My critique of the consequentialist critique of the economic shutdown

I featured in my previous post my colleague Romans Pancs’s consequentialist critique of the “lockdown” approach to the current virus. Although I tend to agree with Professor Pancs’s provocative conclusion that the risk a 1% mortality rate does not justify the severe anti-economic measures that many countries are currently taking in response to the coronavirus pandemic, here I shall offer a friendly critique of Prof Pancs’s consequentialist reasoning.

  1. Pancs first points out that it may take a much longer time than most people realize for the world economy to return to its high pre-shutdown levels once the lockdown has been lifted. I agree with Pancs that we should take this risk seriously, but at the same time, the world economy has always rebounded after previous crises (like 9/11), so why won’t the past repeat itself in this case? (This is, by the way, one of the main problems with all consequentialist theories of morality, for how can we identify the future consequences of our actions today; how can we measure the future costs of remote or contingent events?)
  2. Next, Pancs notes that the coronavirus “disproportionately hits the old, who have fewer and less healthy years left to live.” In other words, the lives of old people are on average not worth as much (in pure monetary or economic terms) as the lives of younger people. This line of consequentialist reasoning is so crass and morally offensive that I could rest my case against consequentialism here..
  3. Pancs’ third point, however, is his strongest one. He argues that shutting down an economy also costs lives–or fractions of lives, to be more precise, depending on how long the shutdown lasts. For example, if we shutdown the economy for 12 months, we are, in essence, robbing every person who survives the virus a year out of the 80 years that he can be expected to live. The problem with this argument, however, is that no one is talking about shutting down the economy for such a long period of time (at least not yet, that is).

Stay tuned, I shall offer my own natural law or rights-based critique of the lockdown approach in my next post.

Image result for value of a human life

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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