How not to defend enforced quarantines: a philosophical guide

By Toby Pitchers

International responses to Covid-19 have involved a range of policies, from the draconian, enforced quarantines of China to the more voluntary social distancing of Sweden. Given this variation, the UK, by still enforcing international travel quarantines with a fine of up to £10,000, must be able to exactly justify why such force is necessary for limiting transmission; and this has produced a range of inadequate philosophical justifications which must be taken apart.

Simply quoting Cicero […] that, “the health of the people should be the supreme law” is not enough.

For starters, simply quoting Cicero, as Boris Johnson has done, that, “the health of the people should be the supreme law’” is not enough. Deviations in international policy decisions have not just involved practical disagreements of how to best serve some ‘supreme law’ – the social good of protecting society’s health.

Instead, these differences have emerged from disparities in states’ own valuations of social goods – like education, employment, freedom of travel and health – which affect the dimensions of their policy. Thus, the UK government must defend a specific valuation of social goods, wherein the society’s health subordinates most other goods, to defend enforced quarantines – not assume the transcendence of a particular ‘supreme law’.

So, the government must defend a specific health-dominating valuation of social goods. How is this to be done? One mistake would be to insist that it represents the ‘true’ valuation of everybody; that whether we realise it or not, we must value our health above all other goods in virtue of some biological fact about human existence. The state can therefore step in and force us to comply with our true, rational desires when we mistake what it is.

For some people, their interests are simply not best rationally served by quarantining.

This is problematic insofar as it takes on a paternalist ethic in which, as the political theorist Richard Anderson states, quarantining “subordinates the individuals’ right to her good”. The problem with this is that it isolates a person’s concern for health as their sole good and universalises this concern equally for everyone.

In reality, in a world of diverse conceptions of the good, different people will value risks to health, and its weight against other goods – like their freedom of movement or full income – disparately. This means, for some people, their interests are simply not best rationally served by quarantining. Thus, the state implicitly asserts its own valuations and priorities of goods to individuals, when it references their ‘own good’ to force them to do so.

Another, more common mistake however is to justify enforced quarantines by claiming that regardless of the violation of the individual’s own ‘good-conception’, the policy serves a wider social good and is therefore justified. This view is inherently utilitarian: it abides by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous formula that ‘everyone counts as one, nobody more than one’ to formulate the policy which produces the most amount of good for the entire community. This entails that the basic freedoms of some (like those who do not have an interest to quarantine) may be limited for the greater good of the community.

The core idea here is that utilitarianism ignores the ‘distinction between persons’.

Yet, this again is a dangerous justification of mandatory quarantining, in that, as the 20th century American philosopher John Rawls argues, it does not “rule out […] the tendency to regard men as means to one another’s welfare”. The core idea here is that utilitarianism ignores the ‘distinction between persons’. That instead of viewing each person as a subject of the fundamental inviolable rights, it treats them as quantitively similar and interchangeable experiencers of utility.

This is foundationally unfair because it ignores the fact that we enter society as distinct and self-interested individuals looking to devise social parameters that we, as free and equal citizens, want to coexist by. As Rawls elaborates, these preferred parameters mean that “[j]ustice denies that the loss of freedom for someone,” through compulsory quarantine for example, “is made right by a greater good shared by others”.

The use of either the individuals own good, or a wider communal good, in justifying compulsory quarantines then is philosophically inappropriate in that it subordinates, firstly, the ability to decide one’s own conception of the good and, secondly, the right to pursue it as a distinct citizen. The UK government must therefore be careful and attentive to their philosophical arguments for enforced quarantines. These may yet be possible, but they are not as straightforward as some make them seem.

Instead, justifications of forced quarantining should derive from the protection of other’s right to pursue their own conception of the good. That is, even if someone values their freedom, say, to travel as a more important good than risks to their health, it would be a violation of the principles of justice to not quarantine and therefore limit the ‘good-conceptions’ of someone who wants to protect their health at all costs but cannot because of the effects of that travel. The language of forced quarantining must therefore be reevaluated.

Image: profzucker by Creative Commons.

One thought on “How not to defend enforced quarantines: a philosophical guide

  • I mean the PM just got married, and he’s a new dad! Parenting is tough apparently. Maybe he’s just got too much on his plate, otherwise he obviously would have replied to your wordy article. Maybe install Grammarly xoxo PS a dumb name for a grammar website because there’s the red line under it and it wanted to change it to granary.


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