Sunday, 17 May 2020

Ethics by Numbers

Ethics by numbers

We might imagine that numbers can resolve an ethical dilemma.  Faced with two inescapable ethical choices, A and B: A will cause two deaths and B will cause one.  B seems the obvious ethical choice.  In the real world, ethical choices are rarely so straightforward.  In fact, even in the hypothetical world the choice isn't so clear.

Ethics 101

When I was a student in Ethics 101, Professor Glass presented us with this standard thought experiment. You are on a boat cast adrift at sea with six other passengers. You have supplies enough for six people to survive. There is no hope of rescue. If you do nothing all seven people will die. What do you do?  How do you decide the ethical or moral course of action?  The scenario allows only four options:
  1. Do nothing.
  2. Save yourself.
  3. Sacrifice yourself
  4. "The greatest good for the greatest number of people."
I used this scenario in a number of classes for varying reasons: sometimes as a “values clarification” exercise; more often just to teach vocabulary. The experience of presenting this scenario has taught me that when it comes to ethical dilemmas the immediate response is a combination of avoidance and denial. 

Types of ethical behaviour

Option 1:  Do nothing and everyone dies seems the obvious worst-possible choice.  But the combination of religion and Hollywood movies has conditioned us to believe that some unlikely, miraculous, heroic event will save the day.  To take a life would be immoral, therefore God will save us.  The hero will come up with some unimaginable combination of trickery and courage to save us all because that's what always happens in the movies.  

Option 2:  Save yourself. "Anybody but me" is the ethical axiom of egoism.  The ethical thing for you to do is to guarantee your own survival no matter what. Whatever choice is best for you--enlightened self-interest--is what is ethical. This is the point of view upheld by Ayn Rand in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, and by her acolyte Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve until shortly before the collapse of 2008.  This is the ethical position underpinning American capitalism.

Option 3:  Altruism.  Being ethical means putting others before yourself, operating in their interest rather than your own. Heroism?  A "messiah complex"? Naivety?  Wishful thinking?  The egoist loves--and feeds on--altruists!  In theory, this is the ethical basis of Christianity: "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "turn the other cheek."

Option 4:  "The greatest good for the greatest number."  This is the central maxim of utilitarianism.   According to Professor Glass, utilitarianism was the only viable, ethical position.  (Did I mention that Professor Glass was a Communist?) Young upstart that I was, I argued quite vigorously against the Professor's position.  The word "good" was synonymous with "moral" and "ethical"; therefore, the maxim "the greatest good" begged the question.  (This was back in the day when people understood what "to beg the question" meant.)  Actually, it was the worst degree of "begging the question" because it created a tautology:  "the most ethical" ("greatest good") is "ethical."  Well, duhh!

The COVID-19 boat

Here we are in the COVID-19 boat.  Of course, that's not quite true.  We are all in the same storm, but each of us is in our particular socio-economic boat. Still, the what-is-ethical scenario isn't just hypothetical anymore.  Governments, almost universally, have adopted utilitarian responses to the novel corona-virus.  Oddly the Swedes have proven outliers, adopting a laissez-faire, egoist ethical position.  Some gun-toting, Darwin-award-wining Americans have demonstrated against government-imposed restrictions in their state capitals.  And Donald Trump appears to have made getting back to "business as usual" his highest priority.  Egoism might be a credible ethical position but it can easily slide into the misguided notion that my privilege, comfort and convenience are more important than other people's lives.

"The Readiness is all"

The most common criticism of national governments has been the failure to adopt utilitarian measures quickly or strictly enough. China has been criticized both for doing too much and for doing too little:  imposing draconian quarantine measures on one hand and failing to provide information on the spread of the virus on the other.  Lack of preparedness is, as it should be, the prevalent preoccupation.  Bill Gates TED talk (2015) on the need to prepare for a pandemic and George W. Bush's speech (2005) on the same theme have circulated widely.  To the list of people who "told you so," we can add virologist Michael Kinch who is quoted in Bill Bryson's The Body, saying: “We are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago."  In the modern version of the Cassandra effect, what people prefer to believe always trumps truth and prescience.

On Being ethical

Obviously, reckless disregard for human life is unethical. If your religion tells you reckless disregard for human life is okay, there is something wrong with your religion.  Reckless disregard for human life in favour of economics, politics or even pleasure is immoral.  Egoism, altruism and utilitarianism all direct us to the same recommended ethical behaviours:  quarantine, social distancing, and hygiene.  However, the numbers in themselves will not solve the ethical dilemma before us.

Where are we?

As Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and scientist, pointed out, in her speech to the Bundestag, we are at the very beginning, not the middle and definitely not the end, of the pandemic.  The novel corona-virus will be with us forever, the pandemic for years.  Best-case scenario, a vaccine will be developed in a year, production of sufficient quantities of the vaccine and getting it into human bodies will take at least another year.  And the "best-case scenario" is always, by definition, optimistic.  Research into the HIV-AIDS virus has been ongoing for 40 years without producing a vaccine.

Mortality in Ontario

The Government of Ontario (the Canadian province where I live)  has forecast between 3000 and 15000 deaths from COVID-19 over a two-year pandemic with the current measures in place.   We will never know the exact death toll from COVID-19.   In each of the last three years, over 100,000 people have died--of various causes--in Ontario.  These numbers do not tell us that we should be blaisé about lives being lost, but they do tell us that the numbers alone will not dictate ethical behaviour.  Over the last three years, we have gone about our "normal" lives, taking the typical risks of contagious diseases, traffic accidents, and lifestyle-provoke heart disease and cancer, while thousands of people died around us of exactly those causes.  What has changed is a question of degree:  the degree of contagion of the COVID-19 virus and the degree of public awareness.  What remains is the ethical dilemma of how to behave in the face of a life-threatening, contagious disease.

What is and what should be

The last four chapters of The Big Picture--although the book is largely about physics and the author, Sean Carroll, a physicist--are dedicated to ethics.  Carroll's theme is captured in the maxim:  "You can't derive ought from is."  In other words, physics, the rules which describe nature, cannot provide the rules of morality, cannot tell us how people should behave. In his critique of utilitarianism, Carroll points out that "The attractive idea of 'quantifying utility' becomes slippery when we try to put it into practice."  One of the problems we can see in our present circumstance is that in practice, utilitarianism means decisions about what is good, moral and utilitarian are left to a handful of politicians.  To return to my objection to utilitarianism from decades passed, what is "good" is left unanswered let alone unquantified.








Finding serenity

Obviously, saving lives is "good."  However, surrendering everything that is "good" about life in order to preserve life is no answer.  We are still a long way from that ethical dilemma but it is before us.  In the immediate term, egoism, altruism and utilitarianism all tell us to remain vigilant, to keep a distance and wash hands.  Carroll's conclusion is that we "construct" morality as circumstances present themselves.  Making it up as we go along isn't very reassuring, but when the time comes we need to be able to tell ourselves that we did the best we could.  A version of the "Serenity Prayer" has never seemed more apt:  we must grant ourselves the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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