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As highlighted by President Trump’s coronavirus briefing on Fox News, as well as by his subsequent Tweet, world leaders have an unenviable dilemma when it comes to the fight against COVID-19.

On one hand, they can shut down all but the essential parts of the economy, as Italy have done, in order to lower the infection rate and limit the virus’s spread. This, however, may result in the loss of livelihoods, or even lives, due to economic turmoil. Although stimulus packages can often mitigate this effect to some extent, expecting the government to cover the wages of all workers, including the self-employed, is unrealistic and there would inevitably be mass business closures.

On the other hand, they can try to keep things running almost as normal but attempt to protect the vulnerable through social isolation. This would likely result in the loss of life due to coronavirus, as hospitals become inundated, but would do a better job of protecting the economy.

This situation is a prime example of the trolley problem, a philosophical thought experiment in which an individual must determine whether to sacrifice one person in order to save others. The problem has different forms, some of which require more tangible actions, and can be applied to real-world situations such as the programming of driverless cars. Different answers, though all are subjective, can be arrived at through different philosophical frameworks. For instance, consequentialism and utilitarianism suggests that the action which brings about the greatest objective net benefit should be taken, even if it involves a double effect (although this changes if, for instance, a person is used as a means to an end). Conversely, deontology argues that consequences do not matter and some things, such as killing, are inherently wrong. The thought process is further complicated by factors such as emotion and culture.

Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, would have argued that in the current crisis, world leaders should make cold-blooded decisions which result in the most net benefit, regardless of lives lost. The question remains, though: would he actually have sacrificed his own grandparents for the greater good?

Applicants for Philosophy can consider how different value systems may be used to make important real-world decisions.

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