Utilitarianism, capitalist hierarchy, and vaccine distribution

In late July, Sarah Zhang published an article on The Atlanticthat detailed the many infrastructural shortcomings of the United States’ handling of the novel Corona Virus. Simple preventative measures, like mask wearing and social distancing, have been met with strong pushback from particular groups, claiming that these preventative measures are an attack on their liberties. We observe much of the mishandling through the lens of media platforms, but many of the negative implications of the virus fall into the complex web of institutional misprioritization of American lives. These misgivings in the hierarchal prioritization of handling the virus are well explained in Zhang’s article. As the attention of the general public is directed toward a vaccine as a solution to the pandemic, conversations of ethical distribution must be had to ensure the welfare of the American people. Personally, I would take on the framework of distribution through a utilitarian lens. Utilitarianism seeks the greatest benefit for the most amount of people, which, to me, serves as a good ethical base point to maneuver the intricate complications associated with the virus. Testing and vaccination should be provided at a rate conditional with the amount of exposure and cases that populations face, to ensure the greatest level of care. Underfunded communities with inevitably more potential contact points with the virus should be accommodated for. Currently, we observe affluence and access to capital to be a contributing factor to access to testing and care, which inherently takes resources away from many of the groups that need them the most. In the distribution of the vaccine, I suggest that we must insure a proportionally and equitably sound approach, so that the most people can benefit from the potential cure to the pandemic. At-risk groups, like healthcare and essential workers, should be afforded the vaccine at a prioritized rate, so as to slow the overall spread of the virus while maintaining the businesses that keep us fed and healthy. What we’ve seen in the past in access to testing, and even through the evaluation of previous diseases, is that the best care is afforded to affluent groups. Groups who exist on the wealthier side of the socio-economic infrastructure have had better access to care and preventative measures than those in low income communities. From a utilitarian perspective, the trope of allocating the best resources and prioritizing vaccination for these groups is seen as unethical, and something we should push back against if and when it comes to be the case. 

1 thought on “Utilitarianism, capitalist hierarchy, and vaccine distribution

  1. Cassie Srb

    Robel did a great job of examining vaccine distribution and precedence of said distribution. In terms of a Utilitarian approach to vaccine delivery to the public, I agree with Robel that it is a good ethical base to determine who should get the vaccine when. Considering the populations that are most at risk for both high exposure rates and serious complications are first responders and the elderly, they should be the first to receive the vaccine once it rolls out. As they are the most at risk, they would benefit the most from receiving the vaccine which follows the definition of Utilitarianism. Unfortunately, as Robel pointed out, as precedented by other vaccines, order of distribution follows levels of socioeconomic status. Those that can afford health care or even have access to vaccine distribution sites will have priority over groups that might benefit more from early access. As Robel stated, this is unethical under a utilitarian lens.
    An unfortunate problem within our society, monetary gain is the primary motivation for most decisions made by both private corporations and the government. As Zhang talks about in the article, even the creation of the vaccine is being expedited by companies not for the benefit it would bring our public heath, but financial benefits they might receive through patents and royalties on the vaccine. How many lives could be saved by getting the vaccine to the groups that need it the most instead of following the money?


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