3 Bad Reasons to Defy Restrictions During the COVID-19 Crisis

Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash

Written by Rowland Stout, Professor of Philosophy, University College Dublin

The Coronavirus has driven many countries into lockdown. And not everyone is happy that their government has taken such drastic measures. A lockdown imposes on everyone’s freedom. The freedom to shop wherever we like, the freedom to meet whomever we want, and the freedom to stretch our legs wherever we desire to.

Driving the whole family off to a deserted spot in the countryside and having a walk has been banned in my country.

Shortly before the ban, I did just that. Why shouldn’t I do the same thing again on the next sunny weekend?

Why should I do what I’m told to do by the government and the medical authorities?

It’s not a trivial question.

Photo by Ana Gabriel on Unsplash

I know plenty of places where there’s absolutely no chance we’ll encounter other people at all, let alone get within two meters of them. Am I just being craven by following the rules rather than deciding the issue for myself based on my own ethical evaluation?

Why not go rogue?

But I hesitate.

On the one hand, if I know for sure I’m doing no harm and can get away with it, it’s a victimless crime.

On the other hand, the message that is being rammed into us by the government, the medical experts and the media, is that such behavior is the next worst thing to actual murder.

So, what justifications are there for ignoring health care advice and government instructions, jumping in the car and driving off to the middle of nowhere for some fresh air and blue skies? Here are three reasons have for ignoring the official instructions.

Spoiler alert, they are all bad reasons.

“The experts are talking rubbish!”

Perhaps you think the experts are wrong and that you know better.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Or perhaps you think the experts might be right, but the policy of saving lives and protecting the health service at the expense of the economy and personal freedom is wrong.

The cure is worse than the disease — to quote Donald Trump.

I don’t think either of these things, but I must admit to feeling the emotional pull in this direction.

It is a classic case of wishful thinking.

I’d love it if the experts were proved wrong and the death toll from COVID-19 will be a fraction of what they are predicting. So we can all go back to normal in a couple of weeks.

I’d also love it if there’ll be no climate catastrophe and all the doom-mongerers are proved wrong about all the bad things that are going to happen in the world unless we change our behavior radically.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

When some misleading newspaper report comes out citing research done at Oxford University that suggests that half of us might already have had Covid-19, my ears prick up. Would that it were true. If it were true that half of us already have the virus the epidemic would be over very soon.

Of course, you would only think the cure is worse than the disease if you thought the disease wasn’t really that bad. But unless you are a medical expert don’t gamble. Don’t risk your and everyone else’s lives because you have succumbed to wishful thinking.

“I don’t care!”

You might accept that the advice is good, that following it will avoid a catastrophe and lead to things getting better in the long-term. But you just don’t care.

Image by João Geraldo Borges Júnior from Pixabay

As long as you’re not going to die of COVID-19 or need a hospital bed in the near future, why should you care what happens to the rest of the world?

Even if I thought like this myself I wouldn’t admit to it here. Because I know it’s an unashamedly selfish response, the response of someone whom ethics has left behind.

“It doesn’t apply to me!”

A third sort of response — and one that I have to admit to being drawn to — is to accept that the advice is good, but claim that it doesn’t apply to you.

You are an exception.

Perhaps you think you are an exception because you are special — you are the President of the United States of America or you are a senior civil servant or medical advisor. Your role is to tell others what to do, but you yourself are a law unto yourself.

But we’re all special, fellow little snowflakes, aren’t we?

Or perhaps you think you are an exception because you’re certain you don’t have the virus. And although you acknowledge that if everyone followed the advice we would all be better off, you know that you can break the rules without adding to the risk.

Photo by Aleksandar Kanizaj on Unsplash

It’s good that people are stopped from driving to beauty spots because if everyone allowed themselves to do it, there wouldn’t be enough space between them for proper social distancing and the virus would spread.

But since most people are staying at home and there is no risk that you will get close to anyone by driving into the country and having a walk, there’s no harm if you do so.


I was struck by the comments in response to the Derbyshire police force in the UK using their twitter account to shame walkers. They posted drone footage of cars in a car park at Peak District and of people walking their dogs with a caption:

“Walking your dog in the Peak District: NOT ESSENTIAL.”

Photo by Mats Hagwall on Unsplash

But the seven cars parked at respectful distances from each other and the people going off for solitary walks were observing social distancing.

The post attracted negative comments about the police tactics and branding them the worst kind of nanny state policing.

The odd comment in support of the police tried to argue by going for a walk in this area you would be risking spraining your ankle and forcing the stretched emergency services to waste their precious time on you.

But this argument seems a bit weak.

Image by flockine from Pixabay

If it had any validity it should apply also to people who live around the corner from this beauty spot and are allowed to walk there. Or to people going for a jog around the block along uneven footpaths.

My own reaction was partly one of fear — fear that the police might swoop down on me at any moment — the sort of irrational fear you have walking through customs with nothing to declare.

But also I shared the outrage in the critical comments. What a ridiculous use of police resources!

A collective effort

On reflection, however, I can see that perhaps the police, in this case, were ethically right, even if the tactics were questionable.

It’s not about whether those particular people were causing any risk by their behavior.

They weren’t, but that’s not the point.

The reason they weren’t causing any risk is that there only were seven cars in that car park, not thirty-seven. And the reason there were only seven cars was that most people were following the rules and not driving off somewhere to have a walk.

But by thinking just about the possible harm of my own behavior I am separating myself off from the collective effort to save lives. I am cocking a snook at the suckers who are slavishly following the rules.

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

In general, it may be infantile to do things only because you are being told to. We should take responsibility for our own ethical perspective. This is the lesson taught by all the hard-headed philosophers from Kant to Nietzsche and Sartre.

As Jean-Paul Sartre claims in Being and Nothingness: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Also, we should remain skeptical about whether the powers that be really are to be trusted.

But ultimately,

if there is a collective mission to do something and you think that thing should be done, then you should just pull your sleeves up and join in.

Stepping aside and calculating whether there is no harm done if you leave it to others just isn’t very friendly.

So, in the end, I feel it would be quite poor to make myself a rule unto myself and drive off into the countryside for a walk.

For a lovely sunny moment, I can lose my sense of being part of a collective mission and think I’ll allow others to suffer while I enjoy myself with my family.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

But it would be a failure of loyalty.

If that’s right, and community spirit and loyalty are the ethical motivations for doing what you’re told in this crisis, then community-building, rather than shaming, should be the priority of the enforcement agencies.




Interdisciplinary researchers investigating ethical questions of public interest at the University College Dublin, Ireland. Check us out at www.ucd.ie/cepl

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CEPL — Centre for Ethics in Public Life

CEPL — Centre for Ethics in Public Life

Interdisciplinary researchers investigating ethical questions of public interest at the University College Dublin, Ireland. Check us out at www.ucd.ie/cepl

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