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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Adam Omelianchuk
1 year ago

It is surprising (but refreshingly consistent with the premises), to read the claim that we aren’t obligated to engage in social distancing. The cost-benefit argument put forth clearly supports the permissibility of protesting systemic racism. It also supports the permissibility of protesting the forced unemployment wrought by the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. Rephrase this part: “Helping prevent the spread of a deadly virus is obviously valuable. But so is fighting to end the goverment’s imposed restrictions that have forced millions into unemployment. 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 depriving them of the means to make a living.” Yet this sort of response was simply deemed unacceptable by those who eagerly supported the protest against racism, especially to the public health officials who wrote the open letter in support of protesting racism. In light of the argument given above, there should be no double standard. Right?Report

Travis N. Rieder
1 year ago

Thanks for the comment, Adam. I think I agree with much of the spirit of your question, though I am worried about the specific application to the lockdown *protests* (which I’m not sure were always done in good faith). The way I would put it is that social distancing ethics (and policy) is about evaluating the strength of various reasons. My colleagues and I at Hopkins put out a framework on reopening that made this point (https://bioethics.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/FINAL-SNF-Agora-Covid-19.pdf), and we wrote a piece arguing that nuanced ethical analysis is needed to decide when and to what degree reopening should occur (https://www.thehastingscenter.org/when-to-reopen-the-nation-is-an-ethics-question-not-only-a-scientific-one/). To the extent that some on the left made it sound like locking down was obviously right and critics were obviously wrong, we have opposed this from the beginning: the right path forward should have (and should) transparently weigh the benefits of slowing the spread against the costs of the measures that can achieve that. But that doesn’t mean that every opposition to socially distancing is equal. Not wanting to wear a mask because it’s a bit more comfortable to go without isn’t a good reason not to contribute to the good of slowing the spread. And to the extent that some of the lockdown protestors were demanding haircuts, I don’t think we should equate that with demanding that police not be given license to murder them with near impunity. I’m not implying that’s what you meant–I’m just making clear that there is space between the thesis on which I think we clearly agree (social distancing is favored by reasons, but those can be outweighed), and one that I want to be careful not to endorse (that any reason is good enough to outweigh the reasons in favor of social distancing).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

This is written – legitimately enough – as advice to individuals as to whether to socially distance. And from that perspective, the case that people should make exceptions for sufficiently good reasons – like a protest on a morally compelling issue – looks fair enough. (And argued for with far more nuance and care than that one-sentence summary might imply!) But there is a related question: should people with a responsibility to enforce the social-distancing norm, like politicians and, even more so, epidemiologists and other experts, advise citizens to make exceptions on those sorts of grounds?

In a liberal democracy, I think it’s really problematic for experts and government officials to strongly recommend – still less enforce – significant violations of civil liberties on the grounds of a national emergency, and then make an exception on grounds that aren’t fairly content-neutral. State governments closed churches during the lockdown, and most complied, despite the transcendental importance of collective worship to many believers. As an atheist and a liberal, *I* think participating in a BLM protest is much more morally urgent than attending church, but I don’t think that inevitably-political judgement can be part of a government’s emergency response to a pandemic.

What makes it worse is that in practice experts have felt pressured to say not just that this is a morally necessary exception, but to actively downplay the health risks. It would have been one thing for epidemiologists to say, “From a virus-management point of view this is a very bad thing to have happened, and will probably cause many deaths and hospitalisations; still, as a citizen I support it, because of the urgency of the moral cause.” But in practice few did say this, and there appears to have been a fair amount of pressure on experts to downplay or suppress the health risks.

COVID-19 is resurgent across the South and West, but confidence in expert advice, which was very high and very bipartisan back in March, is now split on familiar partisan grounds, and so getting consensus support for further civil-rights restrictions to stop its spread will be difficult or impossible. Of course, downplaying the COVID-19 risks of the BLM protests is not responsible for all or even most of that – the President’s irresponsibility, and that of his political and media allies, clearly had a far greater impact. But it hasn’t helped.Report

Josh Turkewitz
Josh Turkewitz
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

From what I can tell, church gatherings (because they are indoors) are far more likely to transmit the virus. Most protest locations have not seen infection spikes.Report

Travis N Rieder
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, David. Since this piece is my own, individual view, I’ve tried not to rely too much on what my Hopkins team has done on the policy side, but your question steers us in that direction (see my response above for links). In short: I think I agree with you on the high level requirements concerning how these decisions should be handled in a liberal democracy; of course, that doesn’t determine yet what should be (and has been) done, and we may disagree on the details. From the beginning, our ‘ethics of reopening’ team has been very concerned with the lack of transparency both from governments concerning the actual reasons for policy, and from some in the public health world concerning advice to those leaders. Much of my work in recent years has been on ethics and policy concerning drug use and addiction, and I was immediately concerned with the lockdown strategy that it failed to take seriously the harms to various marginalized communities, including people who use drugs. Our team has argued that, from the beginning, it was the role of many different kinds of experts only to weigh in on what the risks and benefits of various strategies would be, and then the government needed to be transparent about how they were weighing those risks and benefits. Of course, that’s not what happened.

My own view, then, is that some in the public health field overstepped their expertise by making normative recommendations based exclusively on, say, the epidemiology. But the question about how society should respond was never merely about epidemiology. There are lots of values at stake, and lots of ways in which people are winning and losing as a result of our policy response. That all needed to be done much more transparently. I’m not pretending that we could have done this in a way that’s easy, but we could have lost less credibility by admitting up front that the policy response to Covid was always going to be a balancing act.

I know I haven’t fully answered your questions. What governors or folks like Tony Fauci should do, given their power, is another question, and I don’t have a satisfying answer for you. I’m also less sure it matters all that much–after all, the protestors are *protesting*–they’re not asking permission. I agree, though, with your suggestion concerning how those in power should have responded: noting the risks, but making personal views clear would have been a good strategy (which some of them did take). I also think that the message of the day should have been more clearly about harm reduction, rather than downplaying risks: since people aren’t asking permission, here’s how to protest in a way that is less likely to be bad for everyone. Journalists did a fair bit of that, but policymakers tend not to be fans of harm reduction strategies. But I absolutely agree that credibility was lost because experts and policymakers pretended at the beginning that the disease dictates one conclusion, and then abandoned that view when protests made clear what was true all along–that harms from the disease are only one of many moral considerations.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Travis N Rieder
1 year ago

I’m sympathetic to most of that.
My only caveat is that I think it’s reasonable for epidemiologists, to give advice on the basis of what’s advisable epidemiologically, not what’s advisable all-things-considered. Tony Fauci is an expert in epidemiology, not in the all-things-considered ethics of lockdown. In principle the balancing act you speak of ought to be done by the politicians after weighing up the conflicting factors.

Of course, the vacuum of leadership at the federal level here (and in a different way in the UK) means it hasn’t worked that way. Effectively Fauci has been speaking directly to the public, and not on behalf of the President, and I appreciate that changes the nature of his responsibility.Report

Thomas
Thomas
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

> State governments closed churches during the lockdown, and most complied, despite the transcendental importance of collective worship to many believers.

I think this overplays the specifics of the way collective worship is typically done. Many churches are offering Sunday services, my landlord sends me her church’s service every Sunday. Some I believe are even having things that stand-in for taking in-person communion. Albeit, not every church offers this, although some offer this in forms that can be readily accessed by everybody – i.e. television.

What I’m saying is the difference between churches and protests is that a protest doesn’t happen without feet on the ground (unless you’re very inventive!), whereas a typical church requires no such thing.Report

Grady E Stuckman
Grady E Stuckman
1 year ago

This seems rather utilitarian.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Grady E Stuckman
1 year ago

That’s funny. It seems insufficiently utilitarian. But perhaps that’s what you meant by “rather”? Is this like the difference between the British and the US meanings of “quite”?Report

Travis N. Rieder
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
1 year ago

I’m really glad Alastair beat me to it–it’s much funnier coming from him. But yes, any utilitarian should have, I expect, his reaction. I reject the expected utility solution to obligating social distancing (or lowering one’s carbon footprint, or many other forms of conscious consumerism), and I allow that reasons can be grounded in all sorts of non-utilitarian value. So not obviously grounded in any particular first-order moral theory. (Alastair: we cite your work on this topic in the full paper at EPE–I just couldn’t do the full lit review here!).Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Travis N. Rieder
1 year ago

Perhaps I missed it, but how is this weighing to occur the without appealing to utility? Weighing the risks to (black) lives of systemic racism and of the virus sure seems like such an appeal (as the quotes suggest). And it also seems like an impossible task – as the effects of eliminating the former, though greater, are more distant, and less surely tied to the current protests.

Does it come down to something like, “It just seems to me that x is more important right now”? That doesn’t seem especially principled, but maybe one of your goals here is to get away from principle.Report

kailadraper
1 year ago

This sentence could really use some support:

“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.”

What does “relatively small” mean here? Relative to what? It’s not like the ifr for covid is 1% and the ifr for the seasonal flu is .9%.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  kailadraper
1 year ago

I wonder about the same thing. Significant obvious differences with the flu include that most of us can take a seasonal vaccine that reduces incidence and spread, and the highest risk of contagion occurs well after people already know they are ill. I would claim the obligation to physically distance yourself from others, particularly those vulnerable to flu, is quite strong if you know that you have flu symptoms. The problem with COVID is that we can spread it long before symptoms and have no vaccine.Report

Franz
Franz
1 year ago

This is just to remark how US-centric this view is (maybe it’s meant to be). In countries where there is a substantial right to healthcare, this argument holds no water – because the right to protest (no matter how good the cause) cannot reasonably trump the right to healthcare of all those who would need hospitalization as a result of infections due to mass gatherings. Given how easily the virus is spread, we are talking about violating the right of MANY people. Moreover, I would have thought there could be more creative ways to protest than to take to the streets in masses.Report

Vincent
Vincent
1 year ago

Perhaps I’m missing something, but I think I see a glaring problem in the argument. Our best reasons to socially distance are contributory reasons, but our best reasons to protest are also contributory reasons, and the former seem stronger than the latter.

A bit more than 1000 people were killed by police last year according to the Washington Post database. That figure includes all cases (white, black, armed, unarmed, etc) and is pretty typical for America. Yet, more than 100 000 people died of Covid19 in the first 6 months of 2020.

I think that shows that we are much more likely to indirectly cause the death of someone by going out to the protests than we are likely to save the live of someone by going to the protests.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
1 year ago

A thought provoking piece… I actually think that the virtue ethical perspective is pretty helpful here….

From this perspective, one could say that the reason why it is a good thing to comply with various precautionary behaviours is because this is to participate in common endeavour in which all society is making sacrifices in order to benefit the polity and public health, this shows good citizenship and fellow-feeling (dare I say, patriotism). Given this, it is abundantly clear why black Americans may choose to set this motivation aside, as they can reasonably feel that they are not being treated as full and equal members of the polity etc., and respond with a hollow laugh to the suggestion that they should sacrifice for the common good of a society in which they are at risk of being killed by law enforcement officers, feeling instead that the virtuous thing to do is to show their solidarity with their own group.

For what it is worth (not much, there is no particular reason why anyone should care about my views on this topic!) utilitarian considerations would seem to me to militate pretty in the opposite direction, to the extent that benefits of protesting are likely to be pretty hard to reckon against the potential costs (health-wise and economic) of worsening a pandemic outbreak (which also hits black Americans harder than others).Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
1 year ago

This may seem so obvious as to be a dumb question, but some protests have maintained physical separation with mask wearing, outdoors. Are we therefore only talking about protests that require standing close together for longer periods? Do we have to gauge the likelihood of transmission based on the particular form of protest, or does that not matter to the moral evaluation?Report

Travis N. Rieder
1 year ago

My thanks to everyone who read and continued to comment. I’ve found all of them interesting and worth reflecting on. Apologies for not keeping up better with responses. Since at least a couple of folks have asked questions about weighting reasons, I thought I would make one more comment about that. Vincent thought that a glaring problem with the argument is that our reasons to socially distance are contributory, but so are our reasons to protest–and the former seem to outweigh the latter. This seems to import the kind of utilitarian reasoning that ajkreider suspected was necessary in their comment. So let me say just the following.

Since I’m not assuming a utilitarian view (and indeed, assuming a rejection of at least some forms), no simple calculation will tell us what we have most reason to do. So comparing the number of Black people killed by police vs the number of people killed by Covid-19, as Vincent suggests, will not spit out a recommendation for action. Why? Because I’m assuming that there are all sorts of considerations that count in favor of acting. There are important justice considerations, as well as character, integrity, personal commitments, etc. So even on the mathematical model, there is obviously a problem with the comparison of police violence and covid, since police violence against the Black population has been going on for hundreds of years; but more importantly, on my view, is that the background injustice is an additional, different reason to protest. It’s not just about the numbers–it’s about the police violence against particularly Black individuals, and the structural racism that perpetuates that violence.

I absolutely can’t do justice to any theory of weighting reasons in this comment, but part of the goal of my and Justin’s paper in EPE is to suggest that we need such an account. Since contributory reasons are pretty weak, and we’re bombarded with an incomprehensible number of them, we need a practical strategy for moving forward. Although I can’t justify it here, my own suspicion is that people have normatively protected space in which to assign personal moral projects some value in order to settle a strategy concerning how to move forward. In other words, I think Roxane Gay has yet another reason to support the protests because she organizers her moral life in such a way to pursue some of the huge number of possible, permissible projects. I think this is the same sort of justification that allows animal rights champions to dedicated disproportionate energies toward ending factory farming, when there are plenty of good projects that they could dedicate their individual contributions toward.Report