Legal and Moral Oughts: Something to remember for Covid-19 restrictions.

In Australia, the government is introducing 3 stages to relaxing Covid-19 restrictions due to positive results in flattening the curve. This of course has raised the question of whether this may undo that impressive work. It is a legitimate question. However, since such restrictions are beginning to be lifted, I think it is good to reflect on the ancient philosophical question “how should one live?”

The question “should” can be understood in a variety of ways. It can be meant morally, practically, legally, and so on. To stay relevant to the Covid-19 restrictions, I will focus on the legal and moral distinction. To say “you shouldn’t have done this” or “you ought to have done this instead of that” is to say that you have done something wrong. You are in error. When contrasting the legal and the moral, examples can be given to demonstrate that they do not always overlap. Rosa Parks did something wrong (at the time) legally by refusing to give up her seat for a white person, but did nothing wrong morally by doing this. In the reverse, it is morally wrong to be rude to people. Nonetheless, it is not against the law to be rude.

This flows into the concept of rights. You may have a legal right to do something, but it may not be morally permissible. There is nothing incoherent about the statement “You have the right to do x, but you’re still doing (morally) the wrong thing”. I may have the right to audition for a singing talent show, but all those who have had the misfortune of hearing me sing at Karaoki would view this as harm to everyone involved.

Under such restrictions, it is attractive to participate in everything we are once again allowed to do. But everyone stampeding to their favourite social gatherings simply because there are no more legal repercussions may very well undo our optimistic results. This may return previous restrictions, stretch out existing ones, or lose our status as one of the countries dealing with this crisis reasonably well.

It is for this reason, I argue that we have a moral obligation to take a careful approach to what relaxed restrictions we take advantage of. I am not arguing that everyone should continue to act as if these relaxed restrictions don’t exist, but merely arguing that we should first ask ourselves “do I really need to?”, “could I leave it till next week?”, “maybe only once or twice a week to start?”, “perhaps later when there’s fewer people there may be better?” is the best approach.

If we ask ourselves these questions (and answer them honestly) instead of focussing solely on what we are allowed, or have the right, to do, then we can embrace these relaxed restrictions in the way we both legally and morally should.

If you are interested in political philosophy, I have recently published a book called “Contrasting Identities: Navigating Identity Politics Conversations” It is available on Amazon Kindle and/or as a hard copy through Amazon. See links below to purchase:

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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