Bystander At the Switch

The Moral Case Against Mandatory Public Health Measures
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Do you remember the moral riddle taught in grade school called the “Bystander at the Switch” (also known as the Trolley Problem)? It was a story about a runaway train hurtling towards a cluster of people stuck on the tracks ahead. But you have the option to pull the switch and send the train down another track with a smaller number of people on it. You have the option of saving some lives by sacrificing a smaller number of others. Do you pull the switch?

In grade school the riddle was posed as a moral dilemma. But it’s not. There was only ever one correct choice. We invented universal human rights to make it clear that no person or government has the right to pull the switch to send the train down another track towards a sacrificial group of victims. 

In December of 1948, in the aftermath of the human rights violations committed during the Second World War, the member states of the United Nations formally adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It explicitly forbids government from treating some people as worth less than others. It forbids government from imposing a hierarchy of rights on their citizens. It forbids government from sacrificing some people for the benefit of others. It forbids government from knowingly imposing harm on some individuals in order to serve an alleged greater good.

Unconditional individual rights elevate the rights of individuals above government authority. They are the checks and balances that place hard limits on government power, which cannot be overstepped no matter what voting mobs or ideological leaders may believe would best serve “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. 

But during COVID, governments abandoned those principles and embarked on the exact question posed by the riddle of the Bystander at the Switch. This is not a game; there are real lives at stake. By crossing the line from issuing recommendations to imposing mandatory mandates, governments chose to pull the switch. By imposing lockdowns, mandatory mask mandates, social distancing rules, vaccine mandates, and so on, governments stripped individuals of their autonomy and prevented them from managing all the risks and priorities in their individual lives. By taking this step, governments gave themselves the authority to play God with our lives, “for our safety”. They gave themselves the right to sacrifice some people in the hope that those sacrificed would provide a benefit to others. 

Aztec priests offering up a living human heart to their deity, for the benefit of the “greater good”. From Discovery and Conquest of the New World, by Washington Irving, 1831. (Patrick Gray, CC BY 2.0)

Are you essential or non-essential? Are you vaccinated or unvaccinated? Each category now has different rights and freedoms and different levels of individual autonomy. Some have the “privilege” to earn a living. Others do not. Some have the “privilege” to choose how to balance the risks and priorities in their lives. Others do not. 

And what about the collateral damage caused by these policies? Mandatory lockdowns and other coercive measures are leading to the deaths of countless individuals through cancelled/delayed medical operations, suicides, drug overdoses, loneliness and isolation in nursing homes, and more. None of those deaths would happen if government had not made their public health measures mandatory. Government is choosing to throw one group of people onto the tracks with the goal of saving another. 

And our governments are doing so with foreknowledge of the consequences to those they are choosing to sacrifice. 

For example, in July of 2020, the UK government published a report estimating that lockdowns may cost 200,000 British lives. And yet, they knowingly continued to impose mandatory public health measures. These people were chosen to be sacrificial victims in the hope that their sacrifice would benefit other people. Foreknowledge of lethal consequences puts this in the same moral realm as choosing to sacrifice someone to harvest their kidneys, lung, heart, spleen, and pancreas in order to save six other lives. As the Nuremberg Trials taught us in the aftermath of WWII, just because it is an institutional decision (with victims kept at arms length from decision-makers) does not relieve decision-makers of their moral (and legal) culpability.

Another of the many examples of foreknowledge comes from the WHO itself in November of 2020, when the WHO estimated that lockdowns would lead to between 200,000 and 400,000 extra tuberculosis deaths worldwide (mostly among children). Our governments nonetheless continued to pull the switch. They chose to reduce your life to a numbers game in the hope that they could save more lives than would die as a result of their policies. 

Violating the individual rights of citizens with foreknowledge of the consequences makes what was done during COVID an institutionalized crime against humanity. 

How much misery and suffering are government allowed to impose on other people “for your safety”? How many jobs is the government allowed to destroy “for your safety”? How many people will lose their homes “for your safety”? How many people will lose their life savings, have their marriages broken, suffer bankruptcy, lose their careers, have their children’s education irreparably damaged, or have their mental health destroyed because of actions taken by the government “for your safety”? 

And how many people is the government allowed to force into poverty and starvation “for your safety”? Visitors to food banks are not just soaring here at home. We live in an interconnected world. What we do in one part of the world sets precedents and causes economic ripples that reach the farthest corners of the globe. Do those lives matter? 

In September of 2020, the head of the World Food Program WFP warned that the “equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs have been destroyed” by government mandated COVID lockdowns and that there are “270 million people marching towards the brink of starvation” (full article here). It has been more than 15 months since that stark warning. And the government is still pulling the switch.

Let’s be clear, this unfolding horror is not because of COVID, it is because of the government’s response to COVID. The virus didn’t do any of this. The government did this by taking away our individual rights, by denying us the autonomy to manage all our risks and priorities in life. 

And the carnage doesn’t miraculously end when the virus fades away. The slow-moving forces set in motion will be with us long after the virus is gone, and in the meantime the bodies will just keep piling up. How many lives are you allowed to destroy “for your safety”? One, ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, 270 million? Where’s your line? Or perhaps those other lives don’t matter since the media isn’t counting them and can’t leverage them into click-bait to exploit feelings of vulnerability to the virus?

The first principle in medicine is the Hippocratic Oath, which says, “First do no harm.” One consequence of this rule is that you’re not allowed to protect one group of people by harming another. Empathy for one group doesn’t give you the right to trample another. In the Trolly Problem, it’s completely unethical (medical malpractice) for any doctor to pull the switch.

Yet health authorities are nevertheless inflicting horrific harms on those least at risk from the virus (the young and healthy) with the excuse that this is justified to protect those most at risk (the very old, especially those with pre-existing health conditions). This is a direct violation of the Hippocratic Oath. And it’s completely nonsensical. If you’re unwilling to risk exposure to the virus, you have the option to stay home. Your risk as you shelter at home is exactly the same whether I’m at home or whether I’m at work to feed my family or visiting my loved ones to protect my (or their) mental health. We all have the right to take steps to protect ourselves, but no-one has the right to control another person or to deny them access to their life.

The right to individual autonomy was specifically invented to allow free people to weigh their risks and priorities. For most of us, there are many risks in our daily lives (like being unable to feed our families) that are far more dangerous than this virus, which even the US CDC says has an infection survival rate of 99.997% for those under 20 years of age, 99.98% for 20 to 49 year olds, 99.5% for 50 to 69 year olds and 94.6% for anyone over the age of 70. To put that in perspective, Dr. John Ioannidis, professor of epidemiology and biomedical statistics at the University of Stanford, has calculated that for people under the age of 65, the COVID death risk is “equivalent to the death risk of driving from between 9 miles per day (in Germany) and 415 miles per day (in New York City).”

And are government lockdowns actually protecting those at risk? A very large proportion of COVID deaths worldwide are occurring in long-term care homes (in Canada 72% of COVID deaths have been in long-term care facilities). 

Lockdowns don’t help those most at risk if they are already segregated from society behind the walls of nursing homes. But isolation does accelerate deteriorating health conditions among nursing home patients who are denied the ability to spend the last few months of their lives surrounded by loved ones. 

By trying to “flatten the curve”, lockdowns only extended the amount of time it took for the rest of the population to acquire herd immunity, which increased the amount of time that the most vulnerable were at risk of being exposed to the virus. Instead of voluntarily self-isolating for a month or so while the virus ran its course among the rest of the population (like influenza does every winter), the vulnerable have now been at risk of catching COVID from the rest of us for almost two years — two years during which many have been forcibly stuck in isolation, separated from their loved ones! 

In other words, if you don’t pull the switch, the vulnerable are at risk. But if you do pull the switch, the risk increases to the most vulnerable while also putting everyone else in harm’s way. 

Another excuse given for lockdowns and vaccine mandates is that the health care system is at risk of getting overwhelmed. It’s another bizarre and immoral argument. Since when does access to health care override our right to freedom, individual autonomy, and the ability to try to feed our families? If that were an acceptable excuse for lockdowns, the government would pull the switch and lock down society every winter. Hallway medicine and overworked hospital staff have long been the norm of our poorly managed health care systems every flu season, as I documented in this Twitter thread.  

Nowhere in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is there a clause that allows the government to deny you access to your life, or impose medical treatments against your will, or violate any of your constitutional rights and freedoms just because hospitals become overcrowded or because the government mismanages the healthcare system. (As an aside, many jurisdictions even reduced hospital bed numbers during the COVID (example).)

And that brings up the other problem with lockdowns. Quite apart from the crime of sacrificing innocent people for the benefit of others, there is also the hubris of government assuming they have all the information to predict all the unintended consequences and collateral damage caused by their actions. They never do. It’s impossible. Government claims to be able to predict the number of lives that will be saved when it pulls the switch, but in reality there are always countless more lives destroyed that nobody foresaw just around the bend. Poverty, hunger, children orphaned by a bankrupted parent’s suicide, educational opportunities destroyed with lifelong consequences, mental health issues, and the list of unintended consequences goes on, and on, and on. The collateral damage caused by government hubris is yet another of the many reasons why the concept of universal human rights was invented to limit government authority over our lives. 

Illusion versus Reality

But once the government pulls the switch, politicians and bureaucrats must justify their actions to avoid being held accountable for violating our constitutional rights. Poverty, suicide, delayed surgeries, mental health issues, and countless other horrors become irrelevant to these state planners as long as government can show it is fighting to reduce cases “for our safety”, all the while blaming its failures on the behaviours of its citizens and becoming increasingly authoritarian in its enforcement. And so, while the motivations may differ, the consequences of abandoning universal human rights once again lead to suffocating and deadly authoritarianism, a Frankenstein resurrection of precisely the thing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meant to prevent. “Blood and Soil” has been replaced by “Crush the Curve” and “COVID-Zero”, but once again one group of people is being sacrificed for another’s “benefit”.

Individual rights are not negotiable. 

And they are most important during a crisis, when fearful impulses often lead to horrific government overreach.

Every individual must have the right to weigh the risks and benefits of following public health recommendations and to navigate the complex realities of their individual livesThere is no risk/benefit calculation for the “greater good” that justifies stripping individuals of their constitutional rights. Mandates deny your ownership over your own body. Mandates take away your ability to manage ALL the risks and priorities in your life. Mandates turn free people into cattle, dependent on the whims of their shepherd.

So, in sum, there is no moral dilemma for the Bystander at the Switch; there is no riddle to be solved. “For your safety” is never an excuse to extinguish someone else’s rights. Not for COVID, nor for anything else. The end never justifies the means. But history shows that there are Nuremburg Trials for those who ignore other people’s universal human rights and especially for those who delude themselves into thinking that they can engineer a more compassionate society by pulling the switch. 

Are you prepared to allow the government to throw you in front of the train to save someone else? If not, then demand that the government stop doing it to somebody else!

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