Musings from the Bunker 4/13/20
Another work week begins…
Yesterday was Easter—the date we were theoretically going to be “raring to go.” Yet, here we are relegated to our homes for what looks like at least another month. Some people aren’t following the rules, giving rise to a noun that I expect will make it into the Oxford English Dictionary before too long, the “covidiot.”
The reported cases of the virus have risen and the death rate has risen; although below previous estimates. What have declined are jobs, consumer confidence, and optimism for the future. Increasingly there are those who question whether all this was worth it. Some say point to failure to overburden some hospitals, or the lower than expected death rate, and suggest that this lockdown wasn’t worth it. Of course, they fail to take into account that the lockdown is a direct contributor to these decreased numbers. It’s still early, but there is a chance we are over the worst of this “first wave.”
There is a minority view on the lockdown that boils down to this—“Let them get sick and die and let’s move on.” Okay, so I’ve overstated it. To be fair, there is a rational basis for this view. Is it worth sacrificing economic stability, jobs, and dislocation in order to stave off a disease that could take an estimated one to two million lives? After all, those who are without jobs, find themselves homeless, suffer mental breakdowns, etc. will be victims of a different sort of pain. Plus, the argument goes, the “cost” of not sheltering in place represents the loss of the “least fit,” the smokers, and the most elderly and infirm in our society—representing less than 1% of our population. Of course, I think it is worth it—but there are those who don’t. Those who remember Star Trek II will recall that Spock sacrificed himself because he felt “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few (or the one).” This is a rough description of utilitarianism.
THE MORALITY OF SACRIFICING OTHERS
Several questions arise from this inquiry:
Is it ever okay to sacrifice lives for economic well-being?
What if it’s a million lives? But what if it’s only a dozen?
Is it okay for government (or an individual) to decide to sacrifice lives to save other lives?
We make decisions all the time that have an effect on the lives of others. Cars are not built flawlessly, with each and every safety measure available. Some will die. We have coal burning power plants that allow for our advanced technological society to operate. Some will die of lung disease. We pollute our water and air and warm the earth, knowing that these decisions—all defensible on economic grounds—will lead to the sacrifice of lives.
So what’s different about the pandemic? I think the distinction is that in the ordinary course, a random group, not yet in harm’s way will get in an accident or contract a sickness. We are prepared to care for them when they do. In this case, people are arguing to allow others to get sick in stunningly high numbers, knowing that we don’t have the capacity to care from them once they do. In a car accident or lung disease brought on by pollution, we have the capacity and treatment to care for those who are afflicted. Here, we would be guaranteeing death to a meaningful number of people.
But what if, instead of a million lives, it’s only a dozen. Would we sacrifice a dozen people to right the economy earlier? It seems like it’s worth it—but so long as it’s not our parent, friend, or neighbor. Do we think it is “more” moral to sacrifice only a dozen people, versus a million? Is it okay to condemn 12 people to die, but not 1,000,000? Both are equally immoral, I think.
What would Immanuel Kant have to say about that? (I’m pretty sure I can tell you—Kantian deontology suggests that there is an absolute morality that cannot be violated, e.g., one cannot commit murder). That said, we deal with these trade-offs all the time.
What do you think? Is it even moral for us to contemplate these questions?
AND WHAT OF THOSE VIOLATING THE RULES?
I am assuming most of you are following the rules, as virtually every state and country that has looked at this believes we should be doing. That said, we went on a walk in Beverly Hills yesterday and saw many people not wearing municipally mandated masks. As we all know by now, masks primarily are for those around the wearer—and not the wearer. So when they fail to participate, they are openly endangering others.
Are those who don’t wear masks or have chosen to ignore the shelter-in-place rules (particularly those at low risk of contracting the disease, so they have little stake in their actions) committing an immoral act? Are they, by their actions, effectively choosing that others will get sick and some will die?
There is a phenomenon, particularly but not exclusively among the young, that suggests that it’s “no big deal” for them to violate the rules “just this one time” or “just with a few friends.” The problem here, of course, is that if everyone has a few “free exceptions,” the efficacy of the shelter-in-place plan is jeopardized, again risking the lives and health of others. Were it as simple as exposing oneself by smoking, not exercising, or eating donuts for breakfast every day, one would be making a choice, the consequences of which are borne by the actor. Of course I understand that smokers expose others to second-hand smoke and donut aficionados will overburden our health care system, but their actions are choices that do not directly endanger others. In the current environment, what you do affects me and would I do affects you.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
What am I getting at? Really two things:
The cost to society of not doing this far outweighs the costs of doing this
Not participating to the fullest extent one can is immoral
COVID-19 NEWS—WHERE TO GET IT
Thanks to Eva Dworsky, here is the Johns Hopkins University site on COVID-19 facts and updates: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/.”
Here is the Los Angeles County public health site on the virus, with the “daily numbers” (if you dare to track this): http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/Coronavirus/
And this is the State of California site: https://covid19.ca.gov/
CONCLUDING REQUEST AND CARTOON
Earlier, the movie My Favorite Year was recommended as evoking nostalgia for an era in which we did not live. Please send your recommendations for books and movies that evoke a by-gone recent era (think 19th century forward), as well as your votes for the worst popular movies.
And this, just because I’ve always loved the off-beat humor of the Far Side and this is a favorite on futility:
Have a great week,