The Moral Ramifications Of Lockdowns In The Indian Democracy

To fight the real enemy, we need to accept coercion as a (democratic) measure of perilous times and extend complete support

Anand Soni


Michael Sandel, in his very first lecture of the Justice series, a course on Justice offered by the Harvard University (known popularly as the Harvard justice lectures) talks about case studies of moral dilemma where no matter what actions you take in a given set of circumstances, the idea of them being morally warranted becomes highly subjective and debatable.

He talks about two philosophical categories of moral principles and how some of us choose one over the other to justify our actions — consequential moral principles and categorical moral principles. Categorical morality is based on the philosophy of Emanuel Kant while consequential morality was popularized in the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham.

Consequential moral principles are result oriented. They evaluate morality by comparing the outcomes of different possible actions. Categorical moral principles, on the other hand, locate morality in rights and duties, irrespective of consequences.

The world, today, is facing a novel threat, to fight which every nation has deployed all its potential and resources — the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19. The disease has become a lot lethal on account of two reasons — first, its extreme ability of human transmission and second, the non-availability of a cure yet. And under such circumstances, the only logical way to fight this novel enemy is self-restrain and social distancing.

In India, the spread of COVID-19 has been on a rise from March 12 (when India reported its first death). India, apparently, either has not yet entered community transmission phase (that is when the virus spreads to a person with no trace to any source) or the transmission rate hasn’t exploded yet. And so, all energy and focus is on containing the virus much before we reach that stage. We are witnessing a countrywide lockdown imposed by the government that will last (at least) for the next three weeks.

In politico-philosophical minds, this raises a question — how far can a democratic government that derives its power from a written set of principles (the Constitution of India) go to enforce such lockdowns? How far can the civil liberties and fundamental rights of citizens be curbed in order to protect them? The answer, to a logical mind, seems very obvious. But, in a complex political system that India possesses, questions, legal and judicial instruments and criticism sometimes tie the hands of the government and limit the extent of coercion even when it is much needed and warranted.

Legally speaking, the National Disaster Management Act (which has been invoked now) authorizes the Central government to impose lockdowns as well as to penalize and punish those who violate the containment guidelines. But, let’s also consider the moral side of the questions raised.

I believe that if (and this will sound Utopic) every citizen/resident of our country understands the imminent threat that this virus poses, understands the mechanism of spread of the disease as well as the preventive measures and understands the responsibility of keeping social distance in such times (even at the cost of great personal discomfort), the government can then focus on more productive and necessary parts of its strategy — boosting medical and testing facilities, ensuring well-being of the worst-hit due to the economic slowdown (rather shutdown) and leading the war from the front.

But, in all practicality, the masses are not fully aware and it won’t be a stretch to say that in some parts of the country there is panic, confusion and total lack of awareness. This leads to irrational actions and measures taken on the part of people. People don’t know what they should and shouldn’t do. And frankly, they are not to blame for this. Desperation warrants irrational actions. Another reality is that we can’t afford to lose even a little time trying to spread awareness and wait for people to understand.

And due to this, the government needs a two-pronged strategy — first, keep spreading awareness by all possible means and second, enforce social distancing (even when people don’t understand why and even if they aren’t willing to follow).

And that brings me to the philosophical and moral ramifications of coercive measures in a democracy (more so in a constitutional one). In any study of morality, the democratic principles (political and fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution) will weigh much lower than the need to protect people’s lives in such perilous times. What is democracy without its people anyway?

It is a case of choosing between consequential moral principles and categorical moral principles. The principles of fundamental rights of citizens (freedom, in particular) — though they seem to be categorical— have to be set aside to some (even to a large) extent in order to achieve the greater result of saving the lives of millions of people who can, not only get affected by the virus but can also spread it to millions of people, if left free and to their whims.

When, medically, no other solution is available, stringent and strict measures, become a new face of morality and need to be enforced. Thus, lockdowns, even in the largest democracy of the world can indeed be justified (morally and practically) when we weigh in the ultimate result against the temporary discomfort and lack of freedom that is going to prevail at least for sometime in the future.

Questions and criticism, on the basis of democratic and constitutional principles, thus, do not hold significant ground when they are weighed against consequential moral principles that have come into force in such unprecedented and desperate times. However, the distress this will cause to the ones worst-hit economically needs to be taken care of with alacrity and immediacy.

It becomes our duty to co-operate with the government and to spread awareness among people who are under panic and confusion. It is also our duty to be patient and help every one in need and for once in our lives start thinking in more altruistic ways than ever before. Just like we fight for fundamental rights, if we are categorically moral, we also need to follow the fundamental duty to defend the country and render national service as today, we are called upon to do so.

The best (categorically) moral service to render in such times is to stay at home and help each other as much as we can but, from a distance. I have made a case to allay all moral suspicions and dilemmas that can arise in political minds (who can’t see the direness of the situation). Hence, political criticism (if not constructive) can be left to a later time when we will have restored normalcy by winning this war. It is no time for political debates and stupid discussions over democratic ways. It is time to be together by being isolated. Stay safe.

To access ICMR’s official updates on our current medical strategy —

To access National Centre for Disease Control, India guidelines and updates —

To access the Harvard Justice lectures —