Open Access

Utilitarianism on the front lines: COVID-19, public ethics, and the “hidden assumption” problem


How should we think of the preferences of citizens? Whereas self-optimal policy is relatively straightforward to produce, socially optimal policy often requires a more detailed examination. In this paper, we identify an issue that has received far too little attention in welfarist modelling of public policy, which we name the “hidden assumptions” problem. Hidden assumptions can be deceptive because they are not expressed explicitly and the social planner (e.g. a policy maker, a regulator, a legislator) may not give them the critical attention they need. We argue that ethical expertise has a direct role to play in public discourse because it is hard to adopt a position on major issues like public health policy or healthcare prioritisation without making contentious assumptions about population ethics. We then postulate that ethicists are best situated to critically evaluate these hidden assumptions, and can therefore play a vital role in public policy debates.