Good Facts Make Good Ethics


When it comes to Covid-19 the facts are not clear nor free from controversy. It would be nice if we could delay having to make  decisions until all the fact are known, but in a pandemic we don’t have that luxury. Some things must be decided now, on the basis of the best facts available.

We must also admit that the “facts” are constantly changing. Covid-19 is a novel disease. It was unknown to science until a little more than a year ago. When it first became known, the scientists had to give advice based on minimal knowledge. Most of it was on conjecture based on other similar diseases such as SARS and the common flu among others. Now they have a lot more knowledge, but it is still mainly preliminary knowledge. So we don’t really have good facts. And good facts are needed to arrive at good ethics.

Some people were annoyed when scientists at first said, masks were not recommended because they were unlikely to prevent disease spread. They based that on the basis of things they had learned from earlier similar infectious diseases. Later scientific evidence accumulated that the scientists were wrong in their earlier prediction and they quickly changed their advice. As a result some governments made masks mandatory in some situations. Scientists did what they should do. They changed their scientific advice based on better science and more facts. To have done otherwise would have been malfeasance. Only religious leaders can be expected to give infallible advice forever!

In applying the principle of John Stuart Mill I enunciated yesterday, we must acknowledge that imposing restrictions on people as the authorities have done during this pandemic  is a severe curtailment of freedoms people are ordinarily free to exercise. It even amounts to an interference with religious rights guaranteed by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Is such a restriction justified?

First, an infringement on a fundamental freedom is not justified if there is a better way. The impairment of the right must be the most minimal impairment needed to prevent the harm. If I am not at risk of likely spreading the dangerous Coronavirus  the people or the government, they elect are not justified in restricting my freedom of movement. The default position is liberty. I am free to do what I want unless the government proves that my actions will likely create an unreasonable risk of serious harm to others. The onus of proof must be on the government. The government does not have to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. It is sufficient if it can establish, on a balance of probabilities, that my actions will likely lead to serious harm.

The harm avoided by imposition of restrictions cannot be a trivial one either. The avoidance of trivial harms to not justify interference with fundamental freedoms. For example, such restrictions would not be justified to avoid the common flu. The government must also establish that reasonable alternatives, which would have less effect on my fundamental freedoms are not available. In other words, it must prove that curtailment of my freedom does not exceed the most minimal curtailment that would be sufficient to avoid the harm. If the restrictions are not necessary to achieve the public good, such as freedom from a serious disease, then the governmental restrictions are not justified.

The imposed harm by the government  (e.g compulsory vaccinations) must also be effect at avoiding the harm it is trying to avert (e.g. serious illness). If they are not effective the infringement of freedom is not justified.

Using these principles how do they related to the facts on the ground? First are the vaccines effective at reducing risk of serious harm? There is growing evidence that the vaccines (all of them) are very effective at reducing the risk of serious illness. They are not as effective at stopping minor illness, but we can live with that. We want to avoid the serious illness and death.

To begin with, one must also weigh the harm inflicted on the people who would have chosen not to get vaccinated. The large weight of scientific evidence is that most harms resulting from the vaccination are extremely minor if not non-existent. No more reasonable harm that impairs our freedom less than compulsory vaccinations has been discovered.

Secondly, recent studies have shown that all the vaccines approved so far are about 95% effective at preventing serious illness. Most people who took the vaccines did not become seriously ill and did not die. Even if 1 person in 20 dies after the vaccination, or gets seriously ill any way, the benefits to the majority greatly outweigh the detriments to the minority who would have chosen not to be vaccinated had they been free to do so.

Currently scientific evidence is still in a state of flux as more information becomes available. For example, there have been new variants of the virus that have resulted from mutations. These appear to be more contagious and, in some cases, also more severe. As a result, dealing with this virus demands even more diligence. Some people get annoyed by this. They call it flip flopping. This unfair. This is how science, unlike theology, works.

I will continue this analysis in tomorrow’s blog.


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