Coffee or covid?

By Stephen John and Emma Curran.

For the past year, the surprisingly popular Costa Coffee shop down the street has been either shut or takeaway only. As a result, lots of people have missed out on their regular caffeine hit. Of course, there’s a good reason for closing Costa: to stop the spread of COVID-19. But is that a good enough reason?

The dominant approach to discussing lockdown, framed in terms of war and sacrifice, has seemed to imply that “beating” the disease should be the sole goal of government policy. On this approach, nothing is more important than saving lives. Closing the coffee shops may be regrettable but, nonetheless, is absolutely necessary. However, this rhetoric seems odd. All of the time, we make trade-offs between public health and other social goods, and clearly we should do so: health is important for enjoying the rest of life, rather than as an end in itself. Why think COVID-19 is any different?

Unsurprisingly, then, various commentators have suggested that a more rational approach to assessing lockdown should ensure that the “cure is not worse than the disease”, or more prosaically, that lockdown measures should be subject to a “Cost Benefit Analysis”. Often, these arguments are associated with lockdown sceptics, but they seem to have a broader, intuitive appeal; surely it would be perverse to have a lockdown which did more harm than good?

Still, even if a focus on Cost Benefit Analysis is an improvement on an obsession with saving lives at all costs, there’s something equally puzzling about this approach.

To see why, think, again, about closing Costa. Cherry Hinton Road is not unique in having a Costa Coffee shop. In fact, there are 2,467 Costas in the UK (though it feels like many more). In 2019, the chain sold 500 million cups of takeaway coffee. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that each of those coffees brought the drinker 30 seconds of pleasure. Therefore, even ignoring in-shop sales, Costa Coffee generated 250,000,000 minutes of pleasure a year. The average human, by contrast, lives on average a relatively paltry 36,792,000 minutes. Should we think that closing Costa was equivalent to killing nine newborns each of whom would have lived to a ripe old age experiencing nothing other than the pure, unalloyed, sensual pleasure of drinking a frothy coffee? No. Of course not. And we certainty shouldn’t think that these nine, fictional, frothy-coffee-drinking lives should counterbalance against nine of the real lives that could be saved by closing Costa.

But what is so wrong about this line of ethical thinking? In part, it seems odd because it relies on made-up numbers, and it’s not clear how to make the numbers more precise. The moral worry, however, runs deeper than a concern with measurement. Even if the heavens opened and a voice declared precisely how many minutes of coffee-sipping pleasure were lost due to lockdown, we doubt that this information is relevant to assessing whether Costa should be shut. Lost minutes of coffee sipping are just not the sort of thing that can add up together to be equivalent to a life lost. And, when there are lives at stake, the pleasures of coffee count for nothing! Does that mean that we should save lives at all costs? No. Arguably, for example, the fact that many young Costa employees might well be out of a job as a result of lockdown is a consideration which should count in our deliberations, even if the costs of lost coffee-sipping should not.

The defender of Cost Benefit Analysis is right that we need to be alert to trade-offs, rather than hide them away under spurious appeals to solidarity and sacrifice. What she misses, though, is that these judgments are more complicated than stacking up all of the “good” things, stacking up all of the “bad” things, and then seeing which pile is larger. Rather, when we think about trade-offs, we need to recognise that benefits and harms are arranged in complex ways, distributed across different, separate, individuals, and that commensurability needs to be established, rather than assumed.

How do we do that? Our paper suggests one way, based on Scanlon’s “contractualist” model of justification. There may well be more. We welcome such contributions, because, if there is one ethical lesson to draw from our current dilemma, it is that we need mature ways of thinking about difficult trade-offs between individuals, rather than between nebulous bundles of goods.


Paper title: Costa, cancer and coronavirus: contractualism as a guide to the ethics of lockdown

Author: Stephen John and Emma Curran

Affiliations: University of Cambridge

Competing interests: None

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