Coronavirus E-Mich #10 'What does the public interest require of us in times of a pandemic?'

CHAIRE HOOVER Louvain-La-Neuve

26 mai 2020

12:45 - 14:00


Mardi intime de la Chaire Hoover par Eric Boot (UCLouvain/Chaire Hoover)


The public interest has enjoyed something of a resurgence these past few months. It has been said repeatedly – in the media, by politicians, in public debate – that we have a tradeoff to make in our struggle with this virus: either we stubbornly insist on our individual freedoms (e.g., of movement and association) or we privilege instead the greater good, often formulated in terms of the public interest, at the cost of those individual freedoms. The former option, it is said, will greatly inhibit the containment of the virus, whereas the latter option has proven successful in other parts of the world (e.g., East-Asia). In the phase that is to follow the strict lockdown, furthermore, it is often argued that we will need some kind of tracing app. Such an app will inevitably come with some costs to the right to privacy. This restriction of privacy, however, is held to be necessary in the light of the wider public interest.

Despite the frequency of such appeals to the public interest in order to justify the various measures to combat the coronavirus, it is not clear what is meant by the concept. In other words, what do people mean when they invoke the public interest as a kind of magical incantation to justify restrictions of certain fundamental rights and freedoms? Many different answers are possible here, and I will discuss a few in order to illustrate how one’s interpretation of the trade-off between individual freedoms and the public interest depends on one’s understanding of the public interest. In short, simply appealing to the public interest is unhelpful. We need to clarify what we mean by the public interest in order to clarify the choice before us.

"This series of e-Michs (online “mardis intrimes de la Chaire Hoover”) focusing on ethical issues raised by the pandemic replaces our usual brownbag seminars. Non-members of the Hoover Chair are most welcome to attend one or more of these sessions. If you want to do so, just send a mail to Dina Geron <> at the latest one hour before the start of the session.You will then receive a message that will tell you how to connect, using either Teams or any browser (except Safari).”