A rebuttal of Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor, wrote a blog The dangerous morality behind the ‘Open Up’ movement.

Burke accuses utilitarianism of being the morality behind many of the arguments to end the lock-down and open up the economy.

According to utilitarianism, a benefit or harm to any one individual matters morally just as much as the same size benefit to any other individual. Burke says that utilitarianism calls for ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. That is an oft-quoted formulation. And yet the formulation has been known to be problematic since at least the 1880s. The formulation conflates doing what is best for the majority with doing what produces the greatest overall good calculated by impartially adding up all benefits and harms to everyone.

The conflation matters not only in theory but also in practice because what is best for the majority is not always what produces the greatest overall good calculated by impartially adding up all benefits and harms to everyone. If a decision would benefit each member of the majority by a relatively small amount but harm each member of the minority by a much greater amount, then that decision could benefit the greatest number but not produce the greatest overall good calculated by impartially adding up all benefits and harms to everyone. Ending lock-down precipitously is a case in point.

Those advocating an immediate and total end to lock-down assume only a minority of people would die as a result, though the number of additional deaths would be substantial. The economic benefit to the majority would presumably be a quicker return to employment and profitability, and thus a shortening of economic hardship. The harm per person to each of those dying or having a member of their family die would be vastly greater than the benefit per person to the majority who would benefit economically, unless the economic hardship caused by the lock-down is so extreme as to be a matter of life or death. The economic hardship caused by the lock-down is generally not so extreme as to be a matter of life or death here or in other wealthy countries at the moment. So, with respect to the UK, the US, or other countries with relatively high per capita GDP, it is preposterous to proclaim that the economic benefits of an immediate and total end to lock-down aggregate to enough to outweigh the tens or hundreds of thousands of additional deaths resulting from such a decision.

Over the last 140 years, most who have called themselves ‘utilitarians’ have focused not on what benefits the majority but on the greatest good overall, calculated by impartially adding up all benefits and harms to everyone. People with such a focus would not favour an immediate and total end to the lock-down in countries where the economic hardship caused by the lock-down is not so extreme as to be a matter of life or death.

Professor Brad Hooker worked at Virginia Commonwealth University before moving to the University of Reading in 1993. His book Ideal Code, Real World: a Rule-consequentialist Theory of Morality was published by Oxford University Press in 2000. His recent research has been on fairness and on financial regulation.

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