The Ethics of Killing in a Pandemic: Unintentional Virus Transmission, Reciprocal Risk Imposition, and Standards of Blame

Journal of Applied Philosophy 39 (3):471-486 (2022)
  Copy   BIBTEX


The COVID-19 global pandemic has shone a light on several important ethical questions, ranging from fairness in resource allocation to the ethical justification of government mandates. In addition to these institutional issues, there are also several ethical questions that arise at the interpersonal level. This essay focuses on several of these issues. In particular, I argue that, despite the insistence in public health messaging that avoiding infecting others constitutes ‘saving lives’, virus transmission that results in death constitutes an act of killing. Whether this killing is wrongful depends on several factors. I consider one intuitively plausible view—namely, that in many cases, killing via unintentional transmission is not wrongful, because the parties in question have implicitly waived their rights against this harm, often via reciprocal risk imposition. I argue that this view is mistaken, but that its central insight can be better captured by identifying the appropriate standards of blame that we ought to apply during a pandemic. I conclude by showing how these conclusions can be fruitfully applied to certain institutional questions, such as helping to justify restricting government mandates.

Similar books and articles

Risk and Blameworthiness by Degree.Adriana Placani & Stearns Broadhead - 2022 - Journal of Value Inquiry 56 (4):663-677.
A Right against Risk-Imposition and the Problem of Paralysis.Sune Holm - 2016 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 19 (4):917-930.
Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk.Richard Yetter Chappell - 2022 - Public Health Ethics 15 (1):64-73.
Risk imposition and freedom.Maria P. Ferretti - 2016 - Politics, Philosophy and Economics 15 (3):261-279.
Contractualism and risk imposition.James Lenman - 2008 - Politics, Philosophy and Economics 7 (1):99-122.
Killing, a Conceptual Analysis.Cheng-Chih Tsai - 2017 - Ethical Perspectives 24 (3):467-499.
Justifying Lockdown.Christian Barry & Seth Lazar - 2020 - Ethics and International Affairs 2020.
Imposing Risk: A Normative Framework.John Oberdiek - 2017 - Oxford University Press UK.
Risky Killing and the Ethics of War.Seth Lazar - 2015 - Ethics 126 (1):91-117.
On the Harm of Imposing Risk of Harm.Kritika Maheshwari - 2021 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 24 (4):965-980.


Added to PP

246 (#55,390)

6 months
83 (#17,292)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author's Profile

Jeremy Davis
University of Georgia

Citations of this work

No citations found.

Add more citations

References found in this work

No references found.

Add more references