A team of five education scholars recently calculated that American schoolchildren in 2020 learned 30% less reading and 50% less maths than they would in a typical year. Despite that, the top third of pupils posted gains in reading.
What, if anything, is wrong with the Kaldor-Hicks principle? This is the question raised by Chris Whitty’s argument that the benefits of reopening schools outweigh the costs of doing so.
Even if we suppose that this is factually correct - which it might not be – it does not follow that it is right to reopen schools. As David Hume said, we cannot derive “ought” from “is”.
The philosophical problem arises from the fact that the winners and losers from reopening schools are different people. Children win by getting a better education, but school staff and their families lose because they face a higher risk of catching Covid-19. And even a small extra risk across tens of thousands of people adds up to a few certain deaths. How is it legitimate to impose death upon some so that others benefit, especially when they are not being compensated for that risk?
There’s a long tradition which says it is not. John Rawls objected that the Kaldor-Hicks principle (which is just a refinement of classical utilitarianism) “does not take seriously the distinction between persons.”