From the Bloomberg L.P. Opinion Page: “How Coronavirus Is Shaking Up the Moral Universe”
Authers (2020) adds as subtitle to the headline: “The pandemic is putting profound philosophical questions to the test.” He goes on to suggest that the philosophical questions in the moral (and ethical) universe include those in the Rawlsian, Utilitarian, Libertarian and Communitarian traditions. Unfortunately, perhaps the most important one was left out, as represented in Pragmatism.
It is Pragmatism that will likely best stand-up to empirical test in the Coronavirus case. Surviving empirical test is the essential requirement of Metaeconomics. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves: Just what did Authers (2020) have in mind?
He correctly points to the proposition that the Coronavirus situation will lead to a fundamental need to make moral (and ethical) judgments, especially when medical shortages of drugs and equipment arise. So, judgments will have to be made, and, perhaps even a new philosophical frame will emerge. In Metaeconomics, we would say the content of the shared Other-interest about Pandemics, and public health in general, the moral and ethical content of it, is in transition.
Also, on an important aside: To make sense of this, keep in mind that a Pandemic has a Thermodynamic reality to it. In 2nd Law terms, maximum entropy is death for the Human, the system in question. Energy is fully dissipated. We all go to that point, eventually. The issue is the pace, and how to slow down that pace, putting off the inevitable a bit longer. So, how do we best think about the philosophical question of who is helped, and who is not helped, in slowing down, affecting the path and when we get there, to the ultimate state of maximum entropy (death)? How do we slow down the Throughput Arrow (see Figure at https://www.metaeconomics.info/thermodynamic-reality ), with both Market&Other(mainly Government)-Forums? Both Forums carry a shared Other-interest, each having Moral and Ethical content.
One of the more bizarre proclamations of the best way to slow that Arrow, a peculiar view of the moral and ethical dimension, came from the Lieutenant Governor of Texas. The content of the shared Other-interest is that everyone in the more mature group over-70 (apparently the most vulnerable group) needs to sacrifice Own-self. Like the native, elderly Sioux used to do in North Dakota: Just take a walk in a minus 30-degree below day in North Dakota (leave the buffalo robe at home, please; the young can use it) in January. Or, those over-70 who live in Arizona, take a long desert walk on a 120-degree day in July (and, leave the water, home, please). That is, just expose yourself to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, get the COVID-19 disease, and die. As he said it, those over -70 (intriguingly, he is only 63) “shouldn’t sacrifice the country” by shutting down economic activity, but should instead sacrifice themselves (quoted in Authurs, 2020). Well, so, a viable productive 70-something (like Dr. Fauci, the only scientist allowed to speak to the issue by the current Administration) is to sacrifice Own-self for perhaps a not so productive, maybe not even as healthy, 20- or 30-something who does not even consider not going to the Beach or to Mardi Gras?
At the other extreme, we observe many would not sacrifice anything, even buying and hoarding the toilet paper, of all things (Metaeconomics can explain it, hang-on); others (perhaps the same people) bought all the beans; still others emptied the gun stores of both guns and ammunition; a US Senator went to the gym while waiting for corona test results, and, had COVID-19, so, shared it with everyone at the gym (that is a kind of perverse shared Other-interest, a dark-side shared Other-interest, it seems); massive church services in Tampa with heaven-only-knows how many were exposed to COVID-19; a choir practice in the State of Washington, with 45 of the 60 in attendance coming down with COVID-19; a lot of people went to the beach in Florida for spring break; and, amazingly, 1.5 million went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
So, how do we make sense of it all? Authers (2020) points to four ways. Metaeconomics can help make even more sense of the four ways, and adds the most intriguing, a fifth way.
As Authers (2020) reminds us, Rawls (1971) proposed the Veil of Ignorance. So, imagine yourself at some early time, before you have set out on your life quest, not having a clue as what your path will be like on the way to maximum entropy (death). Given that absolute level of extreme uncertainty, what would you, then, agree to as the conditions for the best path possible for each Traveler on the Spaceship Earth? In Metaeconomic terms, what would you prefer to insert into the content of the shared Other-interest path 0M (see the Figure associated with this post)? And, just how much tolerance would you accept for influence on the path 0G of Selfish/Self-interest? Maybe you would accept a 70% or 50% rather than only 10% influence, moving you to be more Selfless, toward some path 0Z?
Rawls (1971) focused attention on the worst of the worst off, and the reality that anyone could be in that situation: Pre-existing conditions, anyone? So, think of yourself as possibly the sickest of the sick, and poorest of the poor, without health insurance, with COVID-19, and, then, set out to formulate the moral and ethical content of the shared Other-interest, accordingly, and how to treat said cases.
Authers (2020) points to a quote from a Russell Moore, Ethics and Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention he claims is consistent with the frame: “…treat the most vulnerable among us… (and not) to turn our eyes away from the sanctity of human life.” Authers (2020) also quotes Pope Francis, pointing to essentially the same idea “…we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other." So, protect the weakest; everyone’s boat will rise from the bottom-up. It seems a Left Isle frame, too?
Authers (2020) argues that Rawlsian Philosophy draws a lineage back to Christian Philosophy--- the Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love, we might surmise--- along with the Golden Rule which also draws on the prophets/old book writers supposedly connected to God in the Old Testament, as well as the Empathy oriented Faith, Hope, and Love God in the New Testament. Rawlsian propositions are a close relative to that business about the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is even sometimes claimed it is the best way to organize a more Left Isle way of thinking, moving it toward the middle of the Right and Left, Conservative and Progressive continuum. As Obama (2006) said it, “…a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes (Obama, 2006, p. 66).” Authers (2020) claims Rawlsian Philosophy defines Center-Left Political thinking (perhaps Center-Right, too: The Center seems to get things done, while the extreme Left and extreme Right act like Tribes working to kill each other off. It is like once a week-tribal wars, in modern day terms, football, anyone?) Some might claim it---the Rawlsian Golden Rule Stuff --- also would be supported in the science of Neoinstitutional Economics.
Neoclassical Microeconomics trained thinkers, here you go: Utilitarian philosophy is your philosophy, buried behind and in the structure of Mathematical Microeconomics. Every Microeconomics text starts out with consumer demand theory by characterizing every household (with an Econ, not a Human, in charge) operating on self-interest only and focused on maximizing utility. And, then, when the Microeconomics text gets to producer supply theory, every firm (with an Econ in charge) operating on self-interest only and focused on maximizing profit, and, the utility the profit can buy. And, with Econ operating on self-interest only, and, doing this maximizing, the result is the “the greatest good for the greatest number,” right? We distinguish an Econ from a Human, drawing on Thaler and Sunstein (2008). A Human is better described as a Rawlsian, and an Econ a Utilitarian, perhaps? Or, is that Right, a Spaceship Earth with the Travelers all being Econs?
It seems the science of Neoclassical Economics also supports a lot of what is encouraged on the Right Political Isle, too. President Trump, in working to represent the Right Isle in the Corona conversation pointed to the Utilitarian reality: “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” So, full-speed ahead (keep that Throughput Arrow going as fast as possible, no matter it will crash on the Thermodynamic Walls sooner rather than later, in a grand Tragedy of the Commons), and, the wealthy will do just fine, with personal ventilators and personal physicians standing by. And, sure, "only a few (perhaps 2-3 million with SARS-CoV-2)" will fall by the wayside, just like a “seasonal flu on steroids,” which is just a minor distraction to maximizing the growth in the stock market and the GDP.
Each self-interest only oriented Econ maximizing profit and the utility it can buy (and, it is all about buying with dollars, everything has a Price P, even the dead and dying, especially in the stock market) will land where they may, in this case, a lot of them in the grave. But, so be it. The overall sum of all the Econ gains will still be greater, and that is the goal. Maximize the rate of growth in the Gross Domestic Product, and make it as large as possible, overall. The Market Price P trumps (no pun intended) the Other Forums Value V. Just add up the utility for the Econs still alive, stay on path 0G, and, the vertical axis is often even better, and move on.
It is, afterall, about the survival of the Econs, the most fit to handle Money. It is about Making money, and, especially, about Taking and Keeping (and passing it on to heirs without an Estate Tax, as dynasties are Good, in that it ensures they can buy ventilators and hire personal physicians). Also, the boat will rise even higher with fewer on it, so Trickle Down works even better, as there are far fewer waiting to catch the crumbs, so fewer crumbs works just fine: All the Econs still alive are better off.
As Authers (2020) says it: “…the utilitarian calculus opens up a new possibility — that in situations such as a pandemic, some people might justly be sacrificed for the greater good. It would benefit society to accept casualties, the argument goes, to minimize disruption.” It appears to be a main calculus, the underlying frame of reference, for the current US Administration. In the UK, too, Authers (2020) points to: “Britain’s Sunday Times reported that Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had advocated in private meetings a policy of letting enough people get sick to establish nationwide “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” It seems both the US President and the UK Prime Minister lean to the Utilitarian frame.
As alluded to earlier, it would also come out of a Neoclassical Microeconomics analysis. It has to come out that way, in that the analytical engine called Microeconomics cannot produce a different outcome. Utilitarian Philosophy is embedded in the structure and the analytical system, embedded in the mathematics (like the math models that crashed the system in 2008) focused as it is on only the pursuit of self-interest (hoard toilet paper!) oriented to maximizing individual utility. In contrast to Rawlsian Philosophy, which sees a Human, there is no recognized, widely shared other-interest at work, albeit there is an implicit shared, narrow other-interest represented in the Invisible Hand of the Market. Unfortunately, the Invisible Hand is not necessarily a Moral and Ethical Hand, so it can put a lot of people, especially the Humans who are not quite as good as the Econs at maximizing their self-interest only, in the grave during a Pandemic. Die for Bad Capitalism, anyone?
Authers (2020) sums up the Utilitarian perspective this way: “It’s intuitive to view moral problems through a utilitarian lens and then to find outcomes like this distasteful, and to reject them because they conflict with the golden rule. If the lockdowns drag on for months, utilitarian ideas may bubble back to the surface.” In Metaeconomic terms, we may use the shared Other-interest in doing what we would have done to us from a path 0M perspective, and throttle our Self-interest onto some rational and efficient path 0Z; however, eventually, when things get rough enough, we go to the Self-interest path 0G (which has a bit of Other-interest involved, as in perhaps the narrowly shared interest in the immediate family, at least the ones we like, only ). Then, when it gets really tough, we go to the vertical axis of extreme, everyone for themselves, Self-interest: Buy out the gun shops and hoard the ammunition (and toilet paper and beans!), any one?
Authers (2020) reminds us of Locke (1689), and Nozick (2013). He also reminds us of Ayn Rand (I especially remember her Atlas Shrugged claim that maximizing self-interest is the only moral and ethical position). In the Ayn Rand frame, it is the vertical axis of the Metaeconomics figure illustrating Selfish&Selfless-interest (see the Figure). It is the only rational and efficient path. So, even some orientation toward Selfless choices, like what we are seeing every day in the case of medical personnel dealing with massive numbers of COVID-19 cases coming into hospital emergency rooms, are quite irrational. Said Humans, anyone operating with Empathy based Other(shared with others)-interest are irrational? And, obviously, in said frame, falling to the horizontal axis, is something that would never occur, except by chance. There would never be a soldier choosing to shield the platoon from the hand grenade; a person choosing to run into a burning building (oh, yes, there are firepeople, and they are all irrational?) to save a stranger; and, no doctors and nurses going into the patients’ room without adequate personal protective gear.
Intriguingly, in more modern revisions of Libertarian framing, there has been some giving of ground here, perhaps a path 0G very close to the vertical axis, but tempered a bit by a minimal shared path 0M. Authers (2020) highlights Nozick (2013) claims, based on Nozick playing the mind game about:
…what kind of political state would be built, and how much personal liberty citizens would surrender, if everyone were dropped into a utopian landscape with no social structures. The novelist William Golding gave one answer in “The Lord of the Flies.” To avoid the descent into violence that the schoolboys of Golding’s novel endure, Nozick, in “Anarchy, State and Utopia,” reckoned that people would set up a very limited state dedicated to self-defense and the protection of individual rights — but nothing more.
So, we might suppose having a military equipped to build field hospitals; the (socialist, we the people together have) ownership of massive hospital ships; and troops to help with road checks and stocking grocery shelves; are, all, a form of “self-defense,” to be tolerated. It is self-defense against an invisible enemy that could be made visible with doing massive testing for COVID-19, but, that is not an acceptable “intrusion,” for a Libertarian (or, for most Utilitarians, unless the benefits > costs for that individual, strictly in Price P terms, not Value V terms).
And, the matter of individual rights: Well, I guess the individual right to ignore social distancing is being honored in several places, especially by Governors from the Right Isle in the Red States. Yet, even some Right Isle Governors have acknowledged that a bit of social distancing might be helpful. The frame is always that individual rights to do as you please, “free to choose” as Milton Freedom, a libertarian, would have it (to even spread Corona, we have to surmise, a free-to-choose thing, so a good thing: Perhaps the Washington State choir group can get a group discount at the funeral "home") are to be respected. And, as the Libertarian Cato group would have it, social costs, after all, are a myth (Cheung, 1978).
Libertarians, like Rand Paul who exposed fellow gym goers to the Corona virus, will not waiver. It has happened before. As Authers (2020) points out, “…the U.S. suffered a measles epidemic as the result of anti-vaccination activism, a libertarian cause that put parents’ right to choose not to vaccinate their children above the state’s attempt to defend other parents’ right to expect that their own children wouldn’t have to mix with unvaccinated peers. ” Again, no social costs, right? Authers (2020) continues: “Panic buying, and hoarding of medical equipment also show that many people are following Rand’s idea of self-determination and putting themselves first. Such ideas may grow more appealing after a few more weeks of self-isolation.” Yes: Go buy out the guns and ammunition.
The panic buying, again, the toilet paper as a rather humorous example, is also related to the Utilitarian frame about self-interest only. Libertarian and Utilitarian Philosophy are easily blended, as both see Self-interest only as the driver. It is just natural, the Moral Order of things, which then is left to the Invisible Hand.
And, the Libertarian frame is a real force in the US, that needs to be recognized. It has been around for a very long time in the American Civil Liberties Union. As Authers (2020) highlights, that Union “…made a statement accepting that civil liberties must ‘sometimes’ give way when it comes to fighting a communicable disease — but ‘only in ways that are scientifically justified’ (and that) ‘The evidence is clear that travel bans and quarantines are not the solution.’ An empirically based Metaeconomics, one based in Thermodynamic and Spaceship Earth System reality would ask: Just where did the Union get said science? It seems more like philosophical positioning rather than scientific reality based “evidence.” Communitarian Philosophy
Authers (2020) reminds us of Etzioni, albeit not pointing to a particular piece of work, but Etzioni (1993) comes to mind. Authers (2020) refers to Sandel (1998) as arguing “…that justice cannot be determined in a vacuum or behind a veil of ignorance, but must be rooted in society. He sets out a theory of justice based on the common good.” He quotes Sandel from a recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “The common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life.”
Etzioni (1988) saw the moral and ethical ideals could be represented in what he referred to as the Moral Utility, which had to be considered along with the standard Material Utility (as he labeled it) of Neoclassical Microeconomics. It was through bringing a Moral Utility into view that we could bring the Moral (and Ethical) Dimension back into mainstream, Neoclassical Economics. Another way to say it: Bringing the Moral Dimension back into economics (as Adam Smith had in mind, through his most important book, the Theory of Moral Sentiments), was to bring the Community back into Economics (which as Marglin, 2008, makes clear, has been extracted by Neoclassical Microeconomics).
As Authers (2020) makes clear, Communitarian Philosophy can have a Good Side, such as in many places in Europe, especially the Nordic countries (see Lakey, 2016), with more social democracies around that area of the Spaceship seeing: “…a modern welfare state, (wherein) celebrating and supporting the workers of their public-health service is seen as a communitarian duty.” The debate in the US over the private v public health care system is essentially a debate between the Utilitarians (mixed with some Libertarians) and the Communitarians, roughly represented in the Right and the Left.
And, now for the Dark Side of Communitarian Philosophy: Hedges (2007) and the focus on Fascist Religion comes to mind. Evangelicals, perhaps too many with Fascist tendencies, have proclaimed the Pandemic a non-issue: It is simply God’s Plan. Maybe. It would seem a reasonable God would rely on science, too (If there is a Heaven, and I somehow get there, it will be my first question of the Powers that Be). Such framing is a kind of Dark Side due to it being devoid of much in the way of factual content. It is also limited only to the smaller, narrower shared Other-interest of the believers in that narrow brand of religion, a kind of perhaps mythical religion (again, see Hedges, 2007). It is not consistent with a broad based, empathy framed Christian Philosophy.
Another example of said Dark Side is also represented in recent statements to Fox News host Tucker Carlson by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Authers (2020) notes how Patrick proclaimed the Pandemic points to those over-70 to sacrifice for the economy: “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” ... “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” Well, I suppose: It is a full 7-years (he is only 63, so he is good) before he has to do the Selfless sacrifice--- and we could well have a vaccine by then, so the Lieutenant Governor will do just fine---on the horizontal axis. The people who are already 70+ would likely disagree.
As Authers (2020) points out, such dark side Communitarian thinking is common in more hierarchical and authoritarian societies. An especially visible example is Communist China, with forced quarantines if anyone dared resist.
Pragmatism as an Integrating Philosophy
Authers (2020) does not mention it, but there is another option, that represented in the Pragmatism framework developed by James (1907). For a recent application of it, with the notion it could undergird a modern Institutional Economics, a Neoinstitutional Economics that accurately represented the original Institutional Economics, see Bromley (2006; for reviews of this very profound and insightful book, see Lynne, 2007; 2009).
The essence of Pragmatism is: Work to integrate across ideas, processes, and philosophies that work. And, how do we judge what works? Well, anything that results in good, moral, and ethical outcomes...things that keep us from hitting the Thermodynamic Walls way before we have to (moving to a sustainable energy system, and dealing with climate change, as well as Pandemics, anyone?). In Metaeconomic terms, it is about achieving outcomes on Happy (at least Happier) and Efficient path 0Z. It calls for balance in Self&Other—interest, balance in Market&Government. It also means heavy reliance on data, and science that can be built upon that data, helping in turn to make sense of the data.
So, in terms of the Pandemic, both Pragmatism, and Metaeconomics which is consistent with Pragmatism as a Philosophy says:
1. Use the Market to do what it is good at doing, like producing massive quantities of protective masks and other gear, and enough ventilators to treat everyone that needs same. Ensure the Market keeps functioning to provide the essentials, especially the food. Hopefully it will stay Moral and Ethical, as in not price gouging, albeit prices might be expected to rise a bit for some goods as the demand shifts for them (but, not too much for toilet paper!).
2. Use the Government to do what it is good at, like the basic research funded by public tax dollars to work on finding a vaccine, ensuring the results are available to everyone, treating it like a public good, like for drug testing to ensure it is safe. Government can also do things like use the (socialist, we own it together) military to build field hospitals; stock grocery shelves; work the check points for Travelers perhaps going where it is not good to go; move military hospital ships into ports to alleviate the pressures on both private and public hospitals; bring about social distancing to stop the pace of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 it produces; and, perhaps most importantly help collect and coordinate data collection on who, when, and where, regarding the movement of the SARS-CoV-2 by monitoring who already has the COVID-19.
3. Pragmatism calls for building upon the strengths of all efforts, and not rejecting something out-of-hand, something that could work, but rejected because it does not fit some ideological rule consistent with a the more traditional philosophies. So, reframe the conversation, such that the focus moves away from Market OR Government, Market VS Government, as in the current Tribal Tendencies, toward Market&Government, with the “&” meaning to emphasize the inextricable interdependence, jointness, and nonseparability. Each Person has a Self&Other-interest within Own-self. Said dual and joint interest manifests itself within Market&Government writ large.
And, the Metaeconomic and Pragmatism take on the other philosophies? Well it points to using the "&" the same way, as in Utiltarian&Communitarian; Libertarian&Communitarian; Utilitarian&Rawlsian; and, even Liberterian&Rawlsian. The now widely discussed work by Thaler and Sunstein (2008) pointed to the need for a kind of libertarian paternalism, a kind of old Theodore Roosevelt framing (actually, an African Proverb which Roosevelt borrowed) about “walking softly and carrying a big stick.”
Applied here, consistent with both Pragmatism and the analytical system of Metaeconomics which reflects it: Cater to the more primal Self-interest perhaps better expressed in Markets, and hope for Moral and Ethical expression of same; nudge with Government as needed, especially when the Moral and Ethical Dimension is not at work; and, when the Market fails to do what it can do, especially when excessive Greed takes over , leading to Bad Ways (e.g. to Crony Capitalism, with wealthy people as cronies with powerful politicians: Recall bank bailouts and executive bonuses for people who probably should have served jail time, instead?). Finally, use the big stick (enforced social distancing restrictions, anyone?) of a Good Government. And, if the Government is not a Good Government, elect and put in place one that is Good. And, what is good? Complex answer: We bring an Empathy based Other(internalized within Own-self, ethics based)-interest into Tempering our natural, primal tendencies to Ego based Self-interest only. That is it.
We Are All Rawlsians Now
Authers (2020) concludes, without having considered Pragmatism, that “We Are All Rawlsians Now,” at least until the Pandemic runs its’ course. He optimistically proclaims that Rawlsian Philosophy, embedding the golden rule, will win out. He expresses the faith, and hope, that as the Pandemic worsens, “… we may well find that the notion of loving thy neighbor as thyself becomes far more potent.” Maybe. I would rather bet on Pragmatism, and, then shift to a Metaeconomics way of finding empirical-based solutions, seeing the need for integrating the best ideas across philosophies and economic frameworks. Go, William James, go.
Don Hofstrand, a high school friend; and, then, an undergraduate sharing the joint experience at the same university friend, both majoring in Agricultural Economics; working at Land Grant Universities our entire careers; and, now, ironically, we both live in AZ in the winter; pointed to the Authers (2020) piece. It stirred an old hobby of mine, reading philosophy, and, finding the Authers (2020) piece riled a lot old thoughts. And, it is that, a hobby: I claim no expertise as a philosopher, only an intrigue with it. So, send me feedback, help me improve the content of this largely opinion, and the best I can do on the facts side of it, Blog on Corona Philosophy.
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