The Morality of Lockdown

Where do we keep the single-use towels, dear?

I had not intended to regale you with these off-topic thoughts. But it turns out they are not so very off-topic after all.

Whilst many people seem to believe that the only thing wrong with the UK Government’s response to Covid-19 was failure to implement the lockdown soon enough and rigorously enough, others are beginning to question whether the lockdown is justified at all.

The issue is inescapably a moral one: it is, after all, a question of taking action (or not) to save lives.

I have touched on moral issues before in The Categorical Imperative and in Alinsky for Insiders. The observations I make here are related, especially to the moral infantilism hypothesised in the latter.

Many decisions, both personal and political, involve moral dilemma. Guidance exists for how to go about addressing moral dilemmas. Leaving aside religious authority, the most well-known are,

  • The Golden Rule: Do as thou wouldst be done by.
  • Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
  • Utilitarian Morality (Bentham, Mill & others): Morally correct action should maximise net happiness and wellbeing integrated over the whole population.

The Golden Rule has little to tell us about lockdown as it relates more to one-on-one interpersonal behaviours. However, the Categorical Imperative is very relevant. The imposition of the lockdown is implicitly based on the assumption that the reduction in lives lost through C-19 trumps all other effects of the lockdown. The Categorical Imperative requires us to be able to raise this to a universal principle if the lockdown is truly a valid moral action. Thus, other forms of infringement of civil liberties which save lives must also be regarded as acceptable.

Consider deaths and injuries on the UK roads: around 1,800 deaths per year, 25,000 serious injuries and 160,000 lesser injuries. It is well established that deaths and serious injuries would be reduced to a small fraction of these figures if the speed limit were reduced to 25 mph everywhere at all times. Yet we implicitly believe this would be too great a restriction, both on our freedoms and perhaps on the economy. It seems we are reluctant to extend the “lockdown logic” to this case, so the lockdown would appear to fail the Categorical Imperative test.

Consider alcohol. There are around 6,600 deaths per year in the UK directly attributable to alcohol. In addition, a far larger number of people are adversely affected by other effects of alcohol abuse, including violence. The serious health consequences of tobacco smoking have been known for over half a century, but it has taken that long to implement the discouragements now in force, but tobacco remains legal and the Government continues to draw revenue from it. Again, it seems that we do not make saving lives at the cost of infringing civil liberties a universal law, rendering the morality of the lockdown invalid under the Categorical Imperative.

The Utilitarian perspective requires that we estimate all the consequences of lockdown, and judge its morality based on whether there is a net benefit or disbenefit across society as a whole. This is problematic. To carry out such a Utilitarian analysis it is necessary to estimate how many lives will be saved by lockdown. This may never be known, and certainly is not at present. Moreover, the effects of herd immunity may mean that lives saved now merely mean more lives lost later. And there is also the issue, not merely of counting bodies, but accounting for healthy years of life lost. In other words, to be more blunt about it, most people who are dying of C-19 are old and suffering one or more health problems, so the likely years of healthy life lost may be small. If this seems rather callous, note that this sort of cold-blooded calculation is explicit in “utility”.  There are other health benefits from the lockdown too. All infectious diseases have reduced incidence and consequently reduced death rates. Deaths and injuries on the roads must be far less also, as the roads are now very quiet.

The most worrying downside of the lockdown is its economic impact. I am not even going to attempt to gauge its effects, but authoritative bodies are predicting the deepest recession on record. The question will be – for how long? There must surely be some punitive Government action forthcoming to recoup their current largesse. But the direct effect on mortality may not be what you might expect. Whilst poverty is associated with shorter lifetimes, economic downturns in a developed country are associated, paradoxically, with reduced death rates (although suicides increase). However, death is not the only measure. Sustained, genuine poverty is misery and might become widespread if there is a long-lasting depression.

Applying the utilitarian method of moral analysis is thus fraught with imponderables. However, it is not my purpose to determine if the lockdown is moral or not. My purpose is the more limited one of pointing out that the decision was made without any attempt at moral analysis, or even the recognition that such a thing might be required – despite the decision being overtly a moral one!

And this is where the politics comes in. And the moral infantilism. And the role of moral usurpation in the exercise of political control.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, probably the best of the spate of recent books on morality, has provided us with a valuable insight into the relationship between moral perspective and politics. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that a person’s moral orientation determines their political affiliation. A considerable body of empirical evidence led Haidt and his co-workers to devise a six-point system of moral values. The six moral values and their opposites are,

  • Care/harm
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

The signatures of the political tribes are as follows. Firstly, those people who are wrongly labelled “liberal”, in the American sense, or, if you prefer, but equally wrongly, “progressive”, or perhaps (and again wrongly, in my opinion), “left wing”. Their moral characteristic is that they are very strongly polarised towards the “care” axis.

Secondly, libertarians are very strongly polarised onto the “liberty” axis, naturally.

The most significant finding is for conservatives, using this term to mean traditional or social conservatives (very little to do with the current Conservative Party in the UK, though still of relevance in the USA). The conservative moral signature is an equal balance across all six moral values. Only conservatives value the last three: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

A commonly accepted code of behaviour, what you might call a social morality, is essential for large scale human societies to function in comparative peace and cooperation. It is a mistake to imagine that the legislated law, together with the police and other forms of State controlled force, are what hold societies together in harmony. Recourse to legal sanctions are for serious, and hopefully relatively rare, infringements. The everyday world is governed by voluntary adherence to all those minor courtesies which constitute being civilised (or urbane, the etymology betrays their origins). But this social morality is mutable; it differs between cultures and changes over time. I have argued elsewhere (in Alinsky for Insiders) that this mutability of the social morality provides an extremely powerful mechanism for exercising control over the masses: moral usurpation. Moreover, since it is the moral sense itself which is manipulated, it avoids any appearance of hegemony. This is the way to control a democratic society.

One of the key features of moral usurpation is moral infantilism. This encourages an extreme simplicity of moral outlook. All moral issues take on the appearance of being quite certain, all issues are decided and moral dilemmas are avoided. The benefit to the adherent is minimising of cognitive load and a moral certainty which is then deployed as a weapon against those who have the temerity to demur, i.e., everyone who thinks some moral analysis might be required. Consequently, moral infantilism is actually anti-moral, analogous to Puritanism being opposed to true spirituality; both are more concerned with virtue signally than the harder business of true virtue.

What I would draw to your attention is that moral perspectives which have a strong polarisation onto just one of Haidt’s six moral values will be far easier to deploy in moral usurpation because they are easier to infantilise. Thus, by having all your moral eggs in the “care” basket you will be led to regard our lockdown as an obvious good with no further analysis being needed. This is why those who question the lockdown will invariably be people of the conservative or libertarian persuasions.

The conservative moral perspective, on the other hand, is harder to deploy in the service of moral usurpation because it is intrinsically harder to infantilise a perspective which operates in a six-dimensional moral space. Added to this, the defining feature of the conservative – being sceptical of change and valuing tradition – also makes it harder to manipulate and deploy in the service of moral usurpation.

Whether this lockdown was the right or wrong thing to do I don’t know. But what the adoption of lockdowns across most of Europe and the Anglosphere demonstrates is that a care-axis polarised morality, characteristic of the “faux liberal” mindset, is now dominant across the developed world. Whilst this conclusion will hardly amaze you, its significance lies in its implications for the exercise of moral usurpation across the whole political spectrum.  

12 thoughts on “The Morality of Lockdown

  1. AJ

    Morality is dififcult and although I lean toward Utilitarianism this hardly helps as you still need to be able to assess benefits and disadvantages and how do you do that without further moiral principles and teh difficulty of assessing what the outcomes of any decision are. However I think the lockdown is a relatively easy thing to asses because of the likely consequences of failing to implement it or something like it.

    I am not simply talking about the deaths that may result. It may be that we never do discover a Corvid19 vaccine and everyone must become infected eventually. Even in this case controlling the rate of infection reduce sthe total numbe rof deaths because it prevents the overwhelming of health services. This must be balanced against the negative effects which to me seem to be principally of two types economic and the effects associated with the economic impact and social/psychological caused by isolation. The economic consequences are not at all trivial and will include indirect deaths and suffering.

    The key point in any analysis is to consider all of the likely effects of actions or inactions and teh consequences of not controlling the spread of infection would include all of the economic and social costs of the lockdown and more. If no actions were taken the infection would be expected to grow more or less exponentially until it had infected a significant proportion of the population and the majority of the pouplation would be infected. IN this situation we could expect an extremely high number of very ill people perhaps several million and many of those to die. The fatality rate would go up because it would be impossible to provide more than rudimentary care for such numbers.

    What seems almost inevitable in this situiation is panic mass, self isolation and quite likely social disorder including rioting and looting and the breakdown of supply and health services. We would experience all of the negative consequences of the lock down in a more severe from as well as a higher death rate and severe damage to the fabric of society and the physical infrastructure.

    It is not moral infantilism to seek to avoid that set of consequences. You may think it alarmist but the best case scenarios I can see in such a situation involve a severe government mandated lockdown, curfews and martial law which are still worse then the negative consequences of the lock down. The lock term consequences to liberal democracy of its perceived failure to effectively protect its own citizens would be severe and I am not sure democracy would survive it.

    I am by no means a naive optimist. it seems far from certain to me that a vacine can or will be found and yet currently all hopes are pinned on precisely this. The suggestion that recovering from an infection does not confer immunity is to me a very ominous sign but simply letting infection rip is not a moral choice even if this turns out to be true.

    1. William Collins Post author

      Your opening three words “morality is difficult” marks you as being in a minority. The majority of people now believe morality is simple and obvious. It is this latter which I refer to as moral infantilism, not any particular moral conclusion. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs are of lockdown, and I would not refer to either lockdown or arguments against it as being moral infantilism. By moral infantilism I mean an induced perspective that moral issues are decided on the basis of an overly simplified one-dimensional system of value, so “morality is simple” is the apparent result. I contend this lies behind our prevailing political division very generally. This overly simplified system of morality has gained ground and become dominant for several reasons, (a) the conservative-leaning moral values have been declared invalid, so that the previous moral anchor has been raised leaving the moral boat adrift, (b) a one-dimensional moral value system is the easiest to manipulate, and manipulation of public moral sense is, and always has been, the principle means by which large populations are controlled, and, (c) morally infantile right-speak provides the elites with a means to obtain absolution from their privilege-guilt without it costing them anything. This is a powerful combination of drivers.

      1. AJ

        OK but I think the response to the virus of a lockdown at least in the short term was not one about which there was any real choice. Longer term there may well be difficult choices to make that balance risk against benefits.

        I must admit this does touch on one of my bug bears which is an infantile view of safety and risk. Statements such as evberything possible must be done to ensure safety are often glibly made and universally accepted but everything is a balance. Speed limits are a good example. If everything possible was done to prevent road accidents (as I have often heard demanded). We would have no private motor vehicles at all and insist on maximum speeds of walking pace. I have spent most of my life designing and developing systems with safety aspects mostly medical systems from various type sof imaging systems to therapuetic systems. In this world safety is defined as “Freedome from unacceptable risk” which of course begs the question of what is acceptable and what is not, but makesit clear that absolute safety does not exist.

        I don’t think your diagnosis of why this simplified view of safety, risk and morality is correct. I think it stems from the effectiveness of sweeping statements regarding risk and safety on influencing people and the ease with which people who make nuanced statements can be portrayed as irresponsible and negligent. I don’t think the loss of conservative or traditional moral values have anything to do with it. I think the issue is the relationship between the media and politics. Politicians will do what generally works to make them popular and will be very adverse to what make sthem unpopular. The media like simple and emotionally charged narratives that can be conveyed in less than a minute. There is feedback between the two. That leads to the gross over simplification and sentimentalisation of everything including but not solely the moral. The ultimate cause is perhaps human cognitive weaknesses.

        1. William Collins Post author

          Hmmm…I think you are more agreeing with me than the opposite, though expressing it differently. In the world of civil nuclear safety the concept used in the context of accident probabilities is ALARP – As Low As Reasonably Practicable. It actually refers to a formally obligatory exercise in which risk is balanced against benefit (and risk = probability x event severity).

          1. AJ

            Yes I am familiar with ALARP both from my time when radiation safety was important for example designing gamma cameras and CT systems and it also used to be used in medical device risk management. Unfortunately we no longer used it in medical devices because of concerns raised that reasonably practical (RP) might include economic considerations. We have to show risks are acceptable when balanced against benefits, alternatives and the current state of the art but not ALARP.
            It is all a bit of a nonsense really almost all risks could be lowered if cost was no object whatsoever if by no other means than requiring teams of multiple experts should be used to operate each system checking each other and ready to respond if something went wrong.
            Risks are pretty much always defined in all regulatory environmenst I am familiar with as the combination of probability of occurence and the severity of the consequences with minor variations. I do not think you should consider this as the multiplication of two values resulting in a scalar value but as a point on a risk severity surface. If you have scores to each there is no reason that they should commute for example and the numeric scores are essentially arbitrary beyond ordering.

          2. William Collins Post author

            ALARP as it is practiced in the power generation industry is most definitely about costs. And risk is defined in that simple product form. Putting those two things together provides a numerically based approach to the issue which, whilst it is certainly simplistic, provides a clear procedure. It makes for a lively discussion with students to introduce what monetary value one places on human life in this procedure. Of course they are all appalled in principle at the very idea. Then I ask this question: if I had a magic wand that could guarantee you would not be involved in a road accident in the next year, how much would you pay me to use it on you? I’ve never got a bid higher than £10, generally £5 or nothing.

  2. Angelo

    Good subject, I agree with your conclusion. As the saying suggests, we should use our heads, especially at times like this, if we have any aspirations.

    …I’m concerned about the following news regarding scientific study of COVID-19 by the person who received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the identification of AIDS virus. >>>Luc Montagnier: SARS-CoV-2 virus was the result of an attempt to manufacture a vaccine against the AIDS virus<<< Can anyone confirm, or discredit?

    Speculation about the culprits is less relevant, whether bio-weapons lab as a targeted weapon, or targeted AIDS lab cure, Israel, US, or China. If this information that the virus is human made is indeed fact, I suggest that it is an important consideration with regards to ‘the morality of lockdown’ as man made viruses are idiosyncratic in that although it will clearly kill many, as usual annually, it is apparently unlikely to survive long term, unlike naturally occurring viruses can by mutation.

    There are other considerations too, but If this information is fact [that Montagnier found AIDS markers that means it could only be human made] it changes the equation significantly.

    Also on the subject of COVID-19 and Morality, there's some very disturbing news coming out from behind 'The Apartheid Walls' of Gaza Mega Concentration Camp for indigenous Gentiles in Jewish occupied Palestine that as well as the ongoing many decades long calorie counted starvation embargo imposed by the Jewish invaders, they are now stopping medicine equipment and food for COVID-19 sufferers too.

    Morally speaking that's reprehensible, but par for the course for this many decades long slow motion genocide of the inconvenient indigenous Gentiles and arguably far worse than your average, bog standard, run of the mill genocide, which forgoes the long drawn out torture for an entire race aspect. Clearly bog standard 'staking them down and leaving them to the fucking crows' genocide would be more humane.

    That's a thought many a father I've known over the last two decades since fathers for Justice [F4J] has lost the will to fight during family breakup/court, 'It would be more humane if they'd just staked me down and leave me to the fucking crows!'

    COVID-19 doesn't hold a candle to the annual force of death and destruction we suffer thanks to our poor control of our own id, …the primary building block of destructive warmongers and gynocentrists alike.

    Best wishes for your good health MRA-UK and all, except for the warmongers and gynocentrists of course.

  3. Groan

    Hindsight is a great thing but I suspect one lesson is that the WHO advice not to curtail airtraffic was dead wrong . Japan, Taiwan, S. Korea Singapore and others more used to responding to viruses took action despite WHO.
    Back on topic is the fact that contrary to our social expectations it seems it is men who are particularly vulnerable to this virus, as in fact they are most viruses in fact.

  4. james murphy

    Yours is a welcome intellectual cafe, delighted you have stayed open, sirrah! I relish the rich food for thought on your menu! And always delightfully articulately written. Bravo – and thank you again for staying open(minded)!

  5. james murphy


    Of course, the virus was a godsend
    For puritans who loved living by the book –
    Their fear of illness a religious calling!
    Their days designed by stern decree,
    Blessed by divine prescription of new laws:
    The state their god-like dispensary:
    Yes, those for whom virtue meant obedience
    Had only to cut along life’s perforated lines
    To consume their RDA of moral vitamins.
    – But what of the free-spirited among us?

    What will it do to us, this imprisonment,
    This prohibition by decree? This ‘not-doing-things?’
    This shunning of the pleasure taken in each other,
    This massive dose of puritanism, this schizophrenia
    Of staying in dark rooms with the sun ablaze?
    Will it turn us against each other, against ourselves?
    Will it poison joy, dim sunlight’s natural excess?
    Is the atrophy of free will suspicion’s fatal virus?
    Rumbling within me, like a bumpkin who hasn’t eaten
    I try to muffle a shameless appetite for laughter.

  6. Bonedagger

    There is no contagion. The theory of transmissible viruses has been disproven so many times now, it’s ludicrous. You can’t catch one. They’re not the cause of disease. Every claimed “viral” outbreak ever had an utterly different cause; historically these were dietary or from bad water. Since the industrial revolution, it’s toxins and radiation. The former now comes mostly to us in the form of medicines.

    The lockdown (which was of course voluntary, demonstrating the perpetual slavemindedness of the public) is a control-by-fear exercise. All the preceding warm-up pyschological exercises (SARS, MERS, swine flu etc.) were executed as necessary over the last 15 years or so; now this imaginary “big one” was put into play to create a prison planet. Police drones are now being deployed as I type.

    Not only were the “conspiracy theorists” (a pathetic term used only by the intellectually juvenile) wholly correct – they did after all simply read the plans and intentions of the global power axes published years ago, as you could have – but in some aspects they may even have been shy of how bad things are going to get.

    If you hand the state the power to feed and heal you, you hand it the power to starve and kill you. It will begin doing both very soon, with victims in staggering in numbers .


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