How (Not) to Make Trade-Offs Between Health and Other Goods

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (forthcoming)
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In the context of a global pandemic, there is good health-based reason for governments to impose various social distancing measures. However, such measures also cause economic and other harms to people at low risk from the virus. In this paper, I examine how to make such trade-offs in a way that is respectfully justifiable to their losers. I argue that existing proposals like using standard QALY (quality-adjusted life-year) valuations or WELLBYs (wellbeing-adjusted life-years) as the currency for trade-offs do not allow such justification, because they give weight to utilities that are irrelevant in a life-and-death context. Drawing on work on restricted aggregation in ethics, I articulate an alternative framework for balancing claims arising from prospects of different kinds of harm and benefit, and show how it can be applied to reasoning about trade-offs in a pandemic context.

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Antti Kauppinen
University of Helsinki


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