(Part I is here.)
I’m going to try to keep this chapter as free of politics as possible for as long as possible.
It won’t be easy.
In general, the unprecedented society-wide obsession with the Wuhan virus pandemic in the U.S. is a product of mass media and social media as much as the virus itself. One could almost call it a parallel epidemic here, one of distorted behavior and social norms rather than illness. The question is whether that behavior and those norms are ethical in nature or if they are propelled by non-ethical considerations—fear, for example; not just fear for one’s own welfare being threatened, but fear of being made a pariah. It also matters if they work. Ethical requirements that are certain to be futile in practice because of well-known aspects of human nature are not ethical. They are delusional and harmful.
For the short term, one could give everyone the benefit of the doubt and call this mass Golden Rule behavior: each of us would like to have everyone else behave so as to minimize the likelihood that we would be infected, right? However, like so often is the case with the Golden Rule, this calculation only works in an imaginary vacuum that ignores the complex systems that are society, culture and civilization.
Do we really want “everyone” to behave in this extreme risk-averse manner if it crashes the economy? If it puts friends, neighbors and loved ones out of work? If it makes day to day life impossible? This is why Absolutism and Reciprocity fail so often as ethical systems, and why Utilitarianism is required in some measure to temper their effects and distortions.
However, in the outrageous scaremongering we are witnessing, some of it simple hysteria, some ignorance, and much of it motivated by that which I am going to try not to talk about until Part III, the real trade-offs are being obscured or missed. This is, to name a single ethical breach, incompetence. I actually read several pieces yesterday that argued that to understand how the pandemic spreads, one should consider “World War Z,” the graphic novel-turned Brad Pitt horror movie. I understand the narrow point being made, but it’s still an irresponsible and stupid thing to say or write. “World War Z,” is dystopian future film in which a rampaging virus turns most of the world’s population into mad, speedy, flesh-craving zombies. It is the likely end of the world, with everyone doomed to a horrible death. That is not what faces the United States, or anyone, with this virus. Shut up!
The scary terminology and analogies are intentional and designed to alarm people into being ethical, which is a contradiction in terms. One can only be ethical out of reason and reasoning; if one is reacting out of fear, that’s non-ethical conduct based on non-ethical considerations, in this case, mistaken ones. Increasingly, for example, the estimates of what the fatality rate is for those infected with the Wuhan virus has come down to around 1% or less. 1% is serious; it would be about ten times (or so; the exact number isn’t crucial to the ethics exercise) the fatality rate of those infected with a typical flu. Does that make the virus “deadly?” In my dictionary, something that is deadly will kill you. This virus is unlikely to kill you: calling it deadly is panic inducing, and false. A peanut can kill someone, but we don’t call peanuts deadly.
Statistics aside, however, someone who is killed by a flu is just as dead as someone killed by the Wuhan virus (if more dead than someone killed by the “World War Z” virus). We don’t shut down society and go into social isolation with flu outbreaks. At what point between %.01 and %1 does it become ethical to shut down social interaction, education, commerce, entertainment and sports, wrecking the economy and destroying industries, lives and careers in the process? Is it ethical?
Is it ethical if it’s highly unlikely that it’s unlikely to work anyway? Are the same people who are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizers going to be attentive and careful enough to follow all of the burdensome and extreme rules being thrown at them, all the time, every day, for months? Who believes that? How many people will treat this virus which they know, in the vast majority of cases, is not going to hurt their children or themselves, as if it’s the equivalent of a nuclear winter? Patients die in hospitals with disturbing regularity because they are infected with “bugs” spread by health care professionals who don’t wash their hands sufficiently. Yet they are trained, and have protocols requiring such precautions; they face serious penalties for violating them. My mother was killed by such a person who infected her. We are expecting regular people who neglect their teeth, kids, hygiene, exercise, health and finances routinely to suddenly stop touching their faces, and begin compulsively washing every surface in the house and timing each of the 700 instances a day they have been told to wash their hands, and in that expectation, are demanding that life be curtailed indefinitely.
Is that ethical?
Much of what I see is herd mentality and groupthink. It wasn’t until a single NBA player who more or less deliberately infected himself tested positive for the disease that the league suspended its season. Then hockey and baseball, afraid of being labelled irresponsible, suspended their seasons, even though the risk to healthy athletes posed by Wuhan is approximately nil. The players are all millionaires; the small business owners and contractors who survive off of professional sports are not. Was this an ethical decision? Similarly closing the schools throws young children into homes where caregivers are needed and teenagers onto the street or the dark web.
Several sources, presumably reliable (but who knows?) have said that the point of extreme measures is not necessarily to reduce cases of the virus but to lengthen the curve so that health care services are not overwhelmed. Oh! So no lives will be saved, for certain? We’re wrecking careers, businesses and industries for that? Good to know—except that most of the public doesn’t know that, if it’s true. If it’s true, that information is being withheld from the average news reports. After all, who’ll put a stopwatch on their hand-washing if it’s not going to matter…
Isn’t the toilet paper debacle proof that this is not being driven by rational decision-making, and since it isn’t, the extreme reaction is not ethical? If “everyone” is hoarding toilet paper like an idiot, non-idiots are tempted to grab every roll off the shelves as a precaution, which in turn harms others. Why are people doing this? They do it because of zombie analogies, watching the stock market behave like a yo-yo (but with scare headlines when it goes down, and headlines half the size when it goes up) “experts “opining that we may be “doomed,” and seeing their lives completely disrupted.
So what is the ethical response?
There is none.
This is ethics zugswang. Nothing is enough, everything is too much, half-way doesn’t work, and standing still is irresponsible. Think about leaders who address the public on this crisis. If they tell people not to panic and that its not “World War Z,” they will be accused of minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic and undermining compliance with the new rules. If they insist that we must take extreme measures to save our communities, they are fear-mongering. There is no middle ground.
This is where the “do something!” mentality leads. Nobody wants to be accused of not doing the right thing, and nobody has the courage to be honest. In the end, the most unethical and irrational standard of all will be applied: consequentialism. If the final tally shows that cases and fatalities were fewer than the doomsday projections and what other nations experienced, then most of the public will say that policy makers preformed well. In fact, such a result will be mostly luck, as will a more negative result.
The only thing we can be sure of is that whatever the final result, Democrats and the news media will say that it’s much worse than it would have been if President Trump wasn’t in the White House.
And with that, I’ll end Part II.