The United States, more than any other country, might as well have been built to foster moral and ethical conflict between the private citizen and the government. Whenever you have a country with its moral principles firmly cemented in personal freedom and autonomy such as the US, questions of paternalism and sociopolitical regulations are bound to arise, especially during times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States’ firmly planted principles of personal autonomy and the potential need for a form of government paternalism have been placed face-to-face by the pandemic; and the shortcomings of these beliefs become only more apparent as we compare them to other countries such as China. Personal autonomy in one’s life is so fundamentally laced into the moral patchwork of our country that it may as well be the Autonomous States of America. This is great for a multitude of reasons and has provided innumerable personal freedoms and luxuries that positively differentiate us from other government-dominated societies. However, this is also a recipe for paternalistic policy conflict. With the covid-inspired lockdowns across the country, violent protests resisting these government orders have surfaced. In response to Peter Hessler’s article How China Controlled the Coronavirus, we must evaluate when regulatory government paternalism, especially in crisis times, is necessary and should be tolerated, as well as how this paternalism can relate to moral Utilitarianist theory.
In China, the government has taken a firm paternalistic approach to the COVID lockdowns, as Hessler says “the Chinese lockdown was more intense than almost anywhere in the world”. Doors were sealed, infected children were taken for ‘medical observation’, and extreme neighborhood lockdowns. If these procedures were enacted in the US, there would be nothing less than a revolt. However, although these procedures may be extreme, they did an extremely good job of containing the spread of the virus. In contrast, US virus cases spiraled out of control. This case study is a strong argument for the benefits of paternalism for the mass good of the people: aka, paternalism for utilitarianism. The intense isolation and lockdown of the society for a short time and isolation of select sick individuals caused the most benefit overall for the society as a whole. On the other hand, groups in the US heavily resisted paternalist action on the basis of autonomous freedoms. People in the US believe that they have individual rights to take care of their own health and decide what is best. Morally and logically, the argument can be made that this did not provide benefit to our society.
If the Utilitarian theory was used in this pandemic, the US would have enacted the necessary paternalistic lockdown theory and we would not have ridiculous spikes of COVID deaths and cases while virtually every other country that sacrificed a bit of their autonomy for the general good has gotten their cases under control.