Ethics of U.S. government policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: A utilitarianism perspective

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Abstract

COVID-19 hit the United States in January 2020, quickly resulting in stay-at-home orders that sent the U.S. economy into a major recession. The federal government leveraged fiscal, regulatory, and monetary policies to provide relief. Decisions had to be made in a complex environment wrought with difficult choices, complicated by the federalist governing system in the United States. Myers (2016, p. 202) asserted, “If an event like the [1918 influenza] pandemic were to occur in the United States, it is important that the government be prepared, not only in terms of material, but ethically.” We analyze the ethical choices of the initial responses by reviewing early U.S. government responses and the impact of culture, federalism, and justice. We conclude that utilitarian analyses of balancing infection rates and economic impacts must be supplemented with Kantian principles of not treating people as means to an end, balancing the protection of individual freedoms with the good of society, and protecting vulnerable groups. As governments prepare for future crises, ethical considerations should be built into those plans as guardrails to guide decision-makers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)343-367
Number of pages25
JournalBusiness and Society Review
Volume127
Issue numberS1
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2022

Keywords

  • COVID-19
  • economy
  • ethics
  • federal policy
  • federalism
  • pandemic
  • utilitarianism

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