February 10, 2021 - 3:40pm

Never in living memory has public debate felt so much like a poorly-taught ethics seminar. Unless we happened to study philosophy at university, the last time many of us were forced to think through our deepest moral commitments systematically was during an RE lesson — though as this subject has been in crisis for years, maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s why the Netflix show ‘The Good Place’ spawned a meme: ‘This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors’. Today ethics is associated in popular imagination with obscure thought experiments or how many units of utility can dance on the head of a pin while the rest of us get on with living our lives.

Covid-19 might change all that. In a blistering British Medical Journal editorial this month, the journal accuses the Government of “social murder” in unambiguous moral language. It asks, “is inaction, action?” and concludes: “state failures [including delaying lockdowns] that led us to two million deaths are “actions” and “inactions” that should shame us all.”

The editorial implies, though never spells out, that the protection of life and health is the highest moral good. This makes sense from the standpoint of the medical community, trained and moulded around this perspective. Many others share this intuition — but it is not as universal as it may appear.

Jonathan Sumption, for example, continues to argue that the cost of mass lockdowns on the healthy are not worth the benefits gained by those at risk — and that limiting freedom for others (and impacting their health, livelihoods and quality of life along the way) is just as morally dangerous. Elsewhere, Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu argues that mass, rather than selective, lockdowns are the ‘levelling down’ of equality: ‘In order for there to be equality, people who could be better off are made worse off’ and that this is ‘morally repugnant’. Both of these perspectives imply that there are moral priorities beyond the straightforward protection of life, that quality of life matters, as does how much the state can require us to sacrifice to protect the lives of others.

How do we decide which is right? Do we want our leaders to protect life, no matter what, and to be held morally accountable when they fail? Or do we want a state that seeks to protect life, but balances this aim against other needs such as access to work, family, social life and their accompanying mental health benefits?

Many of us might say we don’t care, a long as the government actually has a plan and delivers it competently; and yet these questions matter, and most of us have nowhere to ask them. RE is underfunded and overlooked, and fewer of us are members of faith communities. As society becomes more pluralist, and the influence of Christianity less visible, the moral fault lines can only widen. Without places where we as citizens can work out what we think, what we hold sacred, what is primary, how can we expect our leaders to know what to do, or us to hold them to account?

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield