The Oxford Martin Programme on

Collective Responsibility

for Infectious Disease

The Challenge

As drugs and vaccinations have proliferated, protection from disease has increasingly been seen as an individual problem requiring individual action. But antimicrobial resistance, vaccine refusal, and rapid global trade and travel have substantially undermined the impact of the drugs and vaccines that we have come to take for granted.

Although significant resources are devoted to the scientific investigation of the way that diseases spread, the ‘human factor’ has largely been ignored.

Understanding the effects of policy, individual and group behaviour and psychology on the genesis and control of infectious diseases will allow us to identify how responsibility for infectious diseases - and the strategies that might be employed to mitigate them - is distributed throughout the world.

Collective failure to manage the human factor contributes to the threat of infection, and the very real consequences for those afflicted by diseases such as influenza, malaria and childhood infections. Devising, implementing and enforcing a strategy to remedy this will require a behaviour change derived from a new understanding of collective moral responsibility.

Bringing together zoology, history, philosophy, psychology and medicine, our four-year project addresses the central research question: What is the role of collective responsibility in the genesis of, and appropriate response to, the threat of infectious disease? Having identified what we should expect to encounter in terms of infectious threats, and their social and economic consequences, if the world sticks to ‘business as usual’, we will, amongst other things:

  • investigate individual and collective moral responsibility in this context
  • identify psychological and historical factors relevant to the spread of disease
  • define collective responsibility in a useful, practical way
  • examine implications of potential strategies for fundamental and legal rights
  • investigate how techniques from psychology and behavioural economics might be used to increase a sense of collective responsibility and improve behaviour
  • identify and recommend solutions

We seek to generate disease-specific policy recommendations for collective action on influenza, malaria, antibiotic resistance and vaccine-preventable childhood infections. With the ultimate ambition to create a new climate of collective responsibility for infectious disease, and to ensure that policy makers, public health and medical professionals, and individuals are mobilized to confront and tackle the human factor in infectious diseases.

featured blog

We need to rethink our moral obligations to create a better world

Former Oxford Martin Visiting Fellow Dr Anne Schwenkenbecher, a Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Arts and Academic Chair of the Philosophy Program at Murdoch University in Western Australia, discusses how rethinking our "moral mathematics" could lead to more people collectively doing the right thing.

Read it now