Communitarianism: A saviour in Times of nCOVID19

nCOVID19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on 11-3-2020 noting a 13-fold increase in the number of cases over the preceding two weeks [1] . Since then steps are being taken by Governments across the world to address the issue. Countries are under lockdown, the Unites States of America, Italy, Germany and India are few examples [2] . When Governments start adopting strict measures, this leads to curtailment of rights and they are always questioned, irrespective of their political wisdom. In the following paragraphs, I aim to adopt a communitarian approach to explain the moral precision of steps taken by the Governments across the globe.

Communitarianism works on the premises that one’s place in the economy, standing in the political order, reputation among fellows and holdings: all of these come from other men and women [3] . The emphasis is laid on importance of the society rather than centrality of the individual [4]. It strives to weigh particularism against universalism and argues that the search for a common point of unity for everyone leads to misunderstanding and misleading distributive justice [5].

Lockdowns are given two communitarian interpretation viz. authoritarian and liberal. Some authors like John Authers claim that when China asked people in its Wuhan province to stay inside their houses for the good of the community, it was authoritarian communitarianism [6]. Whereas some like Xavier Symons claim it to be liberal communitarianism as, in essence, the step was taken to protect the most vulnerable group of people in the community i.e. to protect elders [7].

Recently talking about the concerns regarding the pandemic, Michael Sandel expressed his idea of common good as [8]

“The common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life.”                          

(emphasis supplied)

Consideration was given to the proposal of ‘herd immunity’. It is an epidemiological concept where it is believed that the majority of the people are sufficiently immune to the disease and if is it allowed to run enough people can’t get the disease [9]. Michael Sandel argues that in a modern society when we consider such options, we lack solidarity [10]. From Sandel’s perspective this is similar to the state of nature or Social Darwinism – which demands the survival of the fittest [11].

If we start considering economy over health, we do a cost-benefit analysis, which leads back to Jeremy Bentham’s idea of Utilitarianism. A cost-benefit analysis in times of pandemic if not worse is similar to the cost-benefit analysis done by Philip Morris & Co. for the Czech Republic to balance out the tax revenues and cost incurred in the treatment of lung cancer [12]. Similarly, sending people back to work for the sake of the economy is a Utilitarian approach.

The Rawlsian idea could also be a rescue in this situation. It rests on the principle ‘do to others what you expect others to do to you’. The idea of the veil of ignorance in the original position and acting as a rational individual are means to achieve this fundamental principle in a hope to achieve a just society [13]. In addition to that, the difference principle in Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ asks everyone in society to work for the betterment of the most vulnerable ones [14]. In nCOVID19 scenario, the most vulnerable ones are the elderly and every individual in the society must consider their betterment and adhere to ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown regulations’.

Communitarians argue that freedom of choice, even under fair conditions can be a basis for a just society and rights cannot be prioritised over the common good [15]. There are some obligations we owe to the society and these obligations do not require our consent [16]. Everyone has an obligation towards each other and hence the libertarian argument ‘If I get Corona, I get Corona’ [17] is morally flawed. Even the escape route of the doctrine of double effect cannot save people who support this line of thought. The doctrine of double effect discusses the permissibility of an action which might cause harm [18]. According to the doctrine, if there is some harm as a side-effect of action, it is permissible if the harm was not intended. However, the 22-year-old chanting ‘I get Corona, I get Corona’ will be ethically liable for spreading the virus. The individualistic approach which claims responsibility for the choices/actions that an individual makes knocks down the basic idea of society, where people have an obligation towards each other.

Having addressed these questions, I will briefly discuss the communitarian approach in the institutional nCOVID19 war. Any institutionalised body engaged in the war against nCOVID19 with a broad representation of the stakeholders (doctors, nurses, practitioners, administrators, patients and people in general) when functions well, like South Korea, it provides a typical as well as a beautiful example of communitarian democracy [19]. They work together to constitute an optimum society (safe environment, proper functioning hospitals, maintained supply of essential services, etc.) visioned by the members of the particular community [20]. When viewed through a communitarian lens, any conflict resolution with respect to solutions for any infectious disease can be best arrived by envisaging the betterment of the community [21]. Thus, virtue-based communitarianism can be an option for States to adopt to fight an epidemic like nCOVID19. However, this should be achieved by considering the established rules and procedure (deontological approach) and results (consequentialism).


*Candidature 2023, National Law University, Jodhpur. The author can be reached at prakhar2602@gmail.com

[1] D. Cucinotta, “WHO Declares COVID-19 a Pandemic”, NCBI available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32191675 last seen on 27/04/2020

[2] Coronavirus: US records 2,000 dead in a day as Italy and India extend lockdowns, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/coronavirus-us-records-2000-dead-in-a-day-as-italy-and-india-extend-lockdowns last seen on 27/04/2020.

[3] M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice, 3-4 (1st Edn. 1983).

[4] A. Etzioni, “Communitarianism”, The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, (1st Edn.) Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, 1 available at  https://icps.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs1736/f/downloads/Communitarianism.Etzioni.pdf last seen on 27/04/2020.

[5] Ibid, at 4

[6] X. Symons, “Three political philosophies, and how they apply to the coronavirus pandemic”, BioEdge available at: https://www.bioedge.org/bioethics/three-political-philosophies-and-how-they-apply-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic/13387 last seen on 27/04/2020.

[7] Ibid

[8] J. Authers, “How Coronavirus is Shaking up the Moral Universe”, Bloomberg Opinion available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-29/coronavirus-pandemic-puts-moral-philosophy-to-the-test last seen on 27/04/2020.

[9] G. Meyerowitz – Katz,Here’s Why Herd Immunity Won’t Save Us From The COVID-19 Pandemic”, Science Alert available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/why-herd-immunity-will-not-save-us-from-the-covid-19-pandemic last seen on 20/04/2020.

[10] Supra 8

[11] T. L. Friedman, “Finding the ‘Common Good’ in a Pandemic”, N. Y. Times available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/opinion/covid-ethics-politics.html?searchResultPosition=6 last seen on 20/04/2020.

[12] M. Sandel, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”, 42 (1st Edn. 2009)

[13] L. Wenar, “John Rawls”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/ last seen on 20/04/2020.

[14] Ibid

[15] Supra 12, at 22-=21

[16] Ibid at 225

[17] If I get corona, I get corona: the Americans who wish they’d taken Covid-19 seriously”, The Guardian available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/mar/28/americans-who-dont-take-coronavirus-seriously last seen on 20/04/2020.

[18] A. Mcintyre, “Doctrine of Double Effect”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/ last seen on 20/04/2020.

[19] C.S. Bryan, “The Ethics of Infection Control: Philosophical Frameworks. Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology”, 28 (9) Cambridge University Press, 1077, 1080 (2007) JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/519863 last seen on 20/04/2020.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

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