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Public justification and expert disagreement over non-pharmaceutical interventions for the COVID-19 pandemic

Abstract

A wide range of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) have been introduced to stop or slow down the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples include school closures, environmental cleaning and disinfection, mask mandates, restrictions on freedom of assembly and lockdowns. These NPIs depend on coercion for their effectiveness, either directly or indirectly. A widely held view is that coercive policies need to be publicly justified—justified to each citizen—to be legitimate. Standardly, this is thought to entail that there is a scientific consensus on the factual propositions that are used to support the policies. In this paper, we argue that such a consensus has been lacking on the factual propositions justifying most NPIs. Consequently, they would on the standard view be illegitimate. This is regrettable since there are good reasons for granting the state the legitimate authority to enact NPIs under conditions of uncertainty. The upshot of our argument is that it is impossible to have both the standard interpretation of the permissibility of empirical claims in public justification and an effective pandemic response. We provide an alternative view that allows the state sufficient room for action while precluding the possibility of it acting without empirical support.

  • COVID-19
  • epidemiology
  • political philosophy
  • public policy

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