Article: Philosophy for the Pandemic: Utilitarian and Kantian Analysis on Coronavirus Issues

by Austin Kruse. Published in our Summer 2021 edition.


COVID-19 hit the United States abruptly back in March 2020. Within just a few weeks, schools shifted online, travel was suspended, and our entire world shut down. We were forced to make rushed decisions on how to navigate through an inconceivable reality. Through quarantines, lockdowns, mask-mandates, and an uncertain return to normality, COVID-19 forced us to reassess even our most basic human interactions and operations. Yet, in a time with so much uncertainty and so little guidance on how to maneuver through it, we can look to philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant to help us interpret these contemporary ethical dilemmas.

This paper is not attempting to definitively judge human behavior nor is it trying to comprehensively develop the best solution for each scenario. My analysis uses simple and intuitive stances on science, economics, and policy, and will primarily use these tools for my Utilitarian and Kantian analysis of each dilemma.

Philosophy is often ignored in conversations regarding policy, and during a global pandemic that has infected over 100 million lives at the time that this paper was written, it is worth discussing the moral permissibility of our actions just as much as their social and economic consequences. In this essay, I will present three different ethical dilemmas pertaining to ongoing or subsequent challenges related to the coronavirus. I will analyze each through my understanding of Utilitarian and Kantian philosophy. I will discern how each philosophical framework attempts to answer these scenarios, and advocate a particular philosophical view for each dilemma.

Moral Theory, Utilitarianism, Kantianism (brief contribution by Suan Sonna)

Moral theories guide us on how we ought to act in circumstances where something of value or importance is at stake and can potentially be lost or violated. Aside from presenting us certain moral principles or laws, moral theories aim to provide a systematic account of what is good or bad, right and wrong. A moral theory does not randomly assert its principles, but it claims that each rule reasonably follows from the other and is therefore, in that sense, systematic.

            Utilitarianism is the moral theory that we should maximize happiness and minimize misery to the greatest extent possible for the greatest number of people. The big question here is what we mean by “happiness.” Some utilitarian philosophers think sensory pleasure is how we ought to define happiness (hedonistic), while others define happiness as having the greatest number of your preferences satisfied (preference utilitarianism). For the purposes of this paper, we will try and take a simple definition of utilitarianism. We will use the hedonistic model and consider any satisfied or unsatisfied preferences as contributing to sensory pleasure or pain respectively.

            Kantianism is the moral theory that our actions ought to obey the dictates of reason. Kant begins by noting that having a good will is the only “good without qualification.” In other words, a good will (or the will to do good) is something that is good without having to worry about counterexamples or wondering whether something’s goodness actually depends upon something else. Happiness is good, for example, until we encounter a psychopath who draws happiness from someone else’s suffering. The goodness of happiness depends upon the goodness of its source, whereas the will to do good is always good regardless of whether or not someone succeeds or fails. Indeed, if I fail to do a good action, say I intend to help a situation but end up making it worse, then I would be condemned for the consequences of the action but not the intention itself – to help and do good. This scenario helps explain why Kantianism focuses more on the intentions or reasons for actions as opposed to their consequences: a good will is the only good without qualification and therefore, the Kantian supposes, ought to be the starting point of morality.

            Notice, however, that just saying “the will to do good is the only good without qualification” does not actually explain what goodness is. In response, Kant believes that reason can actually filter what may be considered good. One of Kant’s rules is to “universalize your maxim”, meaning you should test the rule that’s guiding your action by asking yourself what would happen if everyone acted on the same rule. While you might think that stealing is permissible for you, if everyone stole then there would not be such a thing as property in the first place. And, if that were the case, then there would not be anything to steal, meaning the action you are performing is self-defeating. You do not have any justification for playing by a different set of rules, especially if every person is a rational agent like you who can also see the universalized nonsense of stealing.

            This leads us to the categorical imperative: treat others as ends in themselves rather than mere means to an end. This is to say that you should respect people’s autonomy or ability to rationally govern themselves – including yourself. For instance, lying is not the sort of thing you can rationally consent to. If you “consent” to being lied to, then you are technically not being lied to anymore since there would be no deception. If no one can rationally consent to being lied to, then lying is in principle the sort of action that one mustn’t ever do. The moment you lie is the same moment that you place yourself above the deceived person and treat their rationality, which is the same as yours, as a mere means to your ends. You are not considering their rationality, their equality with you, their human rights, and they therefore are not an end in themselves.

            The main difference between utilitarianism and Kantianism is how they treat reason and happiness. Utilitarianism holds that we should use our faculty of reason in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, meaning reason is subordinate to pleasure. Kantianism maintains that reason should govern our actions and even our pursuit of happiness, meaning the dictates of reason are the primary focus or good. This is why Kantianism stresses the inviolability of rights, since rights come from reason, whereas Utilitarianism usually lacks any notion of rights, since reason is subordinate to happiness. For instance, your “right” to control your body, on a utilitarian picture, could cease tomorrow if the vast majority of people would be happy to harvest your organs for the greater good. Then again, both systems of thought have deeply influenced the way we think today. The phrase “Do whatever makes you happy as long as you don’t hurt anyone” is a colloquial version of the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. The emphasis on rights as a stopping point for any debate or rational disagreement is largely a Kantian inheritance. Rights are not the sort of things that can be debated or change tomorrow. With this understanding of Kantianism, we can now introduce the first scenario.

Scenario 1: Essential Goods Distribution – Toilet Paper

The first dilemma this paper will address is one that many will remember experiencing during March of last year. As news began to spread of the virus, people raced to stock up on food, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, and other essential goods. This resulted in massive shortages on products like hand sanitizer, bleach, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper. On one end, the uncertainty of product availability seemingly justified overbuying items that would likely disappear from shelves within a week, especially given the uncertainty around the seriousness of the virus and the length of a possible national lockdown. However, by engaging in panic hoarding, one prevents others in the area from having access to these same products, which leads to our first hypothetical scenario:

The local grocery store has been bombarded with customers over the past couple of days after news spread of a deadly virus that has entered the United States. Each customer has typically been buying around five large packages of toilet paper rolls and by the end of the day the grocery store only has 10 large packages of toilet paper left. The grocery store does not have a limit on the number of packs a customer can buy and are unsure when they will get more in stock. You already have enough toilet paper at home to be sufficiently stocked for the next month, but are in the unique position of arriving at the store just in time to still be able to buy toilet paper. So, how should you shop?           

Before we can approach this dilemma, it is important to list some rational assumptions we can make. First, let us assume that there are still a great deal of individuals who have not yet made it to the store to buy toilet paper, but are still in need of it. Second, the store will not impose a limitation on the amount of toilet paper a customer can buy at one time within the foreseeable future. Third, the store will likely not get anymore toilet paper for months once it is gone.

Based on the information provided, there are several courses of action a Utilitarian might take to address this dilemma; but I think there is one that makes the most sense when you consider what we know about general Utilitarian principles. In this situation, it is clear that the store will run out of toilet paper within the next day, and that if you do not buy what is remaining, the next two customers likely will. Thus, in order to maximize the most good and ensure the toilet paper can be distributed to as many people as possible, a Utilitarian might buy all the toilet paper themselves and sell individual rolls right outside of the store (with no additional price markup) to ensure that the short supply of toilet paper left can go to the people who still need it. This is the only way to ensure that one or two individuals do not outright buy the remainder of the toilet paper for personal use since the store has not implemented any limit on the amount an individual can purchase, and allows for more people in the area to benefit from having access to the resource than just the one or two individuals. In addition, the distribution of toilet paper needs to occur in an impartial way, given that Utilitarianism provides equal consideration of interest for every person affected and should not prioritize one individual over another, regardless of their relationship to us. While we don’t know the intentions of others who would have bought the toilet paper, or with certainty how the toilet paper we have sold will be used, I do not think it makes sense to include it in our Utilitarian analysis since it cannot be easily inferred, and only by buying it ourselves are we able to ensure an equitable distribution of the resources.

A Kantian might respond to this scenario similarily, but with a different justification. Since action should be dictated by reason, Kant’s philosophy would suggest that one can buy the remaining toilet paper if they have the will to distribute it rationally and justly. Although the consequences of our distribution are unknown in this scenario, as long as we don’t intentionally distribute the toilet paper to someone with the intention of reselling it at a much higher markup or discriminate unfairly, the integrity of our action remains.

            Because both theories arrive at the same conclusion here, it is less about comparing which solution is better, and instead focusing on whether the solution is a good one. In this scenario, I believe it is. The solution prevents further overbuying and price gouging, and it allows more individuals to benefit from the limited resource until stores have additional quantities to restock.

Scenario 2: School During the Pandemic

The next dilemma is also not unfamiliar, and is especially relevant to university classes. Millions of college students including myself were asked to return to our university’s campus for the fall 2020 semester. Class structures varied, but primarily consisted of either in-person, online, or hybrid classes depending on the university, department, and professor. Typically, these hybrid classes are offered partially online and partially in-person, but also allow for students to take the class fully remote. This brings us to the second hypothetical scenario:

After returning to campus after five months into a global pandemic, you are offered the choice between attending your hybrid university class lecture online or in-person. Academically, it is clear that you would benefit more from attending the class in-person but you are equally concerned about possibly becoming infected or infecting someone else with the virus that has continued to spread in your area. How should you decide to attend the class?

As in the first scenario, I think there are several assumptions we should make. First, let us assume that the university we are discussing has a mandatory mask mandate and sanitation protocols that are generally followed by most or all students when they are inside any university building. We will say next that the university has a sizeable student body, and while on-campus presence has shrunk, the university and city in which it is located are still large enough for potential chances to be exposed to the virus. Finally, you do not have any antibodies that may protect you from catching it.

It appears as if the Utilitarian might opt to take class entirely online, since the chances of catching the virus and transmitting it to someone are reduced. Even with the university’s safety protocols in place, there are still numerous high touch areas throughout campus that simply cannot be cleaned after every interaction. In addition, the sidewalks outside and campus bathrooms, both in which a mask mandate is much harder to enforce, could be other potential places of transmission. In this scenario, a Utilitarian would likely use some utility calculus to weigh the costs and benefits of each decision, but I think they would arrive at the conclusion that the pleasure derived from attending a class in-person is not worth the potential risk of transmitting the virus in the process, in which the costs of our action if the virus spreads would greatly exceed the marginal benefit of in-person attendance.

When analyzing this dilemma, a Kantian’s response is much less clear. While it is not irrational to think that virus transmission could occur through the physical attendance of class, the protocols in place hopefully reduce that probability. While some Kantians may rationally will that attending class in-person does not pose a risk for virus transmission, others who disagree may choose to take classes fully remote.

For this scenario, an analysis on the better solution is much more difficult to construct, especially since we continue to learn more about the virus everyday. However, given this dilemma, it appears that the Utilitarian analysis may provide a better solution to navigating hybrid classes, especially if we consider that if everyone alternated between in-person and online for their hybrid classes, there would still be roughly half of the university body travelling around campus every day. This greatly increases the risk of transmission that could occur either in an in-person class or travelling to and from it, and since we can assume that the university’s student population is substantial, it is not misguided to worry about how fast a virus could spread in such a population. While some Kantians may also opt out of attending classes in-person completely, I believe that utilitarianism is the only philosophy that will definitely endorse that option.

Scenario 3: Coronavirus Vaccine Distribution

The final dilemma is one that world leaders are scrambling to answer. Towards the end of 2020, news broke out of several successful COVID-19 vaccine trials which may potentially pave the way for a fully-developed COVID-19 vaccine by the beginning of the new year. Given that there probably won’t be enough vaccinations to administer to everyone until the latter half of 2021, this poses the ever-growing challenge of deciding who should receive the vaccine first. The United States’ Center for Disease Control has developed guidelines to tackle vaccine distribution, which will likely go to health care workers and nursing homes residents, and immunocompromised individuals shortly after. However, the distribution that follows is still being contested, which brings us to the final scenario:

The federal government has recently approved a safe and effective vaccine for an infectious virus that has spread across the country. Government officials have already decided that the first wave of vaccines will be distributed to health care workers, nursing home residents, and immunocompromised individuals. Once those individuals have received their vaccination, the government will move to distribute the rest of the available vaccines, but are unsure who should receive it next. Unfortunately, they will eventually run out and those who do not receive the vaccine in this first wave will have to wait several additional months in order to get theirs. Therefore, how do you decide who should get the vaccine next, and who should have to wait?

As with this scenario, additional assumptions need to be made in order to use philosophy to answer this dilemma. First, we need to assume that the vaccine will either be free or low-cost for everyone, meaning no one is unable to get the vaccine on the basis of not being able to afford it. Next, safety measures like mask-wearing and social-distancing policies will remain in effect after the first wave of vaccines has been administered. Lastly, for the sake of brevity, we will accept that one vaccine dose is sufficient to developing immunity against the virus.

A Utilitarian would construct a vaccine distribution schedule that would prioritize those most at risk of either contracting the virus or most at risk for experiencing health complication if they did. This makes sense given what we know about Utilitarianism: in order to maximize the utility of the vaccine, it must go to the people would rely on it the most. Utilitarianism would likely agree with the CDC’s recommendations that health care workers, nursing home residents, and immunocompromised individuals should receive the vaccine first, and would likely continue by distributing the vaccine to government workers essential to core societal functions, those involved in the health profession, low-income or minority groups that may be more impacted by the virus due to their socioeconomic situations, and individuals whose living or working conditions put them at a greater risk of becoming infected. This specific prioritization of the vaccine aligns with the philosophy of Utilitarianism because it considers the effects the vaccines will have on certain populations, and uses those considerations to prioritize vaccines based on whose needs for them are greater and where the vaccines will do the most good.

A Kantian perspective is a bit different. Rather than distributing the vaccine in the accordance of whose need for it may be greater, Kant’s philosophy would suggest that everyone receive equal consideration for the vaccine, since no individual life is more worthy of the vaccine than another. This would mean that the vaccine would need to be distributed in a first-come-first-serve or random manner so that those in charge of distributing the vaccine do not have to make the decision of deciding whose life is more worth preserving. Kantians would argue that the decision to distribute a vaccine to an individual should be regardless of that person’s occupation, economic status, or age, and those factors should not play any role in the discussions surrounding vaccine distribution.

With distribution efforts only just beginning to commence, the use of philosophical analysis to address this dilemma is especially important. However, after comparing how each view might tackle vaccine distribution, I think the Utilitarian framework ultimately provides a better solution in addressing the crisis at hand. Due to the nature of the virus, certain populations are going to be much more vulnerable, and so it makes sense that we provide such populations with the vaccines first. The Utilitarian position is the only one that considers these vulnerabilities in its analysis, and by providing certain groups with the vaccination first, it can help reduce the increased stress that has been placed on hospitals during this time. This seems to be in line with the current discourse of world leaders on how to distribute the vaccine, and I imagine it will be the route that they take once the administrative logistics are finalized.

Almost a year later, COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc across the country. A second wave of the virus has prompted many of our leaders to reenact lockdown policies and mask mandates that continue to alter our everyday lives. Recent pharmaceutical discoveries in vaccine development give us hope, but as cases continue to soar in the United States, many wonder if life will ever return to normal. Unfortunately, philosophy does not have an answer for these uncertainties. Philosophy cannot tell us how much longer this may last, nor if the challenges brought on by COVID-19 are any closer to being over. That is a question I am not even sure experts in science or policy can answer. But despite this ambiguity, philosophy still has a role to play in this discussion. We can and should look to philosophy in conjunction with other academic disciplines to help us navigate tough ethical dilemmas, and this paper does just that.

It is through these especially difficult times that the value of a philosophical education can be fully appreciated. It may not have the answer, but philosophy’s ability to provide clarity amidst the uncertain is the reason why it continues to be a worthwhile disciple and a dependable framework for future decision-making—especially in a pandemic.

Photo credit: “Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic” by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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