An extreme utilitarianism stalks the land
My daughter has started learning about philosophy. She is particularly enamoured with a thought experiment known as The Trolley Problem.
The Trolley Problem invites us to either let things be with dire consequences or take action by pulling a lever and producing less dire consequences. Most people see this as a no-brainer: take action, pull the lever.
This choice supposedly outs most people as utilitarians; the right thing to do is to maximise utility, meaning maximising aggregate happiness/minimising suffering. I wrote “supposedly” because philosophers go on to tinker with the thought experiment, the end result being that, for many, utilitarianism is exposed as being a thin veneer, an understandable knee-jerk reaction to an awful problem with no good solution.
Virtue-ethics portrays a more realistic picture of human nature – the right thing to do is a question of motivation not of consequences. Deciding not to pull the lever does not necessarily mean that our morality is at fault.
Now imagine these two choices:
Choice One: Many, many dying (let things be)
Choice Two: Many (though fewer) dying plus economic catastrophe plus an extreme loss of freedom for everyone (take action, pull the lever)
Which would you choose?
Yes folks, we are living a true-life iteration of The Trolley Problem and, sure enough, the choice that our country has chosen is Choice Two.
But wait, let`s tinker – what if the negative effects of economic catastrophe and loss of freedom haven’t been sufficiently understood or accounted for? I argue that they have not. Some (maybe secretly) already recognise this (I see it in a few PB.com posts and “feel” it in some others when left unsaid).
Let`s fast-forward to the point when lockdown has been in force for 12 weeks. The daily death toll is well off its peak but is still substantial. The weather is warmer. People are restless and do not want to be dog-kennelled for a day longer, the novelty having worn off weeks ago. They want to go to the pub, eat out, visit parents. They want to go on holiday (at least an inexpensive one). Children need to go back to school. Adults need to go back to work. Some companies have gone to the wall, others will not be in a position to operate with as many employees as before. The stock market is still on its knees. Perhaps suicide among otherwise healthy people is running at an all-time high.
In short, the astonishing harm that lockdown is doing to the country will have revealed itself more fully than now. Support for its continuance will dwindle, or at least be limited to the lockdown of vulnerable people only. The dynamics of our true-life trolley problem will have changed, the scales re-loaded. Removing lockdown and getting back our lives, our freedoms, our hopes and mitigating further economic degradation will be more fully in the equation.
I`ve argued against the lockdown policy from the start. I`m not saying that this is just the flu – on the contrary Covid-19 is an extremely serious global pandemic – but I am saying that it is has been parlayed into economic and loss of liberty disasters that are truly catastrophic in so many ways.
We didn`t harden our hearts when we needed to. We failed to accept the near inevitability that almost all of us will become infected with Covid-19 at some point and that 0.5-1% of those that do will die. We ducked that one and in doing so we pulled the lever and made health and the NHS the-only-thing-that-matters.
Why not anticipate the re-loading of the trolley problem scales? Let`s agree not to pull the lever a second time. The government should make it clear that lockdown will not extend past 12 weeks. At least then we will know when we will get our lives back and we can hope again.
My daughter disagrees with me. But she`ll come round.