In the age of COVID-19, we need philosophy now more than ever
There is a common adage that “you can’t put a price tag on human life.” Doing so seems inherently wrong but it is something that people do all the time. Insurance companies need to put a price on their policies and assess the riskiness of their customers. There are entire academic fields committed to calculating risk and putting price tags on human life.
In relation to COVID-19, Betsy Devos has espoused that the acceptable amount of children dying for schools to reopen is 0.02% aka 11,320 deaths. This is a sickening reality to fathom and ought to make any parent or teacher frightened to rush the United States back to “normal.”
However, sacrificing human lives for the sake of the economy is not as cold-hearted as many make it out to be. For every percentage point of unemployment, people die. For every war that a country chooses to stay out of, they lend regions and people over to greater long term risk that is difficult to calculate.
Of course, this accounting of human lives also seems wrong. Picking the policy that results in the least number of deaths is neither mathematically clear cut nor ethically unambiguous.
By now, many of us are familiar with the “trolley problem” as a legendary thought experiment that challenges our notions of simple utilitarianism. Let’s examine this thought experiment and what it reveals about morality.
Trolley Problem (skip if you are familiar with the problem)
For those unfamiliar with the thought experiment, say that you are standing by a lever to a trolley track. There is a trolley barreling down the track and if it maintains course, it will strike 5 people tied down to the track and kill them. If you pull the lever, you will divert the trolley down a different track where only one person is tied down.
Most people when encountered with the problem, elect to pull the lever. This begs the question of how many people need to be tied down to each track for you to pull the lever. What if it were 4:1? 2:1? 100,000:99,000?
Many people then conclude that pulling the lever is ethical as long as it leads to the least amount of human suffering. Fair enough.
The second part of the thought experiment is demonstrated as follows. You are standing on a bridge and the trolley is barreling down the track to kill 5 people. You are standing behind a very large man. If you push him over the bridge, for whatever reason, you know that his weight will be enough to stop the trolley from killing the 5 people but the man will certainly die.
Most people elect that pushing the man over is unethical even though the outcome is the same as the first scenario. This suggests that ethics is far more than just “the ends justify the means”.
Implications for us
What does this mean for us and our lawmakers as we consider the reopening of schools, remote work, the economy, mask-wearing, hospitals, etc?
All of our decision makings must be more nuanced than “0.02% of children dying is acceptable” and transcend pettiness in crying about the need for a haircut.
Our decision making needs to be backed with a rigorous moral framework while recognizing that others will inevitably violate our ideals. By holding ourselves to moral standards we know how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of others while not holding a grudge against others.
On a macro level, we will know how to vote and signal to leaders what our preferences are. By being obvious about our moral frameworks, we will better be able to pinpoint where our disagreements lie and attribute dissension to specific ideas rather than against the character of fellow Americans.
We will also be able to pinpoint similarities and find ourselves agreeing with each other during a time where Americans need to agree on something.
What does this have to do with philosophy?
Reading old dead white men can be boring and difficult but these same people are the ones who have done the heavy lifting on the biggest questions regarding ethics and political philosophy.
There is a reading epidemic in American as our attention spans grow smaller. I encourage anyone who has the time to read to do so but there are helpful resources online that allow anyone to grasp the most important ideas in a succinct manner.
Podcasts, Blinkist, YouTube, Articles, etc. There is basically no excuse for being uninformed besides disinterest.
This process of gathering moral frameworks will allow one to not only shape their own worldview but also understand the worldview of others. English classes recommend the “classics” not necessarily because they hold the best ideas or that they are the most interesting but because they are the most influential. It is okay to indulge in certain ideas for the simple fact that everyone else is doing so.
This suggests that we need to be continual scholars that are widely read. We need to be aware of the most popular literary works like the Bible, Tolkien, and Orwell and capture the moral frameworks that are illustrated in non-western/minority literary works like Toni Morrison and Sun Tzu.
The problem facing my generation (gen z) and many others is that we do not know how to think. You may be on Medium because you’re a young professional that is used to moving quickly in a hyper-connected world. Unfortunately, we have sacrificed precision, accuracy, and truth, for speed and “productivity.” COVID-19 has forced us to slow down. Hopefully, we can use this time wisely to truly think about the wisdom of old and to be prepared for the nightmarish velocity of the 21st century.