The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

—John Stuart Mill

Like so many people on this fragile green globe, I have been thinking about this novel crisis. I find myself quite constantly frustrated, largely because we suddenly find ourselves in the position of reacting to a threat of unknown potency using uncertain means. I argued in my last post that our shift from total indifference to all-consuming concern cannot constitute a rational response. In this post I hope to explore what a rational, and ethical, response must comprise.

Governments around the world are in the tragic position of having to choose between saving a relatively small (but ever-growing) portion of the population from severe damage, and inflicting less acute damage on a much larger portion of the population.

In making decisions like this, I believe the only ethical principle that we turn to is the principle of utility. However, I do not think John Stuart Mill’s strong version—our duty is to promote happiness as much as possible—is feasible, at least not for individuals. My main criticism of such a formulation is that it would lead to basically unlimited duties on a person. Can a thoroughgoing utilitarian really enjoy a quiet tennis match when she could be, say, working in a soup kitchen? I do not think we can embrace an ethic that would demand a population of saints; and, besides, such an ethic would be self-defeating if actually put into practice, since each person who is trying to create the most happiness would, themselves, potentially be miserable. 

Thus, when it comes to individual behavior, I think that a negative version of utilitarianism applies: that we ought to try to refrain from activities that cause pain, harm, or unhappiness. Playing a tennis match, then, is alright; but breaking someone’s arm is not. This, I believe, is the standard that should be applied to individuals.

A government, however, is different; and different standards apply. A government has the obligation not only to avoid doing harm, but to actively reduce misery as much as possible. Unlike an individual—who could not live with an unlimited obligation to reduce unhappiness—a government, as an institution, does not have to balance its own happiness against others’, and so has a greater ethical obligation.

With this principle in view, the requirement for an ethical action on the government’s part would be to reduce suffering as much as possible. Of course, creating an exact calculus of harm is difficult at best. How can you compare, say, one death and a hundred million headaches? Yet since we must act, and since we ought to act as ethically as possible, we have little choice but to make do with a certain amount of imprecision.

Another source of imprecision is, of course, that we cannot know the future, and we know even the present only imperfectly. Because of this ignorance, every act can have unforeseen consequences. This is why we cannot evaluate an action on the ends it achieves alone, but must consider what could be reasonably known about the probable consequences of an action at the time it was taken. This means we have to have a certain ethical lenience for actions taken at a low state of knowledge, especially if the best available knowledge was consulted at the time. 

Aside from the test of morality, there is also a related test of rationality. To be rational means to be consistent. This means the same standard is applied to all of our actions, and that there are no special categories. An irrational ethic is necessarily an imperfect ethic, since it means at least some of its actions are less ethical than others. Many of our society’s injustices are cases of irrational ethics: holding people to different standards, giving out different rewards or punishments for the same actions, and so on.

I am trying to define what a rational, ethical response means, exactly, because I think very soon we will have to make more nuanced decisions about this crisis. So far the primary approach has been to institute lockdowns, with the idea of slowing the virus’s spread. Even though I think there is a strong argument that Western governments were culpably unprepared, locking things down now may be a rational response given the potential threat of the virus. But if we find that even thirty or forty days in confinement is not enough to put the virus on the defensive, then we will have to begin to weigh the social costs more carefully. Just as the real effectiveness of a lockdown remains to be seen, so is the social price still undetermined.

At the moment we are just coming to grips with the virus, and we are belatedly adopting a “better safe than sorry” policy. We are tracking the rising death tolls of the virus and focusing our attention quite exclusively on this crisis. This may be rational, considering the novelty of the virus and the currently unknown threat that it may pose. But as the crisis wears on, we will be forced to consider other factors. There is, after all, no guarantee that forty, fifty, or even sixty days of lockdown will make it safe for people to return to their daily lives. Michael Osterholm (an expert on infectious diseases) expects that the virus will be around until there is a vaccine, and that a vaccine will take 18 months at minimum.

Now, perhaps extraordinary measures and unlimited resources can reduce the time until we arrive at an effective vaccine. That is unknown. My worry is that a lockdown will begin to have very real negative effects on quite a huge number of people; and this will almost certainly happen before the vaccine is available. We in Madrid are one week into our lockdown so far. At the moment, the streets are mostly empty, and they are constantly patrolled by police who can give enormous fines for breaking curfew. Today I heard a loud and violent argument down the street as one person harassed another person for doing something outside (they were out of view). I can hear neighbors occasionally quarrelling through my window.

Arguments and tantrums are the least of our worry. A protracted lockdown will exacerbate mental health problems (some of which are quite serious) and put pressure on marriages, as the spike in Chinese divorces shows. In Spain, open air sport, like going on a walk or a run is forbidden. (Meanwhile, tobacco stores remain open, even though smoking is known as one of the risk factors of the disease.) How will this ban affect children if it is protracted? And how long are we prepared to keep children out of schools? Not only will they be learning less, but social interaction is crucial to childhood development. (Osterholm is skeptical of the school closures, since he thinks that there is little evidence that children are significant vectors of the disease, and many health personnel with children might be forced to stay home. The demographic data from Spain—which doubtless overestimates the fatality rate across the board, since testing has been limited—seems to bear him out.)

In Spain, the government has, at yet, not waived rental payments. For people living from paycheck to paycheck, and who have been laid off, what will they do on April 1st when rent is due? Even if we are released on April 12, how many people will be completely out of work at that time? How many people risk losing their jobs and their homes? If and when coronavirus has disappeared completely, it may take a damaged economy years to return to normal. How will people get by if thousands of businesses go bankrupt and unemployment remains high for the long term?

Economic damage may sound fanciful compared with a health crisis, but it translates into a reduced—sometimes a drastically reduced—quality of life for millions. In the scale of human suffering, poverty is not negligible. Yet if such considerations seem petty, we must also consider something that Nicholas Kristoff (among others) has written about extensively: the rise of “deaths of despair” among America’s working class. These deaths can result from drug overdose or suicide, and they have been on the rise because of the worsening plight of working class America. We must consider, then, that economic damage does not only reduce the quality of life for millions, but it can translate directly into fatalities.

More generally, economic failure has a pronounced effect on life expectancy, even if you try to control for other factors. To quote from Bryson’s book on the body: “Someone who is otherwise identical to you but poor—exercises as devotedly, sleeps as many hours, eats a similarly healthy diet, but just as less money in the bank—can expect to die between ten and fifteen years sooner.” So economics indeed translates into years of life. 

Now, I am not advocating against the lockdown. As I said before, given our available information, it may be a good and rational response. I am saying that, in the long run, an ethical evaluation requires that we consider the complete social costs of these measures. Just as importantly, if the coronavirus is, indeed, here to stay, then a rational response requires that we act consistently towards this risk.

This is what I mean. At the moment, coronavirus deaths are treated as a special category. This may be rational if we can eliminate the threat in a reasonable amount of time. But if we cannot eliminate this threat, and it is, indeed, here to stay for a year or more, then I am not sure that this attitude can be rationally sustained. A rational ethic will require us to see the coronavirus as one of many potential causes of death—more dangerous, perhaps, but no more or less acceptable than any other cause of death. 

After this long and perhaps silly post—which I hope will be the last thing I devote to the virus for a time—I will end on a more practical note. 

From what I observe, I fear that we may not be learning quite the right lessons from China’s success. Donald McNeil (a science reporter for the New York Times) explains that the lockdown in China was only the necessary and not the sufficient reason for the country’s recovery. The lockdown was complemented by widespread testing and the government’s ability to isolate people from one another. A small town in Italy, , was similarly able to halt the virus by testing all of its residents and isolating the infected. Mike Ryan, an expert at the World Health Organization, has recently offered the same advice—that a lockdown without other measures is not enough. Here in Spain, the testing resources are severely limited, and only available for serious cases (although this will change soon). People with mild symptoms are not isolated but are being told to stay in their homes, which could potentially mean infecting their whole family. I hope, then, that we can not only learn from China’s strictest measures, but also their most intelligent. 

One thought on “Quotes & Commentary #72: Mill

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