The Ethics of Social Distancing (and Why It Doesn’t Rule Out Protesting) (guest post by Travis N. Rieder)

“When I began writing this essay, public health-minded folks were arguing that social distancing is morally required, and expressing dismay at the pictures of partiers and beach-goers that surfaced after Memorial Day weekend. Just a couple weeks later, however, attention had shifted to the nationwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality, which was supported not only by high-profile public health figures, but by the WHO itself. So what to do about social distancing? Must we do it or not?”

In the following guest post*, Travis N. Rieder, a philosopher at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, looks at the ethics of social distancing.

The Ethics of Social Distancing (and Why It Doesn’t Rule Out Protesting)
Travis N. Rieder

Social distancing is going to be with us for a while. Although the nation is already ‘reopening’, the SARS-CoV-2 virus isn’t gone, and close contact between people is likely to lead to new outbreaks. Thus, the public health message of the day is to continue social distancing; this includes a variety of measures, including avoiding large gatherings (especially indoors), staying more than six feet apart from others, and wearing face coverings.

The ethics of social distancing thus seems likely to be with us for awhile, too. When I began writing this essay, public health-minded folks were arguing that social distancing is morally required, and expressing dismay at the pictures of partiers and beach-goers that surfaced after Memorial Day weekend. Just a couple weeks later, however, attention had shifted to the nationwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality, which was supported not only by high-profile public health figures, but by the WHO itself.

So what to do about social distancing? Must we do it or not? The issue is quite complex, as there are several different kinds of reasons for social distancing—some stronger than others. My goal here, then, is two-fold. Primarily, this essay will landscape the types of reasons to engage in distancing, and to suggest that one of the most common reasons is a fairly non-standard one—what I call a ‘contributory reason’. I will then close by noting how thinking carefully about the reasons one has to socially distance can also help us to think about the ethics of protesting during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Two familiar types of reasons

Self-Regarding Reasons

A lot of the attention being given to “whether you should go out or stay home” during the COVID-19 pandemic is primarily an investigation of prudential reasons. People want to know what their personal risk is, and so want to know how, from a self-interested perspective, they should act. This is an important question, though we tend to give people wide latitude in determining what risks are worth taking for what benefit to themselves. For the purposes of this investigation, then, I largely mention this category of reasons to set it aside. The core of social distancing ethics concerns interpersonal morality, or what we owe to individual others or society.

Individual-Other-Regarding Reasons

The most obvious candidate moral reason to practice social distancing is to protect particular others to whom one has a directed obligation. Grandparents are the common foil here, as critics of beach-goers and partiers tell them, “You may not value your own life, but at least protect your grandmother!” Or some variation thereof. The idea is simply that one must protect particular, vulnerable others who they may infect.

This is a perfectly understandable other-regarding reason with which we are fairly comfortable working. If exposing yourself to the virus gives you an increased risk of transmitting Covid-19, which elevates others’ risk of serious morbidity or mortality, then you have a reason not to do it. The precise strength of this reason then likely depends on some empirical facts—in particular, how likely you are to become a disease vector and how likely that is to cause significant harm.

The problem is that it’s not obvious how dangerous it is to any particular individuals for me to violate social distancing requirements. I have some increased risk of getting sick, which gives me some increased risk of transmitting the virus to a vulnerable person. But I can also choose not to engage with particular others due to their vulnerability, committing not to visit elderly relatives, for instance. That would not eliminate risk, but could lessen it.

In addition, society permits us to do many things that risk harm to others. This includes foregoing social distancing during regular flu season which may, of course, still lead us to transmit a virus that kills someone. The risk level is different, to be sure. But for those who think that social distancing is obligatory during this pandemic but not even recommended during ordinary flu seasons, it seems implausible that the (relatively small) difference in the imposition of risk could really be what explains such a significant moral difference.

All of this leads me to believe that neither self-regarding nor individual-other-regarding reasons are doing all, or even most, of the work in explaining why we ought to socially distance. Moreover, many of the reasons being offered in public discourse are of a different and—frankly—more complex type.


Contributory ethics

As the novel coronavirus really took hold in the US, rallying cries of “flatten the curve” and “slow the spread of the virus” emerged in order to make sense of what we needed to do. Since these are collective goals, the message to individuals often concerned contributing to a collective effort—for instance, according to the White House, you should “Do your part to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

The challenge with that messaging is that it is likely impossible for any particular individual to make a meaningful difference to the shape of the curve or the reproductive number of the virus (the R0). As a result, we face difficult questions concerning what obligation or reason an individual has to contribute to a collective effort. Similar questions can be seen in recent climate change ethics literature: one’s individual emitting behavior doesn’t meaningfully contribute to climate change, so it’s unclear how one could be obligated to reduce their carbon footprint.

Some have argued that, despite appearances, individuals do make a meaningful difference to massive harms like climate change or animal agriculture—you just have to do the moral math right. For instance, Shelley Kagan has argued that if you do have a small chance of making a big difference, the expected utility of your action may be sufficient to ground an obligation. If Kagan is right about this, then we may sometimes have utilitarian reasons to make small contributions to great collective efforts. However, other philosophers such as Mark Budolfson, Julia Nefsky, and Bob Fischer, have raised powerful challenges to ‘moral mathematics’ style arguments. And so for the sake of completeness (and incidentally, in line with my own sympathies), I will here assume that the objectors are correct, and expected utility doesn’t solve the problem for us.

This leads me to the final two categories of reasons, which are part of what Justin Bernstein and I call (in a paper forthcoming in Ethics, Policy and the Environment) “contributory ethics.” In the context of climate change, we argue that individuals have reasons to make (very small) individual contributions to collective efforts. Although the details of the cases are different, I think that similar kinds of reasons—reasons that do not concern direct risk-imposition—are at the heart of the moral landscape in each case.

Fairness-based Reasons

Appeals to fairness seem well-suited to vindicating intuitions and discourse about the ethics of social distancing in two respects. First, considerations of fairness resonate with some of the language in our public discourse that calls on us to ‘do our part’ by social distancing. And second, considerations of fairness make sense of some of our reactions to those who do not socially distance. If many of us socially distance for the sake of public health, but some people do not, those of us bearing the cost of distancing may reasonably become angry at the free-riders.

Despite these appealing features, however, there is at least one major challenge for claiming that fairness-based reasons ultimately obligate us to socially distance, which concerns the moral significance of widespread non-complianceIf lots of other people refuse to stay six feet apart, why should you be the sucker who dutifully stays home? More generally, if widespread compliance with a rule would produce a community-wide benefit but there is not, in fact, widespread compliance, it becomes less obvious that individuals have a fairness-based obligation to comply with that rule.

So, to really make good on the appeal to fairness, one would need to know not only what degree of compliance with a rule suffices to generate obligations of fairness, but also to what extent people do actually comply with social distancing recommendations. And while far from perfect, the limited data we have suggests that in many communities, there has not been widespread social distancing.

As a result, it’s unclear whether each of us has a fairness-based obligation to socially distance. I will close, however, by suggesting that there are plenty of other grounds for generating contributory reasons.

Collective-Other-Regarding Reasons

Collective-other-regarding reasons are considerations that favor making very small individual contributions to some good, even in the face of widespread noncompliance. Several such reasons have been put forward in the philosophical literature, of which I will note just a few.

Julia Nefsky has suggested that individuals can have reasons to (non-superfluously) help a collective effort to realize some massive good outcome or prevent a massive harm, even when individuals don’t make a difference. Although we often think that an act isn’t helpful if it doesn’t make a difference, she rejects this view. Applied to social distancing: even if your staying home doesn’t meaningfully lower the R0, your distancing can be part of what brings that goal about. And if it is, you have a reason to stay home.

Another rationale would focus less on slowing the spread and more on setting a good example or changing informal norms. Even if others are not doing their part yet, maybe you have moral reasons to set a good example or contribute to the emergence of norms that favor, say, wearing a mask.

A different sort of rationale focuses less on action and more on character. Just as Dale Jamieson argues that virtue is needed for individual ethics in response to climate change, perhaps there are particular virtues needed for responding to other massive public health crises. Violating social distancing without good reason may make one selfish, careless, or an asshole. Although this move is clearly easier for a thoroughgoing virtue theorist, anyone can recognize that character ascriptions are an important part of our moral lives.

What these reasons have in common is that they take participating in or being part of a collective effort to be valuable, even if your individual effort doesn’t make a meaningful difference. If this is true—as I think it is—then we have many reasons to contribute to various collective efforts, and so in a world relevantly like ours, a substantial part of ethics is determining how to respond to these myriad reasons.


Reasons to protest during a pandemic

In the first version of this essay, I sought only to distinguish between reason-types and to thereby conclude that the ethics of social distancing is rather more complicated than some take it to be. Then the world changed quickly. After the events of recent weeks—after the brutal killing of yet more Black people by police, the protests in response, and the further police brutality against protestors—I could not publish that essay as written. Commenting on the ethics of social distancing without discussing the nature of the reasons people actually have to socially distance (or not) would be irresponsible.

I conclude, therefore, by investigating not abstract classes of reasons, but actual reasons—in particular, reasons to protest when we also have reasons not to gather. There has recently been a parade of op-eds charging public health experts with hypocrisy for supporting the protesters. In short: commentators are rushing to condemn ‘liberals’ for first telling us all to stay home, but then praising protestors for promoting social justice. Although one does not need the landscaping I’ve done above in order to respond to this charge, I think it can be helpful.

The best arguments for a strict moral obligation to socially distance rely on risk of harm to particular others (individual-other-regarding reasons) and fairness. These invoke familiar moral principles that plausibly generate a duty. If going to a protest was really equivalent to killing grandpa or violating strict norms of fairness, then one may well be obligated not to go. However, I’ve suggested that in the case of social distancing, it’s unlikely that the risk of harm to particular others is sufficient to ground a duty; and requirements of fairness depend on a level of compliance that may not exist in the United States (especially not as time goes on, and states get closer to fully reopening). Thus, it looks to me like much of the ethics of social distancing depends on contributory reasons.

The thing about these reasons, though, is that they are unlikely to generate an obligation. Consider the number of massive harms and benefits that we could be contributing to at any moment, and you will realize that we are bombarded by contributory reasons. If a reason not to contribute to massive, systematic harm grounded a strict obligation, one would never be allowed to burn any fossil fuels. My own view about the ethics of social distancing, then, is that we aren’t obligated to do it, but we have a variety of reasons in favor, which means that whether we ought to socially distance will depend on the kind and weight of opposing reasons.

And this is what critics of the protests have missed: the reasons favoring protest can obviously outweigh the reasons to socially distance. But I don’t need to make that argument; others—who are more deeply affected by racism and police violence—already have. Aisha Langford, for instance, succinctly explained to Vox how the risk-benefit profile of social distancing has changed in recent weeks: “For people of color and black folks, their cost of not doing something is a lot greater than potentially getting a virus.” As a black person in America, she continued, “If I’m quiet, and I do absolutely nothing, I could die because I exist.”

And, in a powerful essay for the New York Times, Roxanne Gay makes crystal clear why it’s perfectly reasonable for Black people in America not to be laser-focused on the pandemic at this moment:

Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.

Helping prevent the spread of a deadly virus is obviously valuable. But so is fighting to end systemic racism and police brutality. And the testimony of those who are most affected by the latter is telling us that they can’t wait until after the pandemic to politely ask society to stop beating and killing them.

An ethics of social distancing must allow for this sort of weighing reasons to be done. Many of us, much of the time, likely have most reason to socially distance while Covid-19 is with us. That seems important to say. But these reasons likely don’t ground strict obligations, and so they are more easily outweighed than other familiar moral reasons. And this also seems important to say.

It would be nice if it were obvious how one should act in the coronavirus era; but the ethics of social distancing, like so much else, will be nuanced and difficult.

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