If coronavirus presents medics with a stark ethical choice, which considerations should determine their course of action?by Peter Singer , Lucy Winkett / May 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
If we are faced with a tragic choice, as doctors already have been in some countries because they do not have enough ventilators for all the Covid-19 patients who will die without one, then—other things being equal—it is more important to save younger lives, because younger people are likely to live longer.
The “other things being equal” clause is essential. I am not suggesting we should put a 40-year-old with incurable cancer on the last ventilator rather than a healthy 70-year-old. The illness eliminates the usual expectation that the younger person will live longer.
For most people, life is positive. They don’t want to die. To be diagnosed with a disease that will bring about death in a short time is one of the worst things that can happen to them. Putting aside those suffering from severe depression, or in chronic pain, or with other major health problems, people want to continue to live. They do things like eating healthy food, exercising, and having regular medical check-ups to avoid dying. That is why we try to save lives.
We all know, however, that we are going to die. No one thinks that healthy food, exercise or medical check-ups will enable us to live forever. So when we try to stay healthy, what we are trying to do is to live as long as we can, compatibly with having a positive quality of life for the years that remain to us.
This common sense attitude is entirely reasonable. If life is a good, then, other things being equal, it is better to have more of it rather than less. And the same judgment is reasonable when it comes to saving the lives of others. It is a greater tragedy to die at 40 than to die at 80, and if we cannot prevent both deaths, we should choose the less tragic one.
Of course on the surface of it, it looks reasonable enough to prioritise saving younger lives, a bit like women and children first onto the lifeboat (although I suspect that was always more chivalry than biology). But no. Because hidden in this seemingly reasonable choice in extremis is a set…