Life in Lockdown

Coronavirus 2020: Kant v Bentham

Edward Cooke
PhD Candidate in Anthropology

The politics of coronavirus in 2020 is being played out under the philosophical disagreements promoted by (among others) Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative and Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness maxim.

Irrespective of the duplicity that global governments hide behind, the decisions that impact upon the management and control of coronavirus are based upon the dichotomy of logic argued by Kant and Bentham 200 years ago.

The UK government so far has based its coronavirus strategy on the philosophical arguments of Kant. No government can present to the public the face of an uncaring, uncompassionate elite that allows the old, the weak and the infirmed to be sacrificed for the greater public good. Therefore, for this first phase of the coronavirus battle, Kant and the moral reasoning that sits behind the categorical imperative wins the day. The old must be saved, they must be protected no matter what the economic costs are. No matter if hundreds of billions of pounds are involved, no matter if the lives and freedoms of whole population are subject to draconian restrictions, all the resources of the state are at the disposal of the NHS to preserve life, because morally and ethically life is precious and must be protected (well that is, unless you are talking about abortion in NI, then the sanctity of life takes on another ethical dimension)?

Fast forward a month or so and I suggest that it will be Bentham’s utilitarianism that wins the ‘final’ battle against coronavirus. Bentham’s reasoning is brutal but simple, however, it is an argument that can only be spoken when it is softened by rhetoric and after Kantian morality has been first tried. Bentham’s argument that protecting the welfare (happiness) of the greatest number of people, I suggest, will ultimately win out because we live in an era when governments and electorates subscribe to neo-liberal economic ideologies. Already the arguments are surfacing (albeit in a much softer form) that too much time, effort, resources and money has been spent to save too few economically unproductive people. Bentham’s greatest happiness theory will enable the business, industry and education sectors to open-up for business as normal. Of course politics and self-protection will dictate how quickly normalcy is resumed, but the need to bring happiness to the maximum number of people will ultimately determine the strategy of government because elections are determined by the greater number of voters who feel happiest, not by the greater number of voters who are morally and ethically driven.

The ethical underpinnings of treating all life as sacred and saving the very elderly and / or those with underlying medical problems from premature early deaths will be subsumed by the desire to maximise the wealth of the greatest number of people. Of course, no one will use these precise words, parrésia is rarely spoken by politicians, but these are the philosophical principles that will frame phase 2 of the coronavirus debate. Those who subscribe to deontological arguments such as, it is always wrong to kill, or it is always wrong to steal, will be side-lined by those who look beyond the moral intentions (that frame for example the Ten Commandments). Soon the arguments will be accepted that whilst it might be morally wrong to steal, if your four children are starving, then theft is an acceptable defence. Practical outcomes will soon trump moral reasoning in coronavirus phase 2.

In a month or so, I suggest that it will be the economic outcomes and impacts of coronavirus on the maximum number of people that are all important, not the ethical stance of protecting the sanctity of life. How long will it be before the morality that currently underpins the UK government’s (and NI Assembly’s) current fight against coronavirus is abandoned, I suggest that this will be determined by how capable the government is in manipulating the media. What some commentators are framing as a coronavirus exit strategy, will no doubt turn out to be the abandoning of one philosophical principle in exchange for another.

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