[Warning: I’m sure there are typos below; I’ll be fixing them, but I’m a bit swamped, and I want to get this post up. It’s a utilitarian decision. Update: I think I’ve fixed them all.]
I have been consciously avoiding wading into this issue, first, because its components are beyond my expertise in two fields, second, because to do a proper job would take a book rather than a blog post, and third, because to even do an inadequate job, I will have to quote extensively from the arguments of others, which I try to do as little as possible (believe it or not). I detest appeals to authority, which is basically all I get from my deranged Facebook friends all day long. Nonetheless, I can’t put this post off any longer, because this is an ethics issue encompassing several related ethics issues. I also can’t cover it in a post of reasonable length, so this will be Part I.
The grand ethics issue facing the nation, the public, the President and our future is when to begin re-opening the economy, allowing people to get on with their lives. Let’s begin with ten stipulations:
1. This is an ethics conflict, not an ethics dilemma. There are ethical considerations and values on both sides of the equation.
2. Many, too many, of those involved in the problem are going to approach it as an ethics dilemma, in which ethical values compete with non-ethical considerations. Unfortunately, that group includes almost all, and maybe all, politicians and elected officials, including the President.
3. It is a cruel trick of fate, or a bizarre joke by a sadistic Creator, that this crisis is occurring in an election year, and with a national leader with the personal characteristics, chaotic leadership, management style, and divided constituency of Donald Trump….but that’s the situation. It is particularly unfortunate that he does not have a reserve of public trust, because that, if not essential now, would sure help a lot as he makes some difficult decisions. He is significantly responsible for that trust deficit; the media and “the resistance” are even more responsible. That doesn’t matter right now. It is a different issue, though a related one.
4. We still do not have adequate information to make a fully informed decision, and will not have before a choice is unavoidable. That’s a fact. We still aren’t certain how the virus is transmitted, or the degree of infectiousness by the asymptomatic. We don’t know why some areas of the country are experiencing higher rates of infection than others. We cannot compare the U.S. statistics with other countries, because we can’t be sure of the accuracy of those foreign statistics. We aren’t even sure of the effectiveness of the supposedly essential precautions, like masks and social distancing. For example, I have articles on file from the last 30 days by credentialed medical professionals arguing that wearing masks may increase the likelihood of infection. I don’t care if this is a minority opinion; minority opinions are often right. Meanwhile, I just watched HLN interviewing a researcher who claims that social distancing should be 12 feet or more, after measuring how “droplets” from coughs spread. But a social distance requirement of much more than six feet is impractical, meaning that it’s not worth talking about.
5. Making important decisions without perfect information is what effective leaders have to do. Two recent weak Presidents, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, were marked by a habitual reluctance to make difficult and urgent choices without “all the facts,” and this resulted in multiple fiascos. The danger in making a premature decision, as defined by those two intelligent men, is that the decision will be subject to second guessing after the missing facts are known. President Trump has to be courageous and responsible and make any choice, knowing that whatever he does will be attacked whatever happens. He has to place his fate in the hands of moral luck, and the fate of the country as well. That’s a terrible situation to be in, but that’s the job.
6. No one can rely on “experts.” First, they don’t agree, so the opinions of experts in various fields can be cherry-picked to support a wide range of options. Second, their record in this episode stinks. Everyone is quoting Dr. Fauci as if he were the guru on the mountaintop, but the record shows that he was completely wrong in January, in February, and early in March. Pundits and people treat him as the ultimate authority now, when it suits their own agenda.
7. Second, experts have the bias of their own field and its priorities. I read some hysterical Facebook friend of a Facebook friend declaring that she would be listening to doctors and health experts, because they know best. No, you idiot, they don’t, because in this case, more than health is involved. Doctors and health experts have only one objective. They don’t care about money, they don’t care about jobs, they don’t care, at least professionally, whether or not the nation is reduced to living in caves. That’s not their professional priority. Similarly, we cannot rely on economists, academics and social scientists. Here’s a quote in an article from March that I’ve been keeping on file about how economists look at the shutdown:
“Economists should be doing this cost-benefit analysis,” said Walter Scheidel, an economic historian at Stanford University. “Why is nobody putting some numbers on the economic costs of a monthlong or a yearlong shutdown against the lives saved? The whole discipline is well equipped for it. But there is some reluctance for people to stick their neck out.”
Some economists who support lifting the current restrictions on economic activity say governors and even the Trump administration have not sufficiently assessed the costs and benefits of those restrictions.
“We put a lot of weight on saving lives,” said Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist who spent a year as chief economist on Mr. Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. “But it’s not the only consideration. That’s why we don’t shut down the economy every flu season. They’re ignoring the costs of what they’re doing. They also have very little clue how many lives they’re saving.”…
The problem is that society won’t accept such cold-eyed calculations, and that’s a good thing. Ford engineers were able to prove that their calculations in the Pinto case—based on the estimated number of fatalities and burn victims, it was cheaper to pay damages for the rare accident involving the vulnerable Pinto gas tank design than it was to fix it— were perfectly reasonable from an economic perspective, and the kinds of calculations Ford made were not all that different from many public policy calculations that the public accepts (or doesn’t think about). However, the attitude toward human life the infamous internal “Let em burn!” memo displayed is antithetical to the values of a democracy, in which we all have to accept responsibility for the well-being of each other, and be trusted to do so.
8. The projections and models have been completely wrong more often than not, but are still being hyped as a valid basis for planning. Rahm Emanuel’s epidemiologist bother, Ezekiel, who gets prime airtime on MSNBC because of Rahm, told viewers at the end of March that there would be 100 million cases in the U.S. by the end of April. It is becoming hard to argue that these projections aren’t being used to frighten rather than inform. Today the New York Times front page headlines the conclusions of a leaked “government report” with a model that predicts “about 200,000 daily cases by June.” That’s the essence of fake news. First, it’s a draft; second, it’s a model; third, we have no way of knowing what considerations and biases were baked into it. NPR, seven paragraphs into its report, finally informs its readers that
Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who reportedly created the model reported by the Times, told The Washington Post that the work contained a wide range of possibilities and modeling was not complete.
9. The news media has politicized the lock-down, and most of it is actively lobbying for the lock-down to continue. You can come to your own conclusions as to why; whatever your call, the fact is that lobbying one way or the other isn’t the news media’s proper function. One could fairly conclude, for example, that the news media wants the economy to be wrecked beyond reasonable repair and as many out of jobs as possible so it can, along with the Democrats, blame the President and ensure his defeat. One could also fairly conclude that the news media sees an opportunity in such a disaster to move the nation to a socialist, nanny state structure and a “green economy,” much as the Great Depression opened the door to a radical overhaul of our institutions and priorities.
One could also conclude that while knowing that the nation has to be taken off of lockdown, the news media is deliberately laying the groundwork for a “blood on his hands” campaign against him by the Democrats, no matter what happens.
Here’s a particularly obvious example. NBC and others are sporting this headline: Government orders 100,000 new body bags as Trump minimizes death toll. It begins,
“Federal coronavirus response documents obtained by NBC News suggest that the president’s optimism about “Opening Up America” is at odds with dire warnings from inside his administration.”
No, this is called “being prepared for worst case scenario,” exactly what the news media attacked the administration for not doing in light of the threat of potential pandemics. Again, the news media will play “gotcha!” to undermine the President and assist his opposition no matter what he decides. The President has to ignore it, its polls, and its selected experts.
10. We have to accept that the ethical system we have to employ here is Utilitarianism, the most brutal of them all. That means balancing likely outcomes and accepting sacrifices to reach the most beneficial result for the nation and society. Reciprocity is useless: “Do unto others” doesn’t work in wartime or crisis situations, except in isolated cases. Kant’s absolutist principles also fail. Human lives are in play, but “if it only saves one life” reasoning—I have read and heard people say this, apparently unaware of how illogical and irrational it is, if comfortingly virtuous-sounding–is out. Opening the country will undoubtedly cost lives, whenever it is done. Waiting for a vaccine is not possible.
Ten is a nice round number; I thought of some more as I was writing, but I’ll bring those up in Part II.
I need to think about something else for a while.