Richard Turnbull: The Morality of the Trade-offs between Health and Economics

For the more libertarian among us, not least economic libertarians, the lifting of the lockdown cannot come quickly enough. Others are either fearful of the consequences of moving too rapidly or perhaps enjoying the restrictions rather too much. Yet again there are those fearful of the economic consequences of the state’s intervention and others suggesting it offers a model for the future.

How are we to makes sense of these differing perspectives and can we bring a moral voice to the discussion?

Even if individuals have differing perspectives are there ways in which we can reconcile the necessary trade-offs?

Indeed, perhaps the first point is that there are indeed trade-offs and in a fallen world there will always be so. The choices that we face are not between ‘health of the nation fully restored, no Covid’ and ‘economic prosperity as quickly as possible even if there are significant deaths.’ In reality there is a trade-off and too much shrill commentary fails to recognise this basic fact. In a world where we need economic prosperity in order to ensure the well-being of all people we have to find a pathway between the two poles which manages risk and ensures maximum return to economic activity within a responsible environment for the management of the pandemic.

Let’s start with some philosophy and theology. The reason for this is that we have to establish some base points for working out how to move forward.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is generally regarded as the founder of what is known as utilitarianism. There are different ways of characterising this approach; perhaps the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is the most common. Essentially utilitarianism requires all human life and activity to have purpose, or utility. That is why Bentham left his body to medical research; even in death there must be some use for the body.

Younger people appear less likely to suffer the more serious symptoms of Covid-19 and are, at least compared to, say, residents in care homes, more economically active. Well, you can probably work out where that leads….

Utilitarianism is antithetical to any concept of natural rights. Consequently, for those such as Gertrude Himmelfarb utilitarianism does not extend liberty but in reality restricts it. The source of our natural rights is God and as a result all people are regarded as being equally valuable in the eyes of God, with inherent rights, values and purpose, even if in a care home at the end of their lives.

So then, as all are equally valuable we clearly should stay in lockdown until no-one might die of Covid-19?

On the contrary. The same God-given natural rights also convey the rights of property, liberty, commerce and wealth creation. These are essential prerequisites for the well-being of all people in this imperfect world. They are necessary principles to ensure goods and services, employment, a tax base, the right to enjoy and to trade.

These principles should leave us very wary of those who think, for example, that government schemes which support 80% of a company’s wage bill (even if up to certain limits) are sustainable in anything other than a temporary way. The implications for the well-being of all, intergenerational sovereign debt and so on are inimical to any idea of natural rights. For the same reason the proper action of government in the short-term gives no mandate for some grand expansion of government activity.

This piece is not about what aspects of lockdown one personally does or does not support. Rather it is an exploration of methodology and then applying that methodology to some of the current policy prescriptions. We need, in conclusion, then to remember the following:

  • – There are trade-offs between all options in a fallen world (or, if you don’t like the theology, in a world of scarce resources)
  • – The theological idea of natural rights inherent to all people made in the image of God is preferable to concepts such as utilitarianism
  • – Natural or God-given rights include economic as well as social rights
  • – Consequently, there is something deeply moral about returning the economy to a functioning market which creates wealth as all people benefit from such moves
  • – Government interventions should only ever be viewed as temporary

No doubt a great deal more could be said! However, the ideas of creation or natural rights remind us of both our social responsibility to all and our economic responsibility to all. We would do well to recognise more explicitly the trade-offs we all face but to base those trade-offs on a properly articulated philosophy or theology in which both social and economic responsibilities are properly related to each other.



Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.