Ebola & Natural Rights: The Ethics of Pandemics

[Note: This essay was written on 10/18/2014.]

With recent media coverage of the ongoing Ebola outbreak in major urban and rural areas of West Africa, fear and uncertainty are growing among many Americans, who feel at risk of an outbreak in their town or city. With no known cure for the contagion, and as of yet no effective vaccine, these fears seem slightly credible, even if premature. Although it probably shouldn’t keep you up at night, Ebola is, at the same time, incurable by medicine, and has horrific and agonizing symptoms which often spell death for those unfortunate enough to contract the virus. With multiple outbreaks of Ebola—the largest ever seen in human populations—fear is, however, the inevitable outcome.
An angle rarely covered on this topic, though, is the ethical component of viral outbreak. In the face of pandemic, who is justified in doing what? Where might the use of force be justified, if at all? From a libertarian standpoint, how might one apply the non-aggression principle to such cases? Although the issue can be murky and difficult to parse, it seems there are at least a few conclusions one might arrive at regarding Ebola, or any pandemic similar in character.

To begin, let us spell out in general terms the libertarian principle of non-aggression, and from there apply it to individual cases. The non-aggression principle (NAP) is the very basic ethical precept which states that no man may levy aggressive violence against another; or more precisely, that such aggression is never justified. The NAP may also apply to any external objects rightfully acquired by an individual, thus expanding our definition of “aggression” to all forms of fraud, theft, and vandalism.

In other words, the NAP deals with human property relations, or with claims to ownership, or rightful dominion over some object in space and time. This certainly includes the body of an individual, but also any material goods non-violently acquired by that individual. Thus, under the libertarian ethical framework, a primary concept is that of property rights. Seen in this light, all human rights can be subsumed under the broader, but more concrete, rubric of property rights.

While the NAP states that the use of aggression is never justified, it leaves open the option for defensive violence, to repel any aggressive invasion of a victim’s property boundaries. For our topic of viral contagion, then, it is this notion of self-defense that will primarily concern us.

Continuing on self-defense, in a situation where aggression has clearly been used against another person, the conclusion that this person has a right to protect themselves is easily arrived at. But what of a case where things aren’t quite so clear?

Threats, for example; when a would-be belligerent makes it clear that he is willing to use violence, but stops short of actually committing it, what then? When applying the NAP, a secondary, yet indispensable, principle becomes necessary, that of proportionality. This principle states that in acts of self-defense—or in the legal-judicial punishment of a criminal—retaliatory violence may be used only in proportion to that initially levied by the aggressor. While we can never exactly compute aggression in precise quantities, we can still generally say that a punch is greater than a slap, or that a gunshot is more severe than a punch, etc.

Therefore, with the imposition of a credible threat of violence, a potential victim has every right, in proportion to the credibility of that threat, to use defensive force to ensure the threat is neutralized.

Obviously this has its limits, though, as all threats aren’t equally credible. In a heated argument, for instance, somebody might insinuate a threat that they quite obviously don’t intend to follow up on. One would not be justified in killing this person in response, as this clearly goes far above and beyond the initial threat, becoming itself an act of aggression. The same would apply to a case of simple trespass. Accidentally stumbling into somebody’s front yard does not constitute a clear and immediate threat. Defensive force would not be justified here, as it would not be proportional to the small property violation in question.

However, in a case where masked thugs descend upon a man in a dark alley, even if force has not yet been used, the potential victim may rightfully respond with force, even deadly force if necessary. The credibility of this threat is obvious, and its extent unknown, thereby justifying defensive violence on behalf of the victim.

Finally, the right of self-defense does not only apply to the direct victim of an act of aggression. If a 3rd party happens to witness a mugging taking place, they may, using their best judgment, intervene to protect the party who seems most likely the victim. In other words, one may use defensive force as an agent for a victim who is unwilling or incapable of doing so.

So, then, how might one go on to apply these principles to pandemics in any clear, coherent way?

Most relevant to the issue at hand is likely the concept of quarantine. In the case of pandemic outbreak, it may be necessary to segregate from the rest of the population those who’ve contracted the illness. This limits how far the virus can spread, as quarantined individuals cannot come in contact with the rest of the healthy, uninfected populace. When faced with this prospect, it understandably evokes Orwellian imagery and fears of state-tyranny—government potentially using the outbreak as a pretext for usurping to itself greater power over the citizen.

While this author is certainly no fan of the state (a profound understatement), let’s think through this issue a little further. Does government, or in fact any individual whatever, retain the right to forcefully compel virus-carriers in certain scenarios? Whether it is to quarantine them, or to at least prevent them from being in one’s own proximity, is this justified?

Setting aside for the moment the emotional sentiments that might be aggravated by this subject, let us examine only the bare-bones issue of ethics and rights. When confronted with a virus-carrier, it does seem rightful or justified to compel this person into quarantine, or at least away from one’s own proximity, as they constitute an immediate threat to one’s bodily integrity.

Although contracting a virus involves little to no moral agency on behalf of the carrier, as it is typically unintentional, it nonetheless represents a dire threat to anyone in the carrier’s direct proximity (depending, especially, on how the illness is transmitted. Airborne viruses might be treated with greater weight than those spread only by way of contact with bodily fluids).

An analogous, if not strange, scenario might involve an individual waking up to find himself strapped with a time-bomb. Even acknowledging that this individual did not strap the bomb to his own body, similar to the virus, it nonetheless threatens those around him. The bomb-carrier would not be justified in walking crowded city streets, subjecting everyone around him to a direct threat of death or bodily injury.

Even more relevant are the potential uncertainties of when this bomb might detonate, and/or the extent of its destructive capability—similar to the uncertainty of exactly who will be affected, and to what extent, by a virus-carrier. Being around others and imposing this kind of danger on them is certainly unjustified, and one might compel the bomb-carrier to leave their presence in an act of self-defense.

Although the case of the bomb-carrier differs from that of a virus-carrier insofar as some moral agent had to be responsible for initially strapping the bomb to the body of an innocent person, the ethical implications are still quite similar. One does not have the moral right to force others to face danger they have not consented to face, therefore allotting the right of self-defense to any individual placed in harm’s way by the bomb/virus-carrier.

In a pandemic outbreak, forceful quarantine should only take place when it has been positively verified that an individual carries the contagion, and should be kept to the absolute bare minimum. Since other non-violent solutions may exist in such situations, force should be relegated only to the more rare circumstances of a carrier unwilling to receive treatment or segregation from the uninfected populace.

Virus-carriers who have to be forced into quarantine should obviously be provided treatment, not simply left somewhere to suffer or die. Those who feel they were treated unjustly in this situation should also have some means to recourse, as the minds of men are not omnipotent. Intentionally or not, forceful quarantine might be applied in inappropriate, unjust ways, and victims of such treatment ought to receive restitution for their troubles. In confused, chaotic emergency situations—not only in cases of viral contagion—the possibility for unjust treatment of innocent people is always present. Since these matters can’t always be settled on the spot, an effective judicial process might serve as a secondary layer of protection for the rights of individuals.

Thus, re-stated, individuals who carry a virus—with the credible potential to spread to, and kill, dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other people—may rightfully be quarantined, even if against their own will. At risk of sounding cruel, I believe this is perfectly within the bounds of the libertarian ethical system, and the principle of non-aggression which it rests on. (Clearly this does not apply if the carrier is within their own property boundaries, as property rights take primacy in this analysis.)

While one might, and probably should, question the capability or motivation of national governments in handling an Ebola-like pandemic, we still ought to recognize the ethical significance here, and the conclusions it entails.

Since individuals don’t have the right to impose bodily harm on others, or the threat thereof, and since the right of self-defense is one which can be “contracted” out to any other agent, we must recognize the ethical legitimacy of forceful quarantine, even if by those in the employ of the state.

One might still see injustice in government doing anything whatsoever, since it almost always involves the use of stolen tax-dollars, but on the narrower issues of virus and quarantine, we might adjust our position slightly to allow a bit more leeway for government to attempt to remedy the problem. If the state is going to steal money and resources from private society and use them, containing the finite crisis of a pandemic might not be the worst way to utilize those resources. The consistent libertarian will reject state-action in totality on the basis of principle; but assuming state-action is going to happen whether one likes it or not, practical concerns might sway one to reject it less unequivocally it in this quite unlikely, specific case.

Note also that I am not here suggesting anyone delegate special authorities to any particular institution or group of people. I am rather trying to extract some general ethical guidelines regarding pandemics from the non-aggression principle, as they apply to the whole of humanity.

The role of private institutions in fighting a pandemic should also be encouraged to the fullest degree. However, currently, it might be begrudgingly permitted that government step in to do something as well. As a rule of thumb, private enterprise is orders of magnitude more effective than bureaucratically-managed state-action, so private solutions should always be sought out first. In a free, and therefore prosperous, society, a completely private solution to this issue seems easily within reach.

Thus, finally, it must be stressed that this is not any kind of concession that government is sometimes necessary, quite the contrary. In pondering the notions of rights and justice, as applied to the subject in question, it would be inconsistent, and I believe incoherent, to advocate a solution which only added more injustice to the world. Only when forced into a condition of dehumanizing dependency—where astounding amounts of virtually every society’s resources are stolen, and remain tied up in the coffers of government—can one imagine a role for the state, even in handling an unlikely emergency scenario such as an Ebola outbreak. Rather than being an argument in favor of the occasional necessity of government, it is quite the opposite.

A longer, more comprehensive exploration of pandemics and libertarian ethics would be desirable, as I could only touch on a couple of the relevant issues in this piece. Difficulties in the field of ethics, particularly in the libertarian ethical system, often amount to a difficulty in application alone, rather than a problem with the theory itself. The application of property rights to complex, difficult situations should be pushed to its furthest limit, toward a libertarianism that is ever-more nuanced and refined.


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