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Morality of Action Followed by Inaction

This is an article I've written on the dangers of action followed by inaction amidst this pandemic. It highlights the violations of human rights taking place, in relation to various approaches of moral reasoning.

Human impact on the environment has caused the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, and such viruses of natural origin are likely to be a thing of the future. The scale of damage caused by a similar virus may however be mitigated by the actions of the authorities and the people of a country. Governments all over the world have chosen varied methods of battling this pandemic. Sweden’s tactic of herd immunity was in stark contrast to India’s early action of a strict lockdown. Naturally, administrative authorities must take into account a number of factors while making such far-reaching decisions, having regard for the country’s population, access to healthcare, availability of medical equipment, and so forth. However, in an unprecedented situation such as this, there is no clear right or wrong answer. Despite each alternative having its own moral reasoning to back it up, there are clear shortcomings in every approach.

According to Michael Sandel, an esteemed professor from Harvard University, one of the main approaches to moral reasoning is the Consequentialist Approach. This approach essentially provides that the consequences of an action are the basis of its morality. In other words, the right thing to do is the option which will result in the best possible state of affairs for the maximum number of people. This approach is more commonly known as the doctrine of Utilitarianism.

India’s response of a complete countrywide lockdown was a clear example of a Utilitarian Approach. This early action taken by the government helped avoid a potential massive outbreak of cases, thus keeping the mortality rate in check.

While the entire country has been focused on the virus and how to stop its spread, the lockdown has had drastic negative impacts on several sections of society. In many ways the lockdown seemed like the best option; citizens would forgo certain pleasures and licenses for a few weeks, consequently saving millions of lives. In the battle of lifestyle vs life, life is the obvious priority. But in the words of Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, “this is not a case of lives vs livelihood but instead lives vs lives.”

The other main approach according to Sandel is the Categorical Approach, wherein the results of an action should not be the only thing taken into account, but certain rights and duties should take precedence over consequences. Essentially, there are certain acts which are just categorically wrong, and the guiding moral principle should unconditionally abide by this reasoning.

Therefore, what is the best option, morally speaking? Is it the one which results in the most happiness, or the one which does not compromise basic human rights?

The clamp on our economy is causing so much suffering that the question arises whether it will be the virus or the consequences of the lockdown that will prove more fatal. Unfortunately, these effects seem to impact certain groups more drastically than others, and in enforcing the lockdown the government may not have thought through the consequences in full. In the words of Ramachandra Guha, noted historian and economist, “pervasive social inequalities have deepened even further.”

The sudden announcement of the lockdown did not account for the large numbers of migrant and daily wage workers who were left stranded with no means of food, transportation or shelter. Despite being an integral part of our economy, we know of the harsh brutalities faced by these workers amidst their scramble to save their lives, virus notwithstanding. The effects on their livelihood as a result of the failing economy may well be the cause for a large number of deaths in the coming months.

Economics isn’t the only problem at hand. Categorical moral reasoning would insist that no person’s fundamental rights are violated in the process of dealing with any situation. Understandably this is an idealistic view, given the current scenario, but the blatant violation of fundamental rights that is currently taking place shocks the conscience.

Article 14 of the Constitution of India guarantees equal protection of the law to all citizens - a right that has clearly not been extended to several sections of our society. Article 21 ensures the protection of life, yet people with various health afflictions have become a part of the collateral damage, as many no longer have access to healthcare. Students who have no access to internet or technology are being deprived of their right to education as guaranteed under Article 21-A.

What can justify this violation of people’s basic rights? Although we are not formally in a state of emergency, practically this is the case. With Courts essentially closed, and access to justice denied, most citizens are left with no respite. Categorically speaking, where is the morality in this?

Furthermore, a large portion of Indian society seems to have taken this situation as a license to create different law and order problems. Domestic violence is skyrocketing due to a combination of pent up frustration building within the confines of homes, compounded by the access to liquor after a long break. Sexual violence and child abuse continue unchecked and have become more challenging to report. Since the glare of the law is not on these issues at the moment, people are using this prime opportunity to do as they please and go unpunished.

Moral policing and persecution on the basis of religion and caste are also gaining force. The virus seems to have breathed new life into the regressive concept of untouchability. Blame is being passed faster than the virus itself and families are ostracized based on mere suspicion and rumors.

When the authorities took their decision regarding a sudden lockdown, could they have foreseen the flagrant violations of human rights that would follow? Should the authorities not have followed through and tried to minimize the casualties arising from their actions?

In the face of such an unprecedented situation our government chose an approach that seemed most morally feasible; an approach similar to that of many other countries around the world. However, the devil is in the detail, which in this case refers to implementation.

Were there more drawbacks than benefits to the government’s decision and execution? As Sandel often asks, is morality a matter of weighing happiness over costs, or are certain moral duties and human rights so fundamental that they rise above such calculations? Should certain rights command our respect for reasons independent of social consequences? These are all important questions and although it may not be right to critique the government’s effort, they need to be answered nonetheless.

The author is of the view that where one course of action is adopted, the same needs to be properly executed and tailored to the need of the hour, which is constantly changing. Action can not be followed by inaction. Any oversight in this regard can actually accentuate the problem, thereby making the cure worse than the disease.

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