Photo: Pescanik
Photo: Pescanik

Intentions are not ethically decisive in an epidemic. The reason is that right and wrong intentions are revealed in the same action. Thus, the motivation is mixed, good will being bundled up with bad will. So, doing one’s duty, doing what is right, what one ought to do, cannot be the unequivocal criterion of morality.

Kant relies on the case where right and wrong are clearly separated. The right thing to do is to tell the truth always. Irrespective of consequences. In fact, the categorical imperative to tell the truth would sort out consequences into the good ones and the bad, and only the good would follow from the action that ought to be done in conformity with the categorical imperative. Right and wrong, good and bad would be distinguished in the same way in which true and false are. And true and false are always separated from each other and indeed contradict each other.

However, right and wrong are not truth-functional in general. And thus, good and bad are not separable in the way true and false are. So, while telling the truth is always the right thing to do, consequences be damned, that does not generalise to all intentions and actions. In an epidemic, doing the right thing may very well imply doing the wrong thing too.

In that case, doing good rather than bad on balance, by considering the consequences of actions or non-actions, may be the inevitable ethical choice, i.e. utilitarianism may be the right ethics.

There are two characteristics of an epidemic that may account for the utilitarian ethics being superior to Kantian ethics or to deontology (they are not the same, but I put that aside).

One is the complementarity of right and wrong due to the fact that our actions spread the epidemic. So, good willed social action may do harm and given that this is known and is not just an unintended consequence, good and bad will are hard to separate from each other. Even conformity with the categorical imperative may be wrong in this case. As it might lead to our duty, everybody’s duty being to intentionally do wrong.

The other ethical characteristic of the epidemic is that it is a public bad. Everybody can be infected. So, it is a non-rivalrous bad. Or at least it spreads to the point when herd immunity is achieved. But it is an excludable public bad. We can refrain from action in order to stop the spread of the epidemic. That, however, may imply that we will not do the right thing, we may fail in doing what we have the duty to do, i.e. to do that what we owe to others and thus to ourselves.

Thus, the epidemic provides a pure form of a moral dilemma at least from the point of view of Kantian or deontological ethics.1

Both deontological ethics and utilitarianism can put moral dilemmas aside. There is a world in which the categorical imperative is adhered to by free and rational individuals who respect their autonomy (people are never treated as means only, but always also as ends). There is also the utilitarian world in which truth is valued much above falsehood, so telling the truth and in general following the categorical imperative always leads to higher individual and thus total (or average) utility. So, while moral dilemmas are possible, ethics providing an incomplete guide to action, moral dilemmas never arise because they are ruled out by the moral principles that are operative.

The epidemic is a problem, however, because there is joint production of moral outcomes: one action, two outcomes with opposite moral values. Kantian ethics is not applicable, while utilitarianism may lead to various repugnant implications. E.g. younger population is preferable to the older as improved demographics increase average utility.

Utilitarianism is less repugnant when dealing with an epidemic because it can resolve moral dilemmas. One may still argue that it is not ethics but just politics, it does not provide moral principles, but rather policy advice.2 Perhaps the more fundamental problem is that it might very well advise that everybody should take their own risks as they are. That might mean that we take the consequences of the epidemic, of the public bad, as those are distributed by the virus (that would be a random equation, but let us assume cæteris paribus). So, there is no change in people’s behaviour and the more risky groups face their risks as they are. E.g. assume that the more productive groups face lower risks or suffer less severe consequences if they get infected, then total or average utility might very well be higher if they continue doing what they have been doing with most of the additional bad consequences falling on the more risky group.

We may not want to be interested in utilities but in people, as Rawls argued. In other words, there may be a limit to how similar different individuals are, so utilities may not be interpersonally comparable. So, we may want to redistribute the risks to the extent that we can. One ethical way to do that is to act virtuously. This appears to be the natural moral approach to take in an epidemic because of the entanglement of good with bad in the same act or behaviour. So, one needs to refrain from utility in order to lower the disutility, and indeed with moral regard for other people at the cost to oneself.

Which is what we mean by ethics: what we owe to others and thus to ourselves. One would have to act virtuously, as in John Prine’s “Hello In There”.

One may want to reread Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party and consider the choices the persons in the play face. One being similar to those faced by health providers in an epidemic. Clearly there has to be something virtuous that motivates the excessive risks that they face. Their risk-taking lowers the risks others face, which is more than duty requires and does not maximise total or average utility. It does not stop the epidemic, but channels the virus where it might present the lower risk. In The Cocktail Party that ends tragically, which is probably inherent to ethics as a genre.

Appendix: Pareto-optimum

All ethics are optimal in the sense of Pareto, because the allocations of moral values that they imply are not comparable, as they rely on different principles. Inherently, if the principles they are based on are followed, no moral improvement is possible without the violation of the principle on which the distribution of intentions, actions, or outcomes is based. So, each particular ethics is Pareto optimal or efficient and they are incomparable, thus they are all simultaneously Pareto optimal or efficient.

Often, mistakenly, Pareto optimality is taken to be a dynamic principle, i.e. that it motivates or advises or prescribes the move from a Pareto-inferior to a Pareto-superior distribution. This is in a way suggested by the Pareto principle itself – no overall improvement without distributional consequences, i.e. somebody is better off and somebody is worse off. But while that is the way to distinguish between Pareto-superior and Pareto-inferior distributions, that does not imply that there is a Pareto-improving way from the latter to the former, as in general there is not. These are comparative static types of comparisons, not dynamic descriptions. (Detailed treatment in Lj. Strncevic, V. Gligorov, Good, Pareto-Better, and the Best).

Peščanik.net, 24.04.2020.


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  1. On moral dilemmas see Ruth Barcan Marcus, “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency” in Modalities: Philosophical Essays. OUP, 1993.
  2. For an excellent non-technical discussion of equality or rather inequality implications of utilitarianism see J. Mirrlees, “The Economic Uses of Utilitarianism” in A. Sen and B. Williams, Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge University Press, 1982.