Expertise and Ethics in Times of Crisis: where and when should ethics come into play? By Sarah Ball, Robert Lepenies, Jessica Pykett, Holger Strassheim

Published: Posted on

The Centre for Urban Wellbeing at University of Birmingham is currently working on the early stages of a project with researchers at the University of Bielefeld, University of Melbourne and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig, which will explore how governments and policymakers incorporate ethical concerns into their decision making processes. Some of the key questions include what national frameworks and institutions exist to provide ethical advice on policy strategies? How do policymakers navigate the ethical elements of public policy problems? How are they resolved, if at all? What advice and expertise is government seeking to support ethical decision making? Which ethical frameworks are being used? Who invokes “ethics” and when do debates start viewing aspects through the language of ethics?

Across the globe, policymakers have been required to rapidly come to terms with the decision-making challenges of Covid-19. In addition to the public health implications of a global pandemic, it has impacted most, if not all, areas of government policy and citizen’s lives. Labour, education, the economy, border control have all been called on to make swift and broad-ranging policy decisions under conditions of uncertainty and constant change. Recent developments in real-time policy trackers, open data public administration analysis, and rapid international comparisons are providing key data sources for researchers to draw lessons, improve policymaking practices and shape governmental preparedness. In the years to come, we must also learn the long-term lessons about policymaking practice, uses of scientific expertise, the functions of advisory bodies, and ethical dimensions of pubic health emergencies.

A man in a face mask in the street

Clearly one of the most significant decisions for most governments has been around how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This has predominantly been managed through containment and mitigation strategies which have varied between countries.  A key component of these strategies has, for many, included some form of ‘lockdown’. These lockdowns generally include closures of non-essential services, workplaces and schools and varying levels of restriction for movement and physical interaction with other households. The desired outcome is to minimise citizens coming into contact with the virus by mandating physical distancing measures.

Of course, the pandemic is also marked by questions of individual ethics: is there a moral obligation to comply with measures even if I don’t believe they are right? Is it fair if my livelihood suffers for the sake of public health? Should I allow my child to meet a friend for the sake of their mental wellbeing or avoid all physical risks?

Many studies have raised important questions and concerns about the ethical ramifications of lockdown that policymakers face: how should policymakers value life?; how can the burdens of political measures be fairly distributed? The significant economic impact is a key concern. Most appear to focus on a utilitarian assessment of quality of life years, generally using some form of economic modelling (Altman, 2020; Alvarez et al., 2020; De Neve et al., 2020; Layard et al., 2020).  Other concerns include the impact on mental health. Banks & Xu (2020), for example find that inequalities in mental health have increased during the pandemic. According to the Office of National Statistics, during the pandemic the number of people suffering from depression in the UK has doubled. Mayhew and Anand (2020) raise concerns about the potential negative impact on educational outcomes. Many discussions of lockdown also point to the alarmingly imbalanced experiences of its effects (Banks & Xu, 2020; Brewer & Gardiner, 2020; Mayhew & Anand, 2020). Finally, the impacts on city life have been keenly felt, highlighting concerns about the future of the high-street, uncertain prospects for city centres as spaces of commerce, residence, work and social interaction, and the persistent global dynamics of urban inequalities.

Ethical questions are critical in covid policy responses because these are always value-driven decisions, and they play an important role in how government decides to rebuild places, towns and cities, communities and public trust after this crisis. We would benefit from understanding more about how governments are making decisions which will have a significant impact on the wellbeing of citizens.

Such questions of ethics have to date, largely been overshadowed by the argument that the government is ‘following the science’. The implication being that the science can provide objective, apolitical answers to complex, ethical concerns. Governments often seek to communicate their decisions as objective, driven by evidence. Some even argue they hide behind experts. But as policy scholar, Deborah Stone (2020) astutely notes it “lifts only some of the burdens of playing judge… No measuring stick can take into account all the contextual factors that matter for fairness. Sometimes we don’t know what matters for fairness…Our ideas about what matters are constantly changing.” (p191). Philosophers of science have long acknowledged the value judgments inherent in scientific enquiry, demonstrating how objectivity in science cannot stand apart from its social uses and applications (Longino 1990).

It is important therefore to look at how problems are framed, what background assumptions are made, and to investigate in detail the processes of scientific and political reasoning and argumentation.  While political value judgments are widely discussed in the media, what is currently missing from policy debates is willingness, time, opportunity or perhaps confidence to engage in open discussion of the ethical ramifications of the choices made by government. As long as this is the case, there can be limited space for debates about wellbeing and the importance of public value in policy decisions.


Altman, M. (2020). Smart Thinking, Lockdown and COVID-19: Implications for Public Policy. Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, 4(S), 23–33.

Alvarez, F. E., Argente, D., & Lippi, F. (2020). A Simple Planning Problem For COVID-19 Lockdown. American Economic Review, 1–35.

Banks, J., & Xu, X. (2020). The Mental Health Effects of the First Two Months of Lockdown during the COVID-19 Pandemic in the UK*. Fiscal Studies, 41(3), 685–708.

Brewer, M., & Gardiner, L. (2020). The initial impact of COVID-19 and policy responses on household incomes. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 36, S187–S199.

Cairney, P. (2020). The UK government’s COVID-19 policy: assessing evidence-informed policy analysis in real time. British Politics, 16(1), 90–116.

De Neve, J. E., Clark, A. E., Krekel, C., Layard, R., & O’Donnell, G. (2020). Taking a wellbeing years approach to policy choice. The BMJ, 371, 5–8.

Hale, Thomas, Sam Webster, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, and Beatriz Kira (2020). Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Blavatnik School of Government. Data use policy: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY standard.

Layard, R., Clark, A., De Neve, J.-E., Krekel, C., Fancourt, D., Hey, N., & O’donnell, G. (2020). When to release the lockdown A wellbeing framework for analysing costs and benefits CEP Wellbeing Policy Group. 13186.

Longino, H.E. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Mayhew, K., & Anand, P. (2020). COVID-19 and the UK labour market. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 36, S215–S224.

Stone, D. (2020). Counting: How we use numbers to decide what matters. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York, NY

Zhou, M., Hertog, E., Kolpashnikova, K., & Kan, M.-Y. (2020). Gender inequalities: Changes in income, time use and well-being before and during the UK COVID-19 lockdown. 1–16.

1 thought on “Expertise and Ethics in Times of Crisis: where and when should ethics come into play? By Sarah Ball, Robert Lepenies, Jessica Pykett, Holger Strassheim”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *