This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Parker Crutchfield, PhD
Suppose your colleague was diagnosed with tuberculosis on Friday but tried to come into work on the following Monday. You would be right to call local public health officials, and they would be warranted in isolating him. Now suppose instead that he was diagnosed with lung cancer on Friday but came into work Monday. You would be wrong to call local public health officials and they would be wrong to isolate him. When a person’s health or behavior are a threat to others’ well-being, there is greater moral justification for restricting the liberties of that person. This is just the converse of Mill’s Harm Principle, which states that the only time it is permissible to restrict a person’s actions is when those actions threaten to harm another person.
Recently, the Australian Medical Association declared climate change a threat to the public’s health. This comes after a similar declaration was backed by organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Lung Association. Climate change is a health emergency that threatens the health and well-being of the public. Just as your colleague is a threat to the health and well-being of those around him, climate change is a threat to the public’s health and well-being. Thus, Mill’s Harm Principle applies—in principle it is permissible to restrict liberties to prevent the harm that ensues from climate change.
Public Health Ethics
When your colleague sees his oncologist about his lung cancer, the physician likely prioritizes the patient’s well-being. But public health ethics takes a more utilitarian approach: the individual’s interests are secondary to the greater good. Instead of balancing values such as patient autonomy and the physician’s judgment about what is most medically appropriate, public health ethics primarily balances liberty, equality, and utility (benefit). This to say that, for example, one person’s liberty may be justifiably restricted so that greater utility to the public may be achieved, or that it may be permissible to sacrifice some utility so that everyone can be subjected to the same treatment. Other values such as transparency or solidarity may be incorporated secondarily.
Viewing climate change through the lens of public health ethics, which interventions best balance liberty, equality, and utility? There is significant disutility of not doing anything—there will be incalculable harm to very many people. The cost of doing nothing is so high that there is almost no benefit we might achieve presently that could outweigh it. Trading the harms we will suffer by doing nothing for the benefit we might achieve by doing nothing is a bad deal for us and a much worse deal for the next generation.
It is not commonly noted, but the same could be said for liberty—by doing nothing we trade future liberties for present ones. If we want to promote liberty in the future, we need to restrict it now. Currently those who are best positioned to intervene on climate change enjoy an extensive scheme of liberties. We can cool our houses to 68 degrees in the middle of summer; we can travel by jet to anywhere we might want to go; we can preserve our food in disposable plastic containers; we can mostly go outside without fear of catching a mosquito-borne illness; we can even use plastic rather than paper straws!
Inaction and Liberty
If we do nothing in the name of preserving these liberties, we stand to lose much more. It’s pointless to travel by jet to a place that’s underwater or that’s so hot it could kill you, to say nothing of the prospects of actually living there. When the changing climate displaces those living in New Orleans, Phoenix, Miami, the mid-Atlantic, or anywhere else in the world that will be uninhabitable, those people have to go elsewhere, increasing population density in those areas. Cooling our residences and workplaces may be prohibitively expensive, along with refrigerating our food, manufacturing plastic straws, or going outside in shorts and a t-shirt. Such effects will only exacerbate social inequalities.
Or consider the worst-case scenario, one in which climate change exerts too much pressure on governments, undermining their ability to uphold the laws that democracies have agreed to, such as laws prohibiting taking another person’s stuff. In such a scenario one’s scheme of liberties might be as extensive as it could possibly be. But in that case life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short—all conditions that make it impossible to exercise those liberties and that significantly limit one’s self-determination. The dead have no liberties. For people who want to preserve and promote individual liberty, it makes sense to intervene now.
To What Extent?
If ethical intervention upon threats to the public’s health requires finding the best balance of liberty, equality, and utility, then we have justification to restrict present liberties. Doing so not only promotes greater future utility, but it also promotes greater future liberties. I have not addressed equality, but as things stand now doing nothing will exacerbate social inequalities. But to what extent can present liberties be restricted?
Given the severity of the threat climate change presents to future liberties, it may be reasonable to prohibit air travel, driving vehicles that fail to meet certain emissions standards, eating beef, or even using plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs.
I mention above that there are other values that may be considered. If it is permissible for states—in the name of public health—to restrict present liberties to promote future liberties, how can they do so transparently? Does restricting present liberties promote or undermine solidarity among the population? If restricting present liberties undermines solidarity, does it do so to the degree necessary to outweigh the promotion of future liberty, equality, and utility?
Parker Crutchfield, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Program in Medical Ethics, Humanities, and Law at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, where he teaches medical ethics and provides ethics consultation. His research interests in bioethics include the epistemology of bioethics and the ethics of enhancement, gene editing, and research.
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