Lockdown is not levelling down

By Jonathan A Hughes

In their article “Why lockdown of the elderly is not ageist and why levelling down equality is wrong” and their related JME Blog post, Savulescu and Cameron argue for selective isolation of the elderly as preferable to a continuation of general lockdown. Central to their argument is the claim that the general lockdown amounts to “levelling down equality” and that this is “unethical” or even “morally repugnant”. My recently  published response argues that they fail to justify either part of this claim.

Firstly, the claim that levelling down is always morally wrong is not the uncontroversial premise that an uncritical reading of Savulescu and Cameron might suggest. Its appeal depends on what Derek Parfit calls the Person-affecting Claim, which holds that a situation cannot be worse (or better) than another unless there is someone for whom it is worse (or better). Although intuitively appealing, this claim is itself problematic in a variety of contexts, including the justification of duties to future generations. According to Larry Temkin, for example, we should reject both the Person-affecting Claim and the claim that levelling down is always wrong.

Secondly, Savulescu and Cameron are mistaken in claiming that the choice to maintain a general lockdown, rather than easing it for the young while maintaining it for the elderly, is an instance of levelling down. Levelling down occurs when people become more equal because the better-off are made worse off while nobody is made better off. This is what Savulescu and Cameron claim is happening if we decide to maintain a general lockdown in preference to a lockdown of only the elderly. According to them, maintaining a general lockdown imposes burdens on the young in order to equalise them with the elderly, who would have to be locked down anyway for their own or society’s benefit. In this respect, Savulescu and Cameron view the maintaining of general lockdown as analogous to achieving equality for the blind by making everyone blind or curing nobody’s cancer because we cannot cure everyone’s.

This, however, mischaracterises the situation with respect to lockdown. Maintaining a general lockdown not only imposes burdens on the young but can improve the position of the elderly. If successful, it will result in lower levels of infection in the general population, so that when elderly and vulnerable people do exit their homes for whatever limited reasons the lockdown rules permit, or when carers or other service providers visit them in their homes, they are at less risk themselves and less likely to become a burden on the health service than if only they were locked down. Maintaining a general lockdown may also result in a more rapid lowering of levels and rates of infection to the point where lockdown restrictions can be eased for everyone, including the elderly and vulnerable. Therefore, maintaining a general lockdown in preference to selective isolation of the elderly does not simply equalise the burdens by making the young and healthy worse off; it can reduce the burden of lockdown on the elderly in absolute as well as relative terms.

Savulescu and Cameron are right to say that there is an issue of proportionality to be considered. The benefits to the elderly and vulnerable of maintaining a general lockdown need to be balanced against the potentially greater aggregate burden that it imposes on others. But one does not have to hold that levelling down is valuable in itself to think that such a policy might be justified. For one thing, as Savulescu and Cameron acknowledge, the burdens of lockdown may be greater for the elderly than for others, as they may be more socially isolated, and will endure the loss of liberties and social contacts for a larger fraction of their remaining life. But even if the balance of benefits and burdens is such that the policy of maintaining general lockdown is not justified in utilitarian terms, it might well be justified by what Parfit calls the Priority View, which holds that benefiting people matters more the worse off they are. The appeal the Priority View over other forms of egalitarianism is precisely that it is not committed to the view that levelling down is in any way valuable.


Paper title: Lockdown and levelling down: why Savulescu and Cameron are mistaken about selective isolation of the elderly   [FREE PAPER]

Author: Jonathan A Hughes

Affiliation: School of Law, Keele University

Competing interests: None declared

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