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Corona ethics: a tragedy in two acts

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Abstract

Keynote lecture held at (online) corona ethics workshop at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, organised by Jan Willem Wieland and Phil Robichaud. --- Comments most welcome ---
Corona ethics: a tragedy in two acts
f.jongepier@ftr.ru.nl @fleurjongepier
Note to the digital reader
It’s difficult to assess how talks land when one gives them across the wire as I did in this case.
I very much welcome any feedback or comments,
so please get in touch with me if you have any :-)
The two acts, i.e. plan
1. First level tragedies in times of COVID-19
2. Second level tragedies in times of COVID-19
The two acts
1. First level tragedies in times of COVID-19
Corona tragedies
What is a tragedy?
(A note on) Nussbaums definition
Hegel’s question
Tragedies versus F*-ups, or why sexual harassment isn’t tragic
2. Second level tragedies in times of COVID-19
Corona ethics can involve having “many thoughts too many
Can ethics itself be tragic? Reflections Wittgenstein, Williams, and Wolf
(Meta-ethics COVID-style)
Operative aesthetic form: Jo-ha-kyū(): “a concept of modulation and movement applied
in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it
essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly.”
First: a disclaimer and a favour
‘Fast philosophy
I am not a virologist, but...
I am not a tragedy expert, but...
A note on Q&A:
let’s focus on corona ethics first, philosophical technicalities later
Corona tragedies
Black people are 4x more likely to die from COVID-19
(where this was “caused not only by pre-existing
differences in communities’ wealth, health, education
and living arrangements”, Guardian)
Corona measures to restrict virus make "violence in
homes more frequent, more severe and more
dangerous” (NY Times)
Social distancing makes adequate care for disabled
people who need such care impossible (BBC), also
“disabled people risk being further excluded from
society”(BBC2)
In cases of severe scarcity on intensive care units,
having to decide X gets an IC-bed and Y does not.
What is a tragedy? (1)
Broadly understood: ‘well-intending persons must do bad things’
Definition must be neither too broad (including bad decisions) nor too narrow
(nothing’s a tragedy, if one thinks about it)
Regarding s/t as tragedy involves delicate balance between denial/refusal and status quo
bias/cowardice (one needs to accept sadness, but not too quickly)
A tragedy is a situation in which,
1. There is great harm/sadness [cost condition]
2. No one is responsible for (1) [non-responsibility condition]
3. Something must be done [practical condition]
4. (1) remains to be the case regardless of (3) [independence condition]
What is a tragedy? (2)
Nussbaum (2000) ‘The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis’
‘tragic question’ versus ‘obvious question’, i.e. “what ought I to do?”
TQ: “is any of the alternatives open to us free from serious moral wrongdoing?”
TQ is “not simply a way of expressing the fact that it is difficult to answer” the OQ
TQ involves a “distinct difficulty”, namely that “all the possible answers to the obvious question,
including the best one, are bad, involving serious moral wrongdoing. In that sense, there is no
‘right answer’.”
Answering TQ involves a conflict two “spheres of values” & requires going beyond cost/benefit
analyses, and consulting an “independent account of ethical value
Nussbaum’s definition looks to be both too broad and too narrow
Nussbaum’s definition
Too narrow (1): “serious moral wrongdoing”.
A lot of tragic scenarios, e.g. most corona tragedies, involve no wrongdoing (wrong <> bad)
Too narrow (2): conflicting values. In Nussbaum’s examples, an individual must choose
between two (apparently) opposed values, e.g.
Being dutiful leader <> preserving lives of friends (Case A, Arjuna)
Protecting someone <> risking one’s own life (Case B, Arjuna)
Not being a traitor <> respecting religious obligations (Case C, Sophocles’ Antigone)
Child care versus academia (Nozick).
However,
Some corona tragedies suggest there’s not always a value conflict. E.g. ‘code black’ triage. The
(only) value is saving a life. Even if we rephrase as public health case (saving more lives).
Does answering TQ require ”independent account of ethical value”?
Too broad? One can be responsible for creating a situation in which TQ arises; not tragic.
Nussbaum on Hegel’s Q
Hegel’s question”: is there a ”rearrangement of our practices that can remove the tragedy?”
“Hegel’s point”: ”the recognition of tragedy leads us to ask how the tragic situation might
have been avoided by better social planning; tragedy thus provides a major set of incentives
for good social reflection.” (not: the pandemic gives us “opportunities”)
Hegel’s Q and COVID-19, Noam Chomsky: "This coronavirus pandemic could have been
prevented, the information was there to prevent it. In fact, it was well-known. (...) (Al Jazeera)
Thin line between non-responsibility condition and our answer to Hegel’s Q.
(The more one zooms out, the more responsibility seems to disappear)
If the tragic situation really could have been avoided, it’s not a tragic situation.
So Nussbaum’s definition may be too broad.
”Tragedy is rarely just tragedy.
Most often, behind the gloom is
stupidity, or selfishness, or
laziness, or malice.”
(Nussbaum p. 1016)
What is not a tragedy
What is not a tragedy
What is not a tragedy
- Not all situations that involve inevitable sadness are tragies. In fact, it can be morally wrong to describe
a situation or tell someone that the situation they are in, is a tragedy.
Case: being a victim of power intimidation or sexual harassment. Speaking out & then:
“nothing we can do”, “beyond my role”, “rules”, “no strong evidence”, “tragic”
This is not a tragedy, this is to use a technical term, following Frankfurt’s trend a fuck up.
Non-repsonsibility condition isn’t met
“Complicating” factors? (1) no bad intentions (2) structural roots, the sixties were different, whatever.
Irrelevant. Still an F*up !
What this shows rather is this: the larger the F*up, the more difficult to distinguish it from tragedy,
yet the more important it is.
What is truly tragic is when individuals in such circumstances (1) must choose whether or not to report it
and/or be a whistleblower, and (2) that not doing so may well be in one’s “best interest”.
Second act
Can (doing) ethics itself be tragic?
Claims:
1. Corona ethics can involve having many thoughts too many
2. This is a tragedy
Moral bedrock
Some self-plagiarism, on “code black” triage:
-What is suitable in that situation [of panic during height of pandemic], is to recognize the
limits of ethics, to recognize that there’s no right action, and to say: ‘We’ve hit rock bottom.
Our moral reasons have run out. Let us admit defeat, and draw lots.’ Yes, choosing for
arbitrariness is tragic, but the situation is tragic.
I ended:
Yesterd ay, in a TV talk show when asked why ot her countries often opt for the lottery princip le,
because of problems with the fair innings principle, it was said “We’ve given this careful
thought”. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe sometimes, we shouldn’t think about ethics too
much.”
I realize this is controversial. I had something rather specific in mind, though:
Williams/Wolf onone thought too many
Williams on having one thought too many (OTTM)
Basic idea: it can be bad or wrong just to have certain thoughts
Williams (1982, 17) cites Charles Fried
(context: Williams was after the Kantians (impartiality))
Wolf on Williams
‘Standard view’: what’s wrong is that he thinks about moral justifications at the time of action.
It would be different indeed precisely as it should be if one wondersretrospectively or
counterfactually, what would be morally permissible and why”.
Acting morally <> thinking about morality (<> thinking morally)
Wolf:OTTM goes deeper,“offstage reflections of certain kinds of cases are undesirable, too”
I.e. sometimes there’s something objectionable about looking for justification as such.
Wolf: “the reactions I would hope for in my husband, and that I am not displeased with in myself,
respond to at least some of these invitations to deliberate by changing the subject or brushing them
off.”
Wolf citing Williams: rescuer case is “a reminder that some situations lie beyond justifications
Corona ethics as MTTM (1)
Harry and Harriet need an IC-bed, but there’s only one. Both have an equal chance of recovery. All medical
reasons have run out. Clinician/ethicist is faced with the (“obvious”) question: what should one do?
Suppose the thought occurs to one: ’Given that Harry is older, Harriet should get the bed.’ Further thoughts
may occur to one, e.g. ‘It is just that Harriet gets the bed,’ ’Harriet deserves to live more than Harry,’ or,
Harry has less of a moral claim on the bed than Harriet, tragic as it is.
NB1. Bear in mind that code black means: all medical considerations have been exhausted. So all age-
related thoughts here are no proxy for lesser chance of surviving IC. These are thus purely age-based
thoughts based on the fair innings principle (possibly further based on the thought that elderly have
already had their chance to live a ”complete” life hence less of a moral claim).
NB2. The Dutch code black script operates with age classes: someone of ‘60-80’ has a stronger “moral
claim” to be saved than someone who in category ’80+’. So one might reconsider the case and
accompanying thoughts with Harry aged 81 and Harriet aged 79.
I want to say these look like MTTM: it’s arguably bad (perhaps wrong) to have such thoughts.
Corona ethics as MTTM (2)
How is it a thought “too many”? We can distinguish:
1. Because one didn’t have to engage in such reflection (reflection is misplaced)
2. Because it leads to bads or involves wrongs
I want to say 2. Because the thoughts
Harm the moral agent herself (the distinct pain of having to think these thoughts)
Harm others/society, e.g. normalizes a way of thinking/talking about human beings that shouldn’t be
normalized (cf. Iris Murdoch). Can lead to elderly to regard themself as “too much” and might obstruct
voluntary decision-making about end of life decisions and wantinh to be saved or not.
Corona ethics as MTTM (3)
If corona ethics can involve the having of too many thoughts, then
OTTM is not just about impartiality (‘wife’/’husband’), but generalizes
OTTM can be had by people occupying official positions and/or roles.
But is it tragic?
If ethics can involve having MTTM, which is bad or wrong, can it be tragic?
A tragedy is a situation in which,
1. There is great harm/sadness [cost condition]
2. No one is responsible for (1) [non-responsibility condition]
3. Something must be done [practical condition]
4. (1) remains to be the case regardless of (3) [independence condition]
But is it tragic?
If ethics can involve having MTTM, which is bad or wrong, can it be tragic?
A tragedy is a situation in which,
1. There is great harm/sadness Both on side of medical ethicists & society
2. No one is responsible for (1)
3. Something must be done
4. (1) remains to be the case regardless of (3)
But is it tragic?
If ethics can involve having MTTM, which is bad or wrong, can it be tragic?
A tragedy is a situation in which,
1. There is great harm/sadness Both on side of medical ethicists & society
2. No one is responsible for (1)
3. Something must be done We need to have a public debate; code black script
4. (1) remains to be the case regardless of (3)
But is it tragic?
If ethics can involve having MTTM, which is bad or wrong, can it be tragic?
A tragedy is a situation in which,
1. There is great harm/sadness Both on side of medical ethicists & society
2. No one is responsible for (1)
3. Something must be done We need to have a public debate; code black script
4. (1) remains to be the case regardless of (3) Either no democracy or painful debate
But is it tragic?
If ethics can involve having MTTM, which is bad or wrong, can it be tragic?
A tragedy is a situation in which,
1. There is great harm/sadness Both on side of medical ethicists & society
2. No one is responsible for (1) Ethicists/clinicians forced to have MTTM
3. Something must be done We need to have a public debate; code black script
4. (1) remains to be the case regardless of (3) Either no democracy or painful debate
On torturing cats and babies
“Suppose you believe as you very likely do [but
who knows, maybe not! FJ] that it is immoral to
torture children for the sole purpose of generating
sadistic pleasure.” (Shafer-Landau, “Introduction to Part II” of
Ethical Theory: An Anthology)
“If I consider the act of torturing the cat, I judge
immediately that, in the circumstances, this would
be wrong. I do not need to consult my other beliefs
in order to arrive at this judgment [oh, yippee! FJ].”
(McMahan, “Moral Intuition”)
Merely apparent ethics tragedies?
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