A libertarian believes in having complete security over his or her life, liberty and property. Libertarians, therefore, believe in the principles of property rights, individual freedom, rule of law, free markets, fair competition, spontaneous order, minimal government and free trade. It is important to note that life, liberty and property existed much before any government or law came into being.
As per the libertarian principle, an individual has a natural right over his or her own body, as it is considered a private property. Thus, he or she should be able to freely decide what to do with his or her own body, or how well he or she wants to take care of it —as long as the person is willing to bear the consequences of his or her action, and such action does not harm the well-being of other fellow citizens.
In normal times, if a person consciously chooses to live a reckless life or maintain poor hygiene, one can only advise the person not to do so. At the end of the day, as long as the individual is not causing any problem for another, and is willing to bear the consequences of such actions on his or her own life, there is not much one can do.
But these are clearly not normal times. An individual commuting to work daily who decides not to maintain Covid-mitigation measures should be stopped, as his or her actions adversely impact the well-being of fellow citizens with whom he or she comes in direct contact with, thereby infringing on theirlife, liberty and property. Given the infectious nature of the Covid-19 disease, some amount of restrictions such as temporary lockdowns and fines for not adhering to best practices in public places can, therefore, be justified by legal means.
Such actions seem justifiable, based on the utilitarian principles of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which propose that outcomes of actions should ultimately seek to maximise ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethics where the outcome is all that matters, not the act to achieve the desired outcome itself. Thus, utilitarianism does not concern itself with whether an action is morally right or not.
Take nationwide lockdowns, the need to maintain social distancing or wear a mask, or maintaining good hygiene to reduce the spread of Covid-19. These have been enforced by almost all countries to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number — to achieve the end objective of reducing Covid-19 transmission. But, in most cases, rules have been enforced so that citizens abide by them, if necessary out of fear, to achieve the end goal of containing the spread of the disease.
In this case, achieving the end objective is the main goal, by using any means necessary, and even if many citizens are not voluntarily ready to follow these rules. Naturally, there has been mixed response regarding the level of seriousness with which people are following Covid-mitigation rules, leading to varied outcomes.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant was a staunch critic of utilitarianism. He argued that such a consequentialist ethics is bound to fail, as it does not attach any moral basis to the means used to achieve the end objective. In Kant’s views, the means are as important as the end goal itself, and the means should be based on certain moral duties, which ought to be universal in nature.
In the example of Covid-19, unless people decide to follow the rules — not out of fear of prosecution, but voluntarily, because those are the right things to do as universal moral duties — the chances of achieving the end goal of reducing the virus transmission will be suboptimal, or delayed. So, based on Kant’s moral philosophy, one should be following social distancing or volunteering for tests, because it is his or her moral duty to do so, leading the person to make that choice out of his or her free will, and, unconditionally, as the action itself represents good.
Covid-19 will lead to a ‘new normal’ where conventional norms pertaining to economic, social and geopolitical issues will undergo seismic changes in the years to come. The pandemic will also likely stir debate about the various tenets of moral philosophy to determine which one will survive the test of time. Kantianism could very well emerge the likely winner.
The writer is India chief economist, Deutsche Bank AG