Ethics meets a new virus

Railroad tracks. Are we on the right track? Photo: Pexels
Are we on the right track? Photo: Pexels

I watched a series on Netflix a few months ago that diverted me for a while. It’s called The Good Place and is about a demon in charge of an experiment. The idea is to build a small town, bring in four dead people, and present this as Heaven. All the other people in this town are demons pretending to be people, and the idea is to find new ways of tormenting these four people. This pilot project didn’t go exactly as planned, and the demon changed side, but that’s not my point in this post.

I’m referring to this silly show because the demon gave one of the characters a demonstration called the trolley problem, which is a classic illustration in philosophy. Chidi Anagonye is a ridiculous character, because the former professor of ethics and moral philosophy is incapable of making the simplest decisions. He has to consider all the ethical and philosophical theories before making up his mind, and he never succeeds. In the trolley problem you are driving a trolley, and you realise that there are five people stuck to the tracks in front of you. They are unable to move, so you are about to kill them. You have an option, though. You can pull a lever, which allows you to move over to another track, and there is only one person tied to that one. None of the choices are good, but the second one reduces the consequences.

This is the difference between deontological/normative ethics and utilitarianism. The first one claims there has to be absolute rules with no exceptions. Murder is always wrong, and it doesn’t matter that killing someome would save a lot of other lives. The other theory says that the outcome or the consequences determine whether an action is ethically good or not. The reason Chidi frequently got into trouble was that ethics can be pretty messed up. Consider the trolley problem. On the surface killing one person may seem like the best solution, because you save five other people. Just to make it more complicated, imagine that the single person was your partner, or your child. What if it was the world’s leading expert on rare diseases? What if the man on the other track was the only breadwinner a family of ten had? This would complicate things, which is why Chidi never got anywhere. There’s always a consequence, and even if it ends well, does that mean we can do whatever we want to get there?

Imagine that we didn’t do anything when Covid-19 reached us. There’s been several voices in media this weekend defending a position like that. They believe the financial cost of what we’re doing now is too high for the young generation, and future generations. They partly tried this in Sweden, and they actually encouraged people to congregate, believing infection would give them immunity. That may seem logical, but as far as I know the science is questionable. It would give you some protection for a limited time, which would still make it necessary to monitor you. So, there’s a lot of unanswered questions associated with that strategy.

We simply don’t know what the consequences of inaction will be, and we don’t know that action will be enough to stop this virus. Still, it’s reasonable to assume it would have looked a lot worse if we did nothing. There’s a lot of talk about underlying conditions, but the truth is that we don’t know what we have. The consequences of not acting could be a lot worse than what we’re seeing now.

Most of us don’t have to stay on these imaginary tracks. We don’t have to go to the store, the pharmacy, the restaurant, or any other place. We can order things and get them delivered on the door, but this is also about how much a life is worth. Imagine if 0.01 percent of the world dies. It doesn’t sound like much, but it would amount to 800 000 people. It would be a little over 500 people in Norway. Some would find these numbers a justifiable sacrifice, but another 10 years would be worth a lot to these 500 and their families.

As for the world’s response to this crisis, what track are we driving on? Perhaps the official position would be to kill one instead of five, or to sacrifice life as we know it for survival, but no one really knows which track we are on. In terms of ethics normative ethics, usually referred to as duty ethics in my language, is probably the most prominent one. Doctors have a duty to save everyone. It isn’t possible, so they are used to making hard decisions, but I hope this situastion isn’t normal to them. Doctors may have to consider who is worth their effort, the medicine, and respirator they have available.

The price of the decisons others are making on our behalf could be high. We don’t have a lot of choice, but when this is over, there could be people feeling less grateful than others. A handful of people are about to make some decisions that could have serious consequences to a lot of us. Some municipalities have talked about opening their schools and sports facilities after Easter, even though they don’t know what that will do. Many will thank them if nothing happens, and they will be angry if this makes things worse. They will aim their anger at someone, possibly innocent people. No matter what happens, this will have consequences, and many fear the world will be a very different place for a long time.

Ethics isn’t easy, at the same time as it is. The Christian ethics is straightforward, as there are few principles to relate to. At the same time giving up power doesn’t come easily, which makes it hard for us to be what we are supposed to be in this world. We like simple answers, but ethics doesn’t give us that. We are always looking for another and better answer. The best answer may be the one we really don’t like. It tells us that there is a certain amount of pain in life no matter what we do, and it’s only through solidarity and fellowship we survive.

We have two options. We can choose solidarity during and after this crisis, and we can choose the opposite. Countries and individuals may feel forced to think about themselves (more than we are already doing), and the situation could become a lot worse for poor people. There is a danger the welfare state won’t survive this. I hope we can show ourselves as a resilient, sturdy people. We have a tendency to think of utilitarianism or consequences, where the outcome determines whether an action was good or bad. Some also find virtue ethics to be helpful, which means that the action is good if the intention is. Duty may not feel good, but perhaps we should be more focused on that?

Our Prime Minister will be addressing the people on Wednesday. Some say her words will be the most important she’s ever spoken. People have mostly cooperated the three weeks this Corona isolation has lasted. People have accepted the call for a national communal work, but now the PM has to explain why this was necessary, and why we have to continue. The situation we have now is a lot like the prisoner’s dilemma. In this theory you and an accomplice have been arrested for murder. You are not allowed to talk to each other before the interview starts, and you are questioned at the same time, but not together. What you don’t know is that the police don’t have enough evidence to get any of you convicted for murder, so their plan is to get both of you sentenced for robbery, or get one to snitch on the other, and that person will then get life for murder. These are the options the two in custody have:

  • Both stay silent and both get 1 year each.
  • Both betray the other and they get 5 years each (defect).
  • You stay silent, while your friends provides evidence against you. He is a free man, while you go to prison for life.

1 year would clearly be the best outcome, but as you don’t know what your friend will do, the most logical decision would be to defect, where worst case scenario is limited to 5 years.

We play this game with multiple outcomes a lot in life, and if we feel that nothing we do really matters, many will go about their own business. I see this a lot these days. Some seem to ignore the social distancing rules, but it could be that lack of information makes them think they don’t matter in the big picture. The PM has a big job trying to unite the people, because it doesn’t look like we are loyal at the moment.

Other people are making many decisions for us these days, but some are still left up to us. We should reflect a little on the ethics before we make decisions. I’ve seen a lot of scared people in social media. Some of them are calling for anyone taking public transportation or going to the grocery store to be procecuted. This could easily escalate. This is a time when we need to concider our actions, and the politicians need to show a lot more than shallow empathy.

The outcome if we fail could be a lot worse than what a virus is doing to us. I have forgotten what it’s called, but there was a theory I read about years ago. It said that we are just one generation away from being savages, meaning each generation has to learn civilization. It’s not embedded in our DNA, and one generation away from it is enough to forget everything. In other words, what we do always matters.

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