the COVID trolley problem

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post arguing that everyone might be right in their response to the coronavirus because of the dramatically different contexts in which we live. The point is that the experience of the pandemic is so complicated that it laughs at our attempts to offer a simple, definitive response.

This week, many state economies will begin the process of reopening. My state of Missouri is one of them. Full disclosure: I am in favor of the governor’s plan. I think it is cautious where it needs to be while also recognizing that statewide “shelter in place” has served its purpose. Not everyone agrees with this. Nationally, there are two very loud camps that are forming.

There is the “open it now” camp. I was going to address this group in this post, but frankly, I’m not sure it’s worth my time. Marching with firearms to the Capitol demonstrates that you have left reason behind. Although there is an important lesson to be learned by politicians here. You are flirting with danger when you push people to their limits. It is just bad leadership – especially given the American ethos – to assume or expect that people will willingly and peaceably comply for very long with the suspension of their civil liberties. And condescension is not the same thing as leadership.

The second camp is the group that I want to address in this post. I address this group as a friend who shares many of their concerns and fears. This is the group that believes it is far too early for us to even consider opening things back up. Many think we need to wait at least another month. Some think we may need to consider waiting another 18 months!* I think that 18 months is absurd to even consider, but I also think it’s okay to recognize the difficulty of this decision. When should we open up? How fast should we open up? These are hard decisions. Part of the reason they are hard is because this pandemic has strained or broken our regular moral decision making paradigms.

Thou Shalt Not Let Anyone Die

Deontological ethics is one moral system sometimes proposed by philosophers. Don’t get tripped up by that word. Basically, this is a principle-based moral system. It says that certain things are always right or always wrong regardless of context. Applied to the pandemic it sounds like this: It is always right to protect the lives of the vulnerable. Sounds good, right? What kind of monster would want to argue with this position?

A related question that deontological ethics asks is about the “universalizable” nature of our moral choices. If you couldn’t imagine all people in a society making the same moral decision as you, then it is an immoral decision. So, in the midst of the pandemic you think you should go see your grandma at the nursing home? What if everyone made that same decision? It’s not hard to imagine the devastation that would result.

So far, so good. The problem for this kind of principled moral decision making is that it doesn’t accommodate competing moral claims very well. Deontology tends to be rather dismissive of any other claims. “You want to open your business? Seriously? You think that killing my grandma is worth your livelihood?” The principle must be unbending. To which some would probably respond, “Well, yes. When it comes to moral decision making human life should always take precedence over economics.” I’ll grant that (for now). But when making that argument the deontologist is faced with another dilemma. To what extent are you willing to go to protect human life?

You could make the argument that “shelter in place” has been really effective in protecting human life. Just yesterday, I was reminded on my news feed of an awful school shooting that happened last year at this time. Shelter in place has brought an end to school shootings. According to one report, Miami hasn’t had a murder in over seven weeks! This is attributed, at least in part, to social distancing protocols. Heck, even animal life is flourishing because of the pandemic. Ending shelter in place will result in more deaths. Some will still die from the disease. I’m sure we will be bombarded with these stories in the coming weeks by a media eager to keep us afraid. But others will die from violence and car accidents. Last year nearly 40 thousand died in car accidents in this country alone. Why privilege COVID deaths? If protecting human life is our only guiding principle, then ending shelter in place at any point is an irresponsible idea. The response that I’ve received goes something like this “Be reasonable. No one is proposing unending quarantines. We just want to be quarantined until we are safe.” Yes. Good. The problem is that “safety” is a lousy and vague standard. What are the parameters of “safe?” No one seems to have any firm idea what would even be required to be safe. If it means that no one will continue to get sick and die of this particular disease, then we will never be safe. Not even waiting for a vaccine will do the trick. Should safety even be our guiding principle?**

It’s concerning that the purpose for “shelter in place” has shifted in the public consciousness. It was never promoted as a way of keeping everyone safe from the disease. It was about keeping our health system from being overwhelmed. If that was the purpose, then shelter in place has worked. If the purpose was to keep anyone from getting sick, then shelter in place should never end.

All aboard the COVID trolley

Most people aren’t deontologists though. We talk about principles, but in reality, most of us make calculations. We don’t abandon moral principles, but in taking moral action, we weigh additional criteria like context, evidence, and consequences. Then we try to make the most upright decision possible. This is sometimes called a utilitarian ethic. Utilitarianism has come in different forms, but it basically says that the most moral decision is the decision that leads to the best outcomes for the greatest number of people.

Most of our laws are loosely based on a utilitarian ethic. We’ve judged that it is reasonable to submit to wearing seat belts in our cars because it reduces the number of traffic fatalities. At the same time, we’ve judged that it is not reasonable to lower speed limits in order to save lives on our roads. We’ve made a calculation. You can say we’ve gotten the calculation wrong, but my point is simply that our policies almost always reflect some sort of calculation where different outcomes and consequences are weighed. And so it is with COVID policies as well. Shelter in place was judged to be necessary because the temporary suspension of rights was necessary to protect life. But what about ending the shelter in place orders? That requires an almost impossible moral calculation.

Philosophers have sometimes used thought experiments called “trolley problems” to illustrate the difficulties of moral decision making. So imagine this scenario. A trolley is barreling down the tracks. Tied to the tracks in front of it are nine 90-year-old grandmothers. There is another track that the trolley can be switched to before hitting these women, and you are in position to hit the switch. On this other track, however, there are three middle-aged dads who will die as a result of your action. What do you do? That’s the type of dilemma that faces many states right now. Keep the shelter in place and you may save some lives, but you will also be responsible for a spike in suicides especially among working men that results from economic catastrophe. Or what about this? On one track you have 1000 sick Americans. On the other track you have 10,000 starving children from the developing world. Or on the other track you have 1000 missed cancer diagnoses because elective surgeries are suspended, or you have thousands of children from marginalized communities experiencing the injustice of losing out on an education. The calculations are hopelessly complex. It’s insulting that there are people who claim that opening the economy is just about people willing to kill grandma so they can get their hair done. Opening the economy is a matter of life and death.

Oh, but let’s make it more complicated. What if you weren’t the one doing the switching. Instead, you were on one of the tracks, or your own grandmother was on one of the tracks. What now?

I say this not because I’m some sort of moral nihilist. (Hi! Have we met?) I say this only to illustrate the impossibly complicated calculation that goes into policies like this. A concern that a lot of us have is that the complexity of this calculation is not being judiciously considered.***

Don’t be an idiot

There is a third moral paradigm to consider. Dwight Shrute once said, “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.” Dwight was advocating kind of a twisted version of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is concerned not about principles or even consequences. Virtue ethics is concerned about the character of individuals. If a person is pursuing virtue in her life, then she will naturally make good and virtuous decisions in keeping with her virtue.

I tend to prefer virtue ethics. It acknowledges complexity and avoids simplistic moral platitudes. Instead, virtue ethics tries to find the balance between extremes. In between recklessness and cowardice is bravery. In between stinginess and wastefulness is frugality.

Virtue ethics may help us make decisions in the midst of the pandemic. We can try to find the balance between paranoid fear and irresponsible carelessness. We can be respectful and even submissive to our governmental leaders while also publicly demanding accountability and explanations for their decisions. We can pursue humility while also pursuing truth. We can tenaciously hold to those traditions that shape us even as society is being reshaped under our feet. As a Christian, I can pursue the things of a virtuous Christian life in hope that over time I will come to make consistent moral decisions that look more like Jesus.

The problem is that not even virtue ethics will provide a nice, clean answer to the dilemma of opening up the economy. And I suppose we will have to be okay with that. Because maybe there isn’t a nice, clean answer. It doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and not even try. But it does mean that we shouldn’t trust any decision that doesn’t recognize the dense complexity of the problem.

* This was proposed by Ezekiel Emanuel who is, among other things, an important advisor to leading Democrats. What is terribly confusing about Emanuel is that he is the same person who said he hope to die at 75 because old people are an unnecessary drag on society.

**Haidt and Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mind argues that America, especially in academia, has become governed by what they call “safetyism,” a worldview governed by chronic fear and the ever present need for protection by officially sanctioned authority figures. It’s not unfair to wonder if the response to the pandemic has been dictated, at least in part, by the worldview of safetyism.

*** A recent article in Bloomberg compared epidemiologists to economists. It’s a really good article. Economists are clearly utilitarians while epidemiologists are deontologists. This is why they, and those who support them, can’t really understand each other.

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