Friday, April 17, 2020

Against Conventional Moral 'Decency'

"It’s obviously horrible to value the economy over human lives." - Regina Rini echoes a common moral conviction.  I am so deeply baffled by this.  As though "the economy" was nothing but a number on a spreadsheet, mere "corporate profits", disconnected from human lives and livelihoods. (Progressive-approved history textbooks will no doubt have to cut all mention of the Great Depression on grounds that it was no great tragedy, of interest only to fat cats and their cronies.)

The real, underlying moral question is instead how we should weigh specifically medical interests against human wellbeing more broadly.  If anything is "obviously horrible", to my way of thinking, it is to claim that nothing matters beyond sheer existence -- that happiness, mental and emotional wellbeing, quality of life, prosperity, and human connection, all count for naught in comparison to keeping our bare biological mechanisms running smoothly.  I think few people would really endorse such a claim on reflection, but it seems to be implied by the unthinking prioritization of "saving lives".

Rini eventually concedes that the standard morality play (virtuous protectors of public health vs greedy fat cats) is "a dangerously simplistic gloss on the current situation," and that "the economic consequences of flattening the curve are morally weighty as well. Those of us with doable-at-home jobs are merely bored, but many others are scared, suffering and at risk of long term impoverishment from missed rent or medical debt. Think also of the many people trapped in lockdown with their domestic abusers. These are moral costs, not merely economic ones, and they will only mount as the months go on."

But she nonetheless reserves her moral outrage for those who are too quick to openly consider such tradeoffs, and concludes that "we show deep disrespect for human life if we rush to find the earliest possible point at which it makes economic sense to throw the vulnerable under the virus."  Here Rini seems to have implicitly returned to her original morality play.  Anyone who actually appreciated the moral weight of people's social and economic interests would not contrast "economic sense" with "throw[ing] the vulnerable under the virus", as though nobody was economically vulnerable.

The central framing device in Rini's article seems to confuse deontic constraints with the very different issue of granting lexical priority to medical interests. Rini compares considering pandemic tradeoffs to standard philosophical examples of rights-violating utilitarian sacrifices.  But what's so curious about the current situation is that it already involves widely-accepted rights violations (suppressing rights to autonomy, freedom of movement and association) in the form of lockdowns imposed for the sake of the "greater good" of public health.  We are sacrificing the economically and socially vulnerable (and making everyone moderately miserable in myriad smaller ways) in hopes of rescuing the medically vulnerable. So there can be no principled moral objection to taking care to ensure that this really is the better outcome, and that we aren't disastrously violating rights without even securing a net-benefit.  Nobody is proposing that we go out and deliberately kill people for economic gain (selling their organs, perhaps?).  So I think it's deeply misleading for Rini to frame the issue this way.

A better analogy might be to an aid skeptic complaining to Robin Hood that his theft was (surprisingly) counterproductive, preventing industrial development that would eventually raise living standards more overall, including for vulnerable people elsewhere that Robin wasn't helping.  Now, you might believe that the skeptic is just wrong on the empirics here, and moreover that the poor are in such desperate need that theft for their sake is justified. But it would be absurd to accuse the skeptic of "show[ing] deep disrespect for human life", or of "throwing the vulnerable" under the bus, or such like.  This skeptic is not "obviously horrible", but at most simply mistaken.

Of course, we can imagine a horrible Trumpy person who parrots skeptical talking points without actually caring at all for the vulnerable (even those putatively harmed by Robin Hood's actions).  My point is just that there's nothing inherently horrible or uncaring about the skeptical position.  To think otherwise would itself reveal a morally lamentable lack of concern for less-salient victims.

Rini claims that "Twitter rationalists" (all of them?) display "gruesome enthusiasm" for letting people die.  Perhaps some do, I don't know who she has in mind.  But I suspect that she's rather failing to appreciate the possibility of being truly and deeply concerned for the less salient victims of the current tragedy -- victims that she herself helps to erase from our minds with dismissive talk of "economic sense" and the putative deep "decency" of only considering medical victims until the very last moment that we possibly can.

Such a narrow moral focus is not truly decent, and I think it's important to push back against the idea that it is.

P.S. Obviously none of the above addresses the empirical issues necessary to determine whether or not continuing the lockdown successfully promotes the greater good.  For what it's worth, I suspect that many measures (strictly limiting gathering sizes, requiring masks in shops) are well-justified, whereas others (closing parks, discouraging outdoor solo activities) are not.  As is so often the case, but especially important when the stakes are so high: I would very much prefer to see more nuance, open-mindedness, and careful cost-benefit analysis in the public discourse, to better help us to discern the truth.  We should be wary of those certain that they're already in possession of it.


  1. Thank you for writing this. There is an appreciation for this perspective in various discussions, but I suspect that more people would explore these ideas openly if they knew they had a good rejoinder to the moral outrage that the speaker would inevitably encounter.

  2. Thanks for this, Richard. I shared this with my intro PPE class this morning. It's a great supplement to the material on Cost-Benefit Analysis we've been covering in class lately.

    1. That's great, glad you found it helpful! (I always enjoy teaching your work on price gouging, by the way.)


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