Utilitarianism is a classic “vector” of ethical theory, a structured way to decide “the right way” to resolve life-and-death dilemmas like the one facing us today. This is a versatile model, one that that has continued to re-emerge in modified forms ever since its roots in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). The coronavirus news is now full of a new variant of this theory that I call “Sucks to be you!” ethics. 
I apologize for my crude terminology, but that currently popular street language seems to sum up well the underlying attitude of the proponents of this approach. This is in contrast to the “masks and other mitigation” model most advocated by medical professionals to deal with the novel coronavirus until a vaccine or reliable treatment is found. This alternative utilitarian response instead says: “We are killing the economy through these mitigation measures. The economic well-being of 330 million American people is much more important than the 50 million or so older and immune-compromised people who are at the highest risk of dying from Covid-19.”
Or, as one Los Angeles resident commented, “I’m not afraid. … People get old and they die.” And so, if you are (as I am) among that 50 million (give or take) population sub-group, well, “Sucks to be you!” You will just have to take the bullet for the good of the larger economy. Either confine yourself to your house or risk a very miserable death from Covid-19. Some choice!
How we got here
The classic utilitarian catch phrase is, “Seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Utilitarian arguments try to put some rationality on a goal-based solution (e.g., “go for the greatest good”) to these messy social problems.
The Telos, or “good end” way of looking at ethical dilemmas goes back at least as far as the Greeks who gave us that word. It often stands in direct opposition to the “rules and duties” focus of most religion-based ethical systems. All the more interesting because so many conservative Christians are currently advocating this decidedly non-Christian philosophy.
Medical triage is the best-known example of utilitarian thinking. In a battlefield situation, this classic medical strategy separates the wounded into three camps. The “walking wounded” get only minimal care unit more resources are available. The worst off are given only palliative care and are allowed to die, so that limited medical resources are directed to treat the wounded who can be saved by prompt treatment but would die otherwise. In the end, theoretically, you have the maximum possible number of survivors. But for the unfortunate “least number,” well, see the title above.
Building more lifeboats
I wrote a post very early into this virus mess about the literal “lifeboat ethics” goal-based approach many were advocating for stranded cruise ships where we were resorting too early to “tossing people overboard” to protect the rest of us. The better approach I have advocated is to “build more lifeboats,” but the best version of that opportunity was over two long months ago. We still have no nationwide “lifeboat-building” plan to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus beyond more empty promises and factual untruths from the White House.
Instead, we are collectively tired of self-isolation and no haircuts, and so many parts of the country are opening up their economies despite rising infection and death numbers. Only on May 10, well after dozens of Florida nursing homes were overrun with the virus and hundreds have died, did a state health agency (but not, apparently, the Governor himself) order testing to be done even where there were no outward signs of coronavirus. On May 11, the White House suggested it was open to extend this policy nationwide. However, front-line doctors still claim a shortage of available tests and personal protective equipment.
It has been for four months since this virus emerged here, and we are still not targeting specifically the asymptomatic spreaders through detection and tracking, which is likely is the only way to keep more and more people from dying in high-risk health facilities and workplaces. 
About that economy
Without a doubt, the economy remains in free-fall (although the stock market has been doing strangely well of late – another subject). So, what about this trade-off? Quite simply, this is a false choice, one forced on us because the government has been “burning the lifeboats.” Here are some countries who have turned around their coronavirus infections (courtesy of EndCoronavirus.org):
In contrast, here is the United States, below, and note that New York is responsible for almost all of the slight downturn. Much of the rest of the country is still in “high-growth” mode. Covid-19 deaths in Iowa, for instance, continue to grow at twice the national average every day.
All models of ethical decision-making have “fatal flaws” that doom them in isolation. That is why there are so many ways to address these issues and so many nasty arguments about them. As I have written in the past, a key fatal flaw of this “Save the economy at all costs” utilitarian idea is the inevitability of unintended consequences. You intend to get the economy back up and running. But if people refuse to come to work, or to ride mass transit, or to eat in restaurants because of still-rampant coronavirus infections, then the economy will not restart anyway. Indeed, it may get stuck in long-term dysfunction.
Add to this the reality that some people thankfully feel empathy for the 50 million-plus friends, family members and strangers who are at continued risk of death if they drop their guard, or if infected family members come home with the virus. The White House can’t even keep its own workplace safe. The asymptomatic carriers of this virus are allowed to remain free and untested, while millions of at-risk Americans remain under virtual house arrest.
If you are thinking that “These old folks are just going to die anyway,” don’t go into the life insurance business. An 80-year-old American woman has, on average, another decade of life to look forward to. Younger people with many otherwise benign health conditions are also at risk of untimely death or disability, and that demographic may well include you.
We lost the great singer-songwriter John Prine to this virus recently. Fifty years ago he wrote the prescient song “Hello in There” about how our society devalues its elders. Don’t fall for this “economic” solution to our shared coronavirus challenge.
- Two years ago I started a series of posts that “walked around the circle” of the most common ethical “vectors” that structure this discipline best for me. The thread starts here, and you can follow the “Dice” icon to follow this thread, or just click on “Good people disagree” in the categories list to browse these posts. The summary of that “circle” is what I call “the moral conversation.”
- Basic statistical sampling could go a long way at identifying asymptomatic spreaders and undetected future “hot spots,” as this post explains.
For additional posts on probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.
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