Thursday, March 12, 2020

Utilitarianism is for pandemics

It's hard to make decisions right now. Different sources are saying different things; one minute you read about people hoarding toilet paper and laugh, the next you read about how close the closest case is to you and your chest gets tight with panic.

Or maybe that's just me.

But emotion, of course, isn't a good guide for action. It's almost impossible to choose to be exactly as scared as a situation warrants, instead of falling prey either to panic or to normalcy bias. (That would be the one where you think, whenever I get scared it always ends up being nothing, I'm going to sit tight and not worry while everyone else runs around the room fills with smoke.) And even if you could choose to be the right amount of scared, adrenaline doesn't actually tell you what to do. It just makes you want to do something, and sometimes you pick something wildly unhelpful like stealing masks from a doctor's office.

So we need moral reasoning to get us through. Deontology asks: is there a moral prohibition against ever spreading illness? No, there is not; while it's generally wise to wash your hands often and to stay home if you're sick, none of us is used to cancel whole conferences because of one sick attendee. So deontology would have us carry on as usual, following usual rules. Unless your usual rule is "listen to public health organizations," which is probably a good one unless your government is so corrupt you can't trust it.

Catholic moral reasoning would ask if you intended to infect anyone. Could you know with reasonable certainly that going to work would kill someone? If not then it's probably not a mortal sin, which is all some people care about. (Meanwhile some aren't even worrying about that, because after all death isn't so bad. Which is odd if you're also het up about murder and abortion and so on. Death comes for all, but one doesn't want to be the vehicle delivering it ahead of schedule.)

Honestly, utilitarianism is the most sensible moral philosophy right now. Simply ask whether your behavior will cause or prevent deaths, and what number.

Now some are going to think that means we should never go anywhere or do anything, since there is always a risk of death. But that would ignore the risks of canceling things. School is where a lot of kids get lunch. If stores close, it will be hard to get food to people. In general, economic damage slows down the economy, which means layoffs and poverty. Poverty causes deaths.

This situation, though, may be worth the cost. Between coronavirus' virulence and its death rate, millions may die if it is allowed to spread freely. Already Italy is dealing with another kind of utilitarianism, more immediate and painful: who gets the limited ventilators. If you're very old and sick, you don't get one because they don't have high hopes for you anyway. My grandpa said this morning that, because of his age and cancer, they'd only send him home to die.

That's awful, and yet I'm not going to blame utilitarianism for it. They have to allocate those ventilators somehow, and it beats having people bid cash or something. Instead, I'd say it's utilitarianism coming into the equation too late. It should have been used to shut down towns sooner. It should have been used to stop people from leaving the virus area in China. It should have been used by Patient 31, who had a fever and yet went to church exposing thousands of people.

Use utilitarianism when you're weighing lives against things other than lives. Lives against how bored you are at home, how much you wanted to go to that conference, how much money you'll waste on those vacation tickets. And use it when you're not aware you're weighing lives against lives: do we close the soup kitchen, do we go into work at a hospital today, do we pass a bill to provide sick leave or a bill to bail out businesses for lost profits.

To practice utilitarianism, you need information. Even if it makes you nervous, it's good to read the news and check for up to date recommendations. Try, as much as possible, to think with your head.

Here are a few links I found useful.

Cancel Everything - The Atlantic

Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now - Medium

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