How should vaccines be distributed between countries?

By Professor Jo Wolff

A funny thing happened around March 2020. Anyone who had worked on the ethics of healthcare resource allocation, bioethics, or global health ethics was suddenly treated as a holder of important sources of knowledge and judgement. Who should get the scarce ventilators? What duties does one person have to protect others? How should vaccines be distributed between countries? What was previously a group of academic sub-disciplines struggling to have an influence on policy became something close to ready-made resource for policy makers.

In many academic areas it’s common to distinguish the theoretical and practical: basic versus applied science; pure and applied mathematics. In the humanities the distinction is more often made in terms of the academic and the public: academic history versus public history and so on. But for many of us these distinctions look rather artificial. Readers can read whatever they want (paywall permitting) and even the most academic study, footnoted to within an inch of its life, can have a fundamental role in the formation of policy.

In my own area, moral and political philosophy, here, of all academic subjects, it is part of our professional responsibility to contribute to the quality of public life, by improving debate, and contributing to the formulation of new policy. There is a myth about how this is done: philosophers formulate a theory – utilitarianism, or egalitarianism, for example – and policy makers then apply these highly abstract, bare, theories to policy questions. In reality policy starts from an urgent problem or dilemma, be it online privacy, the laws of war, intellectual property of life saving vaccines, or any number of similar problems. Many sources need to be taken into account in formulating a range of policy options and deciding between them.

Of course, scientific and social scientific evidence are critically important; but the evidence alone solves no problem. Policy makers also need to understand many other things. The history of how we got to where we are (so we don’t repeat mistakes). Current regulations and the possibilities of change (can we even get there from here, and at what costs?). How people will react to change (will they follow new laws or regulations or prefer to break them and take the risk?) And how different policies advance different values – equality, liberty, community, concern for the worst off, economic efficiency, and so on – and, hardest of all, how to manage the various trade-offs.

At every stage policy makers need the humanities, broadly conceived, to make ethically responsible decisions. No doubt they will draw on those aspects that form part of a public discourse, avoiding, except in a darkened back room, the most technical aspects. But the humanities come as a whole: those parts that reach the public would not and could not exist without fundamental, blue skies, basic research. And the combined contribution of what we here call the Ethical Humanities to the formulation of responsible policy is beyond measure – a research topic in blue skies ethical humanities itself.