Institutional Responsibility is Prior to Personal Responsibility in a Pandemic

Journal of Value Inquiry:1-20 (forthcoming)
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Abstract

On 26 January 2021, while announcing that the country had reached the mark of 100,000 deaths within 28 days of COVID-19, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he took “full responsibility for everything that the Government has done” as part of British efforts to tackle the pandemic. The force of this statement was undermined, however, by what followed: What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering... Taking these sentiments together, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the government took responsibility only for doing everything right. Such an admission of responsibility, accommodating no admission of error or wrongdoing, is not really about responsibility at all. Indeed, the UK’s pandemic response has been marked from its earliest days by a shifting of focus from institutional responsibility to personal responsibility for individual UK residents. This paper explores the relationship between these two sites of responsibility—the institutional and the personal—in the context of the sort of pandemic that is ongoing as we write. Section 2 offers some initial definitions and discussions of key terms. Section 3 outlines how these two ideas interact in principle during such emergencies. Section 4 turns to the ‘non-ideal’ implications for personal responsibility of failures of institutional responsibility. While our focus is on the specific context with which we are most familiar, the UK governmental approach, where appropriate we also include examples from other states.

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Author Profiles

Ben Davies
Oxford University
Julian Savulescu
Oxford University

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