In response to the spread of COVID-19, governments across the world have, with very few exceptions, enacted sweeping restrictive lockdown policies that impede citizens’ freedom to move, work, and assemble. This paper critically responds to the central arguments for restrictive lockdown legislation. We build our critique on the following assumption: public policy that enjoys virtually unanimous support worldwide should be justified by uncontroversial moral principles. We argue that that the virtually unanimous support in favor of restrictive lockdowns is not adequately justified by the arguments given in favor of them. Importantly, this is not to say that states ought not impose restrictive lockdown measures, but rather that the extent of the acceptance of these measures is not proportionate to the strength of the arguments for lockdowns.
We begin by exploring the case for restrictive lockdowns. We first argue that several of the principles that are used to justify the lockdowns yield unexpectedly revisionary implications for other political problems that many would be unwilling to accept. We then outline what we consider the strongest argument for a lockdown—namely, that its net welfare benefits are great enough to defeat the moral presumption against restricting citizens’ civil liberties to move, work, and assemble. However, we give a number of reasons for doubting that the lockdown’s net welfare benefits are, in fact, sufficiently high to defeat the presumption against it.