The Ethics of Quarantine
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”
Yes, I’m using the Declaration of Independence to explain the ethics of quarantine. In fact, I suggest that the inalienable rights to life, liberty and “the pursuit of happiness” actually requires that a “just government” quarantine people who endanger the life of others, while doing as much as possible to preserve the rights of those who are quarantined.
The threat of the Ebola virus has spurred the discussion about quarantine in the United States, due to the high mortality rate of the disease. We’ve forgotten the quarantines of the past and most people are unaware of the existence of Presidential Executive Orders concerning formal lists of “Quarantinable Diseases.”
Inalienable or fundamental rights are negative rights. Consider the proverb that “Your (inalienable) right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”
Negative rights are limited to prohibiting action, in contrast to positive rights, which would force others to act for our benefit. That means that we have the right not to be killed, enslaved, or coerced into acts by others – you have the right to swing that fist as long as you don’t hit anyone else by intention or accident.
However, when a third party’s action or negligence threatens to infringe on our fundamental rights, we have the right to protect ourselves and our fellow citizens, in the form of government, have a duty to assist us.
This protection should involve the use of the least force possible, for the least time possible, and we must take care not to become guilty ourselves of unnecessarily infringing the inalienable rights of others by abusing the government enforcement of quarantine. When government acts to limit the liberty of people by quarantine, it is imperative to ensure that there is a real threat to the lives of others, to limit the time of quarantine to the time the person is a possible threat, and to protect the lives of those people by providing food, shelter and medical assistance for those who can’t provide for themselves.
Not only is it ethical to implement restrictions on people coming to this country from areas where the disease is epidemic, it is the duty of government to protect the right to life of our citizens by implementing procedures for involuntary quarantine within our borders.