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Utilitarianism rather than individual rights in Sweden’s corona strategy

The purpose of the Swedish corona strategy has been to protect institutions rather than individuals. This is stated by Per Bauhn, professor of practical philosophy at Linnaeus University. He has evaluated Sweden’s handling of the pandemic in a contribution to an international anthology on ethics and pandemic management.

Sweden’s decision to keep society open and to allow people to move freely during the pandemic has stood out in an international context. Has this been a successful strategy? In order to answer this question, we must first look at what values the strategy was intended to realise, means moral philosopher Per Bauhn who has done precisely this.

“Whether a strategy is good or bad, far too costly or far too permissive, can only be determined in relation to the ethical principles or values that the strategy is to realise. If the overall ethical goal is to guarantee overall utility for the society as a whole, this can be expected to result in a different strategy than if the goal is about maintaining individuals’ rights to life and health”, Bauhn explains.

Has studied underlying values

So, why did Swedish decision-makers act the way they did? Per Bauhn evaluates the Swedish pandemic management in a newly-published anthology on ethical issues linked to pandemic management. He can see that decision-makers have prioritised institutions rather than individuals, based on a utilitarian or utility-maximising idea of the common good.

The common good? Two different perspectives

Per Bauhn explains two different perspectives based on which society can be organised: “From a utilitarian perspective, the common good is the greatest possible utility, happiness and satisfaction for the collective, while from a rights-based perspective the common good means a society in which every single individual is guaranteed certain fundamental rights to freedom, life, health, safety, and so on. This means that utilitarians are prepared to sacrifice also fundamental individual rights in order to achieve greater total utility, while the rights perspective refuses to accept that individuals can be reduced to only resources for the maximisation of the common good”.

The values that have been lifted focus on making sure that the health care and societal institutions can handle the pressure and on avoiding unnecessary lockdowns and restrictions. Certain statements also imply that the cost of the spread of infection – for instance, an increased number of dead elderly people – was seen as acceptable in relation to more far-reaching restrictions”, Bauhn continues.

The right to life and health

At the same time, Swedes have been able to move freely to a great extent during the pandemic and been spared of lockdowns. Schools and workplaces have remained open to a greater extent than in many other countries.

However, this does not mean that we have had a strategy that puts the rights of the individual first, Bauhn stresses:

“If your point of departure is that the individual’s rights are to be protected, and that the right to life and health are among the most fundamental rights, you cannot justify letting so many people be exposed to infection and dying, solely because you would like to avoid disruptions to the machinery of society”, he says.

Difficult to defend morally

Thus, the Swedish strategy involved freedom for some at the expense of the basic rights of other individuals, in this case the many elderly and sick who were most severely affected by an extensive spread of infection. Therefore, from a perspective prioritising the individual’s rights, the path chosen by Sweden is difficult to defend morally:

“Those who manage to avoid serious illness are, of course, happy not to have to wear face masks and endure lockdowns of workplaces and stores. However, an evaluation of the strategy from a rights perspective must also include in the calculation those who died in the pandemic and whose deaths could have been avoided, at least at that particular time. They can no longer plead their case, but this does not mean that their deaths were negligible”, Bauhn concludes.


Learn more:

Per Bauhn is topical with an ethical evaluation of the Swedish corona strategy in the chapter “The Common Good and Individual Rights in Pandemic Times: The Case of Sweden’s COVID-19 Strategy” in the book Ethical Public Health Policy Within Pandemics (editor Michael Boylan; Springer, 2022).

Linnaeus University’s expert list presents researchers who can comment on covid-19 and pandemics from different perspectives.