Young People as ‘Mere Means’

Equal treatment is not necessarily fair

Published  10 May 2021

The benefit to children and young people from lockdowns and other restriction is negligible because they are at very low risk from COVID-19.  Except for those with certain medical conditions, they do not need protection from COVID-19. At the same time, children and young people have a lot to lose from lockdowns, for all the reasons we will explore this week: educational gaps, mental health problems, poor job prospects, difficulty balancing work duties and parental responsibilities, and many others.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have focused our attention on vulnerability to COVID-19, but we have failed to acknowledge children and young people’s extreme vulnerability to COVID-19 restrictions

It is hard to identify a precedent for this inversion in human history. Previous emergencies requiring us to prioritise certain groups over others have almost always prioritised children. When the proverbial Titanic is sinking, the accepted rule is ‘Women and children first’ because the most vulnerable (or those perceived to be) often depend on the rest of us for their safety.

By adopting universal restrictions as COVID-19 mitigation policy, we have turned what is common practice in crises – at least the ‘children first’ part – on its head.

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There were two general strategies available to us:

  1. Harming everyone – especially children and the young – through heavy-handed restrictions in an attempt to protect a small minority of older people; or
  2. Shielding the vulnerable and elderly through some form of focused protection while allowing young people to continue with their lives

Having no experience with pandemic mitigation of this scope and scale, the real-world success of both options was speculative.  However, when basic logic is applied, the correct choice seems obvious.

With the first strategy, no one escapes harm while only a few benefit (assuming the strategy works, which is a generous concession). With the second strategy, only those who benefit from the restrictions are subject to their harms.

Many countries chose (and continue to choose) the first option. This is because we collectively assumed some ideological principle of equality, forgetting that treating everyone equally (i.e. keeping everyone in a lockdown) is not the same as treating everyone fairly (i.e. having a proportionate distribution of costs and benefits).

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One ethical principle on which there is almost universal consensus is that we ought not to treat certain people, or specific groups, as mere means to serve someone else’s ends. This is why we regard things like exploitation as wrong. This moral imperative is typically associated with Kant’s moral philosophy but, in fact, it is a more fundamental moral rule that informs a variety of ethical, religious, and even common-sense views. Few people will say that it is ok to exploit one group or use them as mere means for another group’s benefit.

Generally speaking, individuals are treated as mere means when they are significantly harmed to benefit someone else without consent. Now, it can be ethically acceptable to harm someone with their consent for the benefit of someone else. It can also be ethically acceptable to impose some minor harm on one person to significantly benefit someone else.  But when people cannot consent and when the harm inflicted is substantial, the risk of exploitation is significant.

It can be argued that exploitation of children is precisely what occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic when we imposed indiscriminate restrictions across all age groups.  We stole from children and young people in an attempt to protect the elderly and healthcare systems (and, even worse, the restrictions we imposed have failed to achieve that goal).

Even if one thinks lockdowns did produce some good, that person would still need to ask whether the good achieved was good enough – and it’s not simply a matter of measuring the good in question (i.e. how many lives lockdown were saved). When we ask if a good is good enough, we are asking if it is sufficiently beneficial to justify its costs and whether there are less costly alternatives available. Here is where the unfairness in our treatment of younger generations, as well as how they’ve been regarded as mere means, becomes clear.

We exposed the young people who are incapapable of consent to conditions that risk a devastating impact on their present and future lives. And for those young adults who can consent, we bypassed it and imposed restrictions that infringed upon their autonomy – arguably without producing enough good. 

Enough” is key here. Even those who believe that it can sometimes be permissible to use some individuals as mere means to benefit others – a person with a more consequentialist moral perspective, for example – would say that it is only permissible if the benefit is sufficiently large and there is no less restrictive way to achieve it. As we know, this is not the case because we have consistently refused to consider proper focused protection strategies.

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Thus, fairness in the form of intergenerational justice has been compromised, and we have failed to adhere to the ethical principle of not treating individuals as mere means. Young people have been wronged by pandemic measures. We cannot undo the harm already inflicted, but we have a moral obligation to redress it.

We have so far assumed the biggest threat to public health was COVID-19 itself. But the vast majority of the ‘public’ consists of people who are at too low risk of COVID-19 to justify restrictions. If we are truly concerned about public health, we owe it to the young people we have harmed to give far more consideration to their health and basic interests moving forward.

Alberto Giubilini is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow in practical ethics at the University of Oxford, specializing in public health ethics and the ethics of vaccination.

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