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  • Nikhil Venkatesh

Is it wrong to be a lockdown hypocrite?

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is the seemingly immoral thought we attribute to the hypocrite. In the UK in recent weeks several people have been accused of hypocrisy: including government ministers, government officials and government advisers. Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, drove forty miles to visit his parents, having already travelled to his second home. Catherine Calderwood, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, travelled back and forth between her two homes. Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists who has been most influential on government policy, invited his girlfriend over to his house. They did this whilst government policy told us that we could leave our houses only to shop for necessities as infrequently as possible, to exercise once a day, to help the vulnerable or because our bosses told us to. Their actions contravened their own rules. ‘Hypocrites!’ was the cry from the public. All but Jenrick resigned after being exposed.

But who exactly are the public who make this charge of hypocrisy? Ordinary people with no role in government; people like you and I. Now, speaking for myself, I admit that I too have broken the rules. Just before the current rules were announced, but when the government was strongly advising against non-essential travel, I took an almost empty train home to see my family, fearing that for at least some of them it might be my last chance to do so. Since the ‘lockdown’, I have taken more than one walk on some days. On a couple of occasions these walks have involved meeting people from outside my household (albeit, always staying two metres away from them). My shopping has been far from ‘as infrequent as possible’ and I have stretched ‘necessities’ beyond plausibility by buying artisan cheeses, birthday cards and compost for the garden. I don’t do this because I’m an anti-lockdown rebel or want to spread the virus; in fact, I’m very glad of the rules and think that perhaps they should have been stricter. But still, I don’t always stick to them.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on my readers, but I don’t think my behaviour is abnormal. Rather, I think David Aaronovitch was correct when he said, in a qualified defence of Neil Ferguson towards the end of this episode of the Today programme, that most people had spent most of the past month ‘working the percentages’, trying to work out whether one small breach really would be that harmful, and acting within the spirit, but not always the latter, of the rules. So, when we call Ferguson, Jenrick and Calderwood ‘hypocrites’, isn’t it really us who are telling them to ‘do as I say, not as I do’? Are we as guilty as them?

I think not. There is a way of arguing that our breaches of the rules are more defensible than theirs. I am sympathetic to the moral theory called ‘consequentialism’: the view that one ought to do the thing that we can reasonably expect to have the best consequences. Now, when I decided to see my family, or take my second walk, or buy cheese, or talk to a friend through their window, this increased the risk of me catching or transmitting coronavirus. These negative consequences count against them. On the other hand, these actions brought happiness to me and hopefully to others. Lockdown is hard, and we all need small luxuries and moments of interaction to stave off sadness, boredom and quite possibly worse decision-making.

These positive effects count in favour of the actions. In addition, taking precautions such as hand-washing and maintaining two-metre distances as much as possible mitigates some of the risks. It is plausible that it mitigates them enough that the good effects of these actions outweigh the bad, so that according to consequentialism it was fine for me to do them.

Couldn’t Jenrick, Ferguson and Calderwood make exactly the same argument? They could. But there are further considerations – even from a consequentialist point of view. For individuals are not the only agents to whom consequentialism might apply. It might also apply to collective agents, for example, the British state. In this version, consequentialism says that the British state ought to do the thing that can be reasonably expected to produce the best consequences. Now suppose, as is likely – and as Jenrick, Ferguson and Calderwood seem to have believed – that the thing the British state can do that has the best expected consequences is to encourage people to follow the current lockdown rules. Then, according to consequentialism, it is right to do so.

But what does this mean for the actions of Jenrick, Ferguson and Calderwood? I suggest this. As individuals, the argument I’ve made above is open to them – as long as they were sensible, the positive consequences of their breaching lockdown may well have outweighed the risks, and what they did was okay. But they were not simply individuals. They were also, to varying extents, parts of the British state. If the British state ought to encourage people to follow the current lockdown rules then, as agents of the British state, they inherited some of that duty – states, after all, can only do things through the people who make them up. And their actions mean that they failed to do their bit towards the state’s duty: they couldn’t even encourage themselves to abide by the rules, and when their breaches became public knowledge, they might have tempted others to breach them too. So they failed not as individuals, but as agents of the state. That’s why it is appropriate for them to resign from their government roles (as Ferguson and Calderwood have done, but Jenrick has not) but less appropriate, I think, to be prosecuted.

Doesn’t the same argument run for me, as an ordinary citizen? Am I not, simply as a citizen, also a part of the British state? Perhaps to some extent I am: no man is an island, after all. Perhaps then when I breach lockdown rules I fail as a citizen. But my role as citizen is not very salient in this context. For one thing, there are many non-citizens living in Britain who face exactly the same rules and dilemmas as I do as a citizen, but who lack the same connection as I do to the British state. It is no more and no less okay, I think, for me to go for a second walk in a day than it is for my uncle, an Indian citizen currently stuck in the UK. Morally speaking, the coronavirus does not respect the citizen/non-citizen distinction. In contrast, the roles of Jenrick, Calderwood and Ferguson as minister, official and adviser respectively are highly salient to coronavirus, because they are influential in making sure the state – a crucial agent in fighting the disease – does the right thing.

We are right, then, to call these people out for things we are morally permitted to do ourselves. Perhaps this is hypocrisy on our part – but it might be the kind of hypocrisy that makes for the best consequences.

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