Three months ago, Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce declared in a Christmas tweet, "I'm sick of the government being in my life." He reiterated the sentiment the other day when declaring that he would not be downloading the COVID tracing app.
But, like it or not, the virus has brought government back into vogue: it is government that subsidises wages and extends credit, it is public hospitals on the front line of the pandemic, it is tax dollars fuelling research into a vaccine. While businesses and community groups contribute to tackling the virus, we look first to government for solutions.
This puts public officials under immense pressure. They must make quick judgements, aware that any misstep will have profound repercussions. A pandemic has made morality the subject of everyday conversations: What is a human life worth? Must we sacrifice jobs for health? It's also made everyday actions the subject of moral scrutiny: Is it right to visit my elderly relative? Should I go to the beach for a swim? As such the pandemic throws the ethics of decision making into stark relief.
In November 1971, a young Peter Singer wrote an essay called Famine, Affluence and Morality. The famine in question was the potential starvation of millions of refugees displaced by the war of independence that turned East Pakistan into Bangladesh.
Professor Singer argued that mass suffering and death were not inevitable, since the affluent nations had greater capacity to help. "Australia's aid," Professor Singer provocatively pointed out, "amounts to less than one-twelfth of the cost of Sydney's new opera house".
Professor Singer's essay helped to establish his reputation as one of the world's most influential philosophers and his pointed questions are always with us, as any public servant involved in budget setting knows.
Should limited health funding go to a neonatal intensive care unit that will save the lives of a small number of premature babies, or to increasing hip operations so that more senior citizens can regain mobility and live in less pain? Which is more important, investing in Australia's Olympic team or helping a million displaced Rohingya in the Cox's Bazaar refugee camp? Should money be spent on first homeowner grants or on raising the pension?
The options are rarely so binary, and we tend to avoid scrutinising the moral foundations on which judgements ultimately rest. But since resources are always limited, an ethical choice sits beneath every funding allocation - a normative ranking in which one group or one activity is valued more highly than another.
Ordinarily, our democratic processes help to determine such allocations, and obscure the values at play. In a crisis, the ethical considerations are exposed for all to see, raw and acute. And it is an unfortunate reality that public office holders sometimes face tragic choices, where every available option will cause significant harm.
For the past few weeks, state and federal governments have been struggling with a tragic choice between shutting down sections of the economy (at the potential cost of people's livelihoods) and letting businesses operate as usual (at the potential cost of people's lives). The debate about whether to close or reopen schools also constitutes a tragic choice.
On the one hand there are the potential costs of disrupting children's education and forcing essential health workers to stay home to look after their kids; on the other is the risk of the virus spreading through classrooms, staffrooms and playgrounds into wider society.
In these situations, evidence is often uncertain and contested. Expert advice may point to a balance of probabilities, but it can only take policy makers so far. In the end elected representatives and appointed officials must make reasoned judgements and be able to give a coherent account of why they arrived at the conclusions they reached.
What enduring principles might guide them in this process? As a utilitarian, who holds to the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, Professor Singer would say that the right moral choice is the one that does the most to reduce avoidable pain and suffering.
The late John Rawls, however, might have put a compelling argument that the greatest support should be targeted to the most disadvantaged members of society.
Sometimes these approaches fortuitously overlap. Providing emergency accommodation to people experiencing homelessness, far in excess of our "normal" miserly approach, meets both criteria: in committing extra resources to the most disadvantaged Australians, it also creates the greatest good for the greatest number, by reducing the risk that people who are sleeping rough or lodging in overcrowded dwellings will spread the virus.
In other cases, though, these two principles may conflict. The most discussed example is a shortage of medical equipment - a situation Australia has avoided through swift distancing measures to halt the spread of the virus, but which has been a real and immediate dilemma for health professionals in other countries.
If there are 11 patients struggling for breath but only 10 respirators, who gets treated? Medical staff will triage on the basis of who is most likely to survive, a utilitarian decision to use limited resources to help as many people as possible.
In such circumstances, the "most disadvantaged" might be the elderly patient with an underlying lung complaint, who is denied treatment.
This is reasonable and defensible, yet it nevertheless constitutes a tragic choice. And this is not where the matter rests. Underpinning all our decisions must be the foundational understanding that opens the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Article 1 states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
In other words, every person deserves equal respect, irrespective of age, wealth, social standing, visa status, (dis)ability, personal connections or other contingent factors.
This doesn't mean that everyone gets a respirator when there are too few to go around, but it creates a moral requirement that triage decisions are not the result of discrimination, prejudice, vested interest, political influence or favouritism.
And even if we cannot provide someone with a potentially life-saving respirator, we can still treat them with dignity and respect. We owe them, and their loved ones, an honest explanation as to why that tragic choice was made.
If Australia's public health measures continue to be successful, we may not have to face the choice as to who gets a respirator. But what applies to the intensive care unit also applies to society at large. The pandemic is causing economic harm, physical suffering and social damage. Morality requires that these burdens are shared fairly, and not in ways that replicate the existing inequalities and privileges that characterise Australian society.
- Peter Mares is lead moderator with Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership.
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