The pandemic has presented us with some tough ethical choices. Health or freedom? Lives or livelihoods? The greatest good of the greatest number or individual rights? Present or future generations? On reflection, some of these apparently stark choices look more blurred: those waving the banner of freedom, for instance, need to accept that if they ignore masks and social distancing they are limiting the freedom of the vulnerable to go out, while those appealing to health need to appreciate that without some freeing up of the economy there will be no money to pay for care. Nevertheless, the dilemmas are often real, and they are at least partly underpinned by the hardest choice of all, and one of the least discussed. When a pandemic hits, should the overarching aim of governments, and indeed of other bodies and individuals, be to protect life or quality of life, the “good life”?
Despite the stringent restrictions the vast majority of us have accepted this year to protect life, I believe most of us would say our overarching aim is quality of life. If a government were to say to us: “Stay completely locked down in your home for ever; we will bring food, clothing and other necessaries to your door, and you will never catch so much as a cold again, let alone Covid-19,” I do not think many of us would accept. We do not just want life but a life worth living.
Yet concentrating on flourishing need not entail selfishness. Historically, flourishing (a concept which has its roots in Plato and Aristotle) has been conceived in terms of the realisation of various forms of potential—intellectual, emotional, imaginative and physical—and this realisation in turn has been conceived as the exercise of various virtues. I would certainly want to include the practice of care and compassion in any notion of individual or communal flourishing. Making quality of life rather than just life the ultimate goal does not mean letting the virus rip unchecked through care homes, or indeed society at large. People cannot flourish if they are dead. In the first few months of a pandemic, a government needs to target its resources at controlling and mitigating the outbreak. But it also needs to…