighton and Forsterwe have a choice to make: what matters most to us? Is our primary concern making as many people as possible as well off as we can? Or do we to stand in solidarity with those who are worst off, and refuse to flourish at their expense 

There are schools of thought and philosophers and arguments that will give you cover whichever way you make that choice. But it is a choice to be made. Wcan’t just interrogate the conclusions of these arguments, we need to question their starting (and often hidden) premises.   

During this pandemic we have started to see some of the hidden premises bubble to the surfaceOverwhelminglythe result has been a discomfort at the idea that we get to decide who we are willing to sacrifice for our collective benefit. 

I hope that’s an idea that we rememberBecause that’s not a problem that started with COVID-19Instead, it’s a trade-off that is hardwired into our economic systemIn many ways, it’s perfectly logical to suggest we let more people die from Covid-19 if it means we all benefit. After all, it’s what we’ve always done. 

We need to recognise that it’s not just people who champion beliefs and values. It’s the very systems that inform and shape our world. 

If we don’t want our collective benefit to be paid for by those who most need our care, we need to do more than debate the people floating this idea. We must interrogate the system that gave rise to those views at all. We need to recognise the ways in which it is our default setting and find the courage to imagine another way of doing things. 

It’s often said there are no atheists in the foxholes. It feels like there are also few nihilists in a crisis. Circumstances like these sharpen our moral intuitions and surface underlying tensions in society.  

Our responsibility, as well as getting through this and getting each other through this, is to ensure that in times of comfort we retain that ethical sharpness and continue to refuse to flourish when that requires others to fail. 

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.