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Opinion: Preventive war and quarantining the healthy

How are lockdowns for vast populations of healthy people any more justifiable than “preventive war”?

(Image: Priscilla Du Preez/

A “preventive war” is a war undertaken proactively against a merely potential enemy, who has neither initiated hostilities nor shown any sign of intending imminently to do so.  The Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor is a famous example.  This is not to be confused with a “preemptive war,” which involves a proactive attack on an enemy who has shown signs of intending to initiate hostilities.  The Arab-Israeli Six-Day War is a standard example. 

The Iraq war of 2003-2011 was sometimes characterized as a “preventive war,” though in my opinion that is, whatever else one thinks of that war, not an accurate characterization.  Rather, I think it fell under the category of “punitive war,” a war fought to punish an enemy nation for some offense (such as a violation of treaty obligations).  Whether it was justifiable under that description is not an issue I am addressing here.  What is relevant is that critics of the Iraq war who characterized it as a preventive war took it to be ipso facto unjust.  For while preemptive war is generally thought to be justifiable, preventive war is – rightly, in my view – widely thought not to be justifiable.

The reason should be obvious.  Until a potential enemy has actually done something – such as actually attacking (which would justify a defensive war), or preparing to attack (which could justify a preemptive war), or in some other way actually committing a sufficiently grave offense (which might justify a punitive war) – said potential enemy is in all relevant respects innocent.  You cannot justifiably attack a nation merely for what it might do, any more than you can punish an individual for what he might do.

This is why we don’t arrest and punish gangsters even when we have good reason to suspect that they will at some point commit crimes, and don’t fine corporations even when we have good reason to suspect that they will at some point pollute.  You can justifiably inflict harm on people only for what they have in fact done, not for what you think they probably will do in the future, and certainly not for what they merely might do.

But don’t we rightly punish people for certain negligent acts, even when they don’t actually result in harm?  Yes, but that is because such punishments are relevantly analogous to preemptive war rather than to preventive war.  Suppose I use a flamethrower to clear away brush or scare off raccoons in my backyard.  Suppose I don’t actually end up igniting your yard or house.  I still have in fact put your property in imminent danger of harm, even if I had no hostile motive but was just being stupid.  And it is reasonable to forestall actions that are per se dangerous in this way by prohibiting them altogether, as well as by punishing them after they occur.

It would not be reasonable, though, to prohibit ownership of (say) chainsaws, merely because someone might be so stupid as to use them in a way that endangered others.  It is very difficult to use a flamethrower in your backyard in a way that does not pose an imminent grave risk to your neighbors.  But it is not difficult to use a chainsaw in a way that poses no serious risk to others.  Sure, I could do something really stupid with it – say, tying it to a rope, starting it up, and then swinging it around in a wide arc that crosses over your property line – but it is extremely unlikely that many if any chainsaw owners would do such a thing.  Flamethrower use in a neighborhood context is per se dangerous to others in a way that chainsaw use is not.

Now, this is the principle on which quarantining disease carriers is justifiable, at least when walking around with the disease is more like using a flamethrower than it is like using a chainsaw.  Hence, it is reasonable to quarantine people with bubonic plague.  But it would be unreasonable to quarantine people with the flu, even if occasionally there are people who die from the flu.  Quarantining someone with bubonic plague inflicts a harm on him – it takes away his freedom of movement and may thereby prevent him from making a living or going to school, cause emotional distress, and so on – but this is justifiable given that his walking about freely would impose a grave and immediate threat to others, just as using a flamethrower in your backyard would.  Quarantining such a person would be analogous to a preemptive war – the forestalling of a grave and imminent threat that the person actually does in fact pose.

But it would not be reasonable to quarantine a person simply because he might get bubonic plague and pass it to others, or because he does in fact have an illness but one which merely might cause grave harm to another (such as the flu or a severe cold).  That would be analogous to a preventive war rather than a preemptive war, and illegitimate for the same reason.  You can justifiably quarantine Typhoid Mary.  But how can you justifiably quarantine Potentially Typhoid Mary, any more than you can justifiably attack a potential enemy?  Or how could you justifiably quarantine Severe Cold Mary on the grounds that some people might in theory die if they catch her cold, any more than you could legitimately ban chainsaws on the grounds that someone somewhere might use a chainsaw foolishly?

Now, COVID-19 is not remotely like bubonic plague, and while for some people it is certainly worse than the flu, for most people it is not.  And we know who is most vulnerable – the elderly and those with certain preexisting medical conditions.  So, how can it possibly be justifiable to quarantine those who do not have the virus, on the grounds that they might get it, and then might go on to spread it to someone among the minority of people to whom it poses a grave danger?  Especially when there is an obvious far less draconian alternative, namely quarantining only those who do have the virus and those who are at special risk from it?  And especially when there is no proof that the more draconian measures are really necessary, and evidence that in fact they have no net benefit over less draconian policies?

In short, how are lockdowns for vast populations of healthy people any more justifiable than “preventive war”?  How is the argument “If we don’t quarantine the healthy, grandma might die if they catch the virus and spread it to her” any better than the argument “If we don’t proactively attack country X, grandma might die if X attacks us”?  If those who start a “preventive war” are war criminals, what are those who have “locked down” the healthy and thereby destroyed livelihoods, inflicted severe mental distress, and set back the education of millions of children – and all for nothing, given the evidence that such policies have at the end of the day done little or no more good than less destructive ones have?

Don’t answer: “But killing people in a war is worse than quarantining them!”  Of course it is, but that’s irrelevant.  Destroying the livelihoods, etc. of innocent people is not as bad as killing them, but it hardly follows that it isn’t extremely bad.  And since when is a government morally permitted to inflict whatever damage it sees fit on innocent citizens, as long as it stops short of killing them?

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog and is posted here in slightly different form with kind permission of the author.)

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About Dr. Edward Feser 39 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


  1. An important well stated topic for discussion. You can chainsaw a tree to prevent it from blocking your dish signal, and it unexpectedly falls on your neighbor’s patio. It seems that the complexity of post WWII wars, preventative, preemptive, punitive overlap. Although Bush 43’s Iraq war against the good advice of 41, was also immoral based on lack of evidence of nuclear weapons. It likely encompassed the three descriptions. Lockdowns are meant to block spread. Inadvertently they create what we know and have widely discussed is a form of collateral damage arguably more deadly and long term than the disease, “Destroying the livelihoods, etc. of innocent people is not as bad as killing them, but it hardly follows that it isn’t extremely bad”. Like wars there was and remains in some states preventative, preemptive, punitive overlap. Milan’s Spanish governor Antonio de Guzmán ordered a strict quarantine during the Black Plague when St Charles Borromeo was Archbishop. Borromeo, following his own example allowed his clergy to find ways to deliver the sacraments. “When is a government morally permitted to inflict whatever damage it sees fit on innocent citizens, as long as it stops short of killing them?”. Your question of course answers itself. For example, there isn’t any comparison, as you note to the severity of the bubonic plague to Coronavirus. De Guzmán took proportionate measures, whereas here government edicts were disproportionate. From my perspective the flippant, even capricious prohibitions imposed on religious freedom has caused far more damage to persons than the virus. In some states saloons and salons were permitted to open churches instead remained locked. When we lack faith we inevitably lack courage out of an inordinate fear of death, overreact, and unreasonably oppress. Some of our bishops appealed and when refused, justifiably refused to comply.

  2. I liked this article; it presents a fresh moral perspective on an important issue. I actually believe that those who imposed and enforced lockdowns are criminals who should be prosecuted and removed from office, as they are not merely potential criminals, but actual criminals. We should also note here that obtaining a court injunction that prohibits future action is very difficult compared to obtaining an injunction against actions that have already occurred. Unfortunately, few have been willing to pursue court action against the lockdowns and those who imposed them in clear violation of moral law. Many politicians could simply have been voted out of office when in many cases such an opportunity arose last fall, but I haven’t heard of any politician who imposed or voted for lockdowns being sent packing by the voters on account of that.

  3. The Lockdowns have done more harm to our financial, physical and psychological health than COVID/Wuhan ever could. The “cure” is worse than the disease, and can no longer be justified, let alone maintained indefinitely. Politicians who demand we remain locked down without end are not acting in our best interest, but are doing so as an excuse to keep the vast emergency powers they have granted unto themselves as a result of the disease.

    End the lockdown.

  4. Japan attacked the US because the US, led by FDR and Democrats wanted war and baited the Japanese into attacking. What were American flyers (the Flying Tigers) doing in China before WWII?

    • The Flying Tigers were a VOLUNTEER force. While arriving in China in April of 1941, they saw no combat until December 20, 1941, two weeks AFTER Pearl Harbor. So, what would Japan’s beef be about them?? What the Japanese did in China speaks for itself. Its more true that the Japanese were looking for an excuse to attack US. Pearl Harbor was an unprovoked attack. Most of our guys drowned in their ships, not an easy way to go. When you provoke a war as the Japanese did, all bets are off. The Japanese lived to rue the day. Don’t ask me to wring my hands over Hiroshima.I dont believe in tearing down statues, nor in revisionist history.

    • “baited the Japanese into attacking?”


      First of all, one can provoke a nation to war, true, but claiming “they were baited, and therefore a sneak attack is perfectly fine” is vile.

      Secondly, the “baiting” to which you refer is, I gather, telling the Japanese to stop conquering China, and when they didn’t, placing an embargo on things like oil and steel so that they couldn’t be sold to Japan. Oh, the horror! Meanwhile – ever heard of the Rape of Nanking? I wouldn’t have sold Japan any steel, oil, or anything else, either.

  5. The standard that must be met before a nation may wage war is that the injury done to the nation or to the community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

    In the language of international law, ‘grave’ means that the state to be attacked must have committed a breach of the peace, a threat to the peace or an act of aggression. A breach of the peace means any internationally wrongful use of force. If it is aimed at territorial conquest or the impediment or overthrow of a government, it is prima facie an act of aggression and criminal. A threat to the peace means a threat of wrongful armed force, and can include a situation likely to provoke a breach of the peace. As a matter of law, genocide and crimes against humanity are threats to the peace per se.

    ‘Lasting’ means that a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, alone or in combination with its legal consequences yet to be executed, has a continuing character.

    • If you go to his blog, you’ll see that he was writing similar pieces going to back to last spring. For example, in May 2020:

      Now, a problematic aspect of the lockdown is that most of what is said about the subject rests either directly or indirectly on the testimony of experts or purported experts. Contrast that with a case of the sort with which readers of this blog are familiar. Philosophical arguments can, for the most part, be evaluated entirely independently of any considerations about the knowledge or objectivity of the person giving them. For example, you can evaluate Chalmers’ Zombie Argument, or Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlin Argument, or Searle’s Chinese Room Argument, without knowing anything about the expertise or biases of Chalmers, Nozick, or Searle.

      Of course, you might think that the fact that they gave these arguments reflects certain biases or expertise on their part. But that is entirely irrelevant to how good or bad the arguments themselves are. There is no premise in any of these arguments that requires you to assume that Chalmers, Nozick, or Searle made a correct judgment call. You don’t have to take their word for anything. For purposes of evaluating the arguments (as opposed to the purposes of, say, doing intellectual history) you can treat them as if they fell from the sky and have no essential connection to their authors.

      Little of what is said by way of defending or criticizing the lockdown is like that. Most people’s opinions depend crucially on what they have heard from political commentators, journalists, politicians, and scientists. None of what any of these people say can be evaluated the way a philosophical argument can, viz. in a manner that entirely abstracts from considerations about the knowledge and biases of the people giving the arguments. And that includes, to some extent, the scientists. Moreover, the knowledge and biases of these experts give us grounds for having at least some reservations about what they say. And that too includes, at least to some extent, the scientists.

      Again, take a look at his blog and older posts.

    • Really? I can’t buy groceries without a mask. Folks without masks are asked to leave and if they dont the police are called to forcefully remove them.

  6. We are all being obliged to muffle our beards and keep our distance, and the only reason we don’t have to cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” is because we are all unclean. The difference between how lepers were to conduct themselves in Old Covenant days and how we treat ourselves today is that back then, you actually had to have leprosy to be treated like a leper. Now we have to treat ourselves as if we are unclean even if we know we are not.

    • I’ve felt like a leper also Richard.
      Hopefully there’s some light at the end of the tunnel unless the powers that be decide to hold on to this narrative longer. I saw in the UK news some “experts” are foreseeing years more of masking ahead….I just don’t think they want to give up the control they’ve had for the past year. It’s worked too well for them.

  7. Thanks for your reply re Dr. Feser’s whereabouts. I confess I don’t read his blogs so I appreciate CWR’s bringing him to my attention. I am more familiar with Douglas Farrows’ arguments against the lockdowns, again thanks to CWR. Phil Lawler was also skeptical from the start and he is the only one I was aware of, also right from the start.

  8. Regrettably we are becoming less free to debate and discuss matters of this sort anymore. Likewise, for all practical purposes, for our elected representatives, who have simply allowed gubernatorial dictates to be issued and reissued without cessation. Our courts have for the most part been useless in stemming the tide of these edicts as well. The author makes excellent points. Unfortunately it is proving to be more difficult to make sensible arguments like this in the public forum.

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