APRIL 23, 2020
59 Minutes and 13 Seconds
Listen to this Wiener Conference Call with Chris Robichaud, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy, as he discusses and takes questions on the epistemological aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day everyone. I am Mari Megias in the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School and I'm very pleased to welcome you to this Wiener conference call. As we all continue to navigate the new normal brought on by the pandemic, we will be increasing opportunities for remote engagement with Harvard Kennedy School, so watch your email for more invitations to learn from HKS faculty. Also, given that we're all working remotely, we're running these conferences differently, so apologies in advance for any issues we may experience.
Chris Robichaud is senior lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of pedagogical innovation at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. His interests surround ethics, political philosophy, and social epistemology, with a focus on examining the role of truth and knowledge in well-functioning democracies, and on understanding what the post-truth age of politics is. We're very fortunate that he's here today to share his expertise with our Kennedy School alumni and friends. Chris.
Thank you so much and hello, everyone. I really appreciate you taking time out of your schedules to join this call today and I hope that we can make some progress, even if it's just going to be a little progress, on some of these very difficult issues. Today I wanted to talk just for 10 or 15 minutes about some of the challenges that have arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in the space of ethics and epistemology. And I'm only going to hit on a few, the ones that have sort of landed in my lap, that I found myself consulting with individuals about or talking about in my classes this semester, and then I'm going to leave it open to you.
I'm sure that you have lots of questions, and I'll do my best to answer them. I think for those of you on this call who have had me as a professor, you know that as an ethicist, I'm sort of disposed not to provide any kind of final, substantive, "this is the way it is and there's nothing else to say" answer. That's just not the way that ethics or epistemology works, but all the same, I'll hopefully share some insights.
So to get us going, I think I'll start in the space of ethics roughly, even though the lines here blur as you'll notice pretty quickly, and just mention a few things that I, myself have had to wrestle with recently surrounding COVID-19. I'm pointing to these and I'm not going to offer any final thoughts on them, just to get us thinking about some of the issues that have arisen. In the space of ethics, I want to focus on three categories, three sort of buckets of things. One is some ethical issues that arise at the level of distribution of scarce resources, what's going on in hospitals and other medical centers right now.
Another one is the ethics of us as consumers. What are our responsibilities during this crisis? And the third, then, is issues in the bigger picture about security, health and privacy. As we come out of the other side of this, what policies pass moral muster and which ones may not? So I'll start there and then I'll move into some of the epistemological concern. In the arena of scarce resource distribution, I'm thrilled that, so far, many of the, if not most, if not all of the hospitals in the United States have not faced these ugly decisions that we saw Italy facing a few weeks ago. Decisions like if you don't have enough ventilators for people coming into the hospital, how do you decide who gets a ventilator and who does not? Obviously that's a very hard question to answer and reasonable people will reasonably disagree about it.
I'll just say that what we've seen coming out of some cities and some states, and some of you may be working right in this area. We've seen a set of guidelines that have tried to strike a balance between obviously avoiding any discriminatory practices towards the disabled or the elderly, while at the same time trying to capture the idea that better health outcomes will occur if you give the ventilator to certain persons rather than to others. And the spirit I think behind these sorts of policies, and Boston, I believe, until very recently, like a couple days ago, was onboard with this. The spirit behind them is very much a utilitarian spirit.
So for those of you familiar with my classes, here comes the utilitarian line of reasoning. When you've got a scarce amount of resources, there's a political obligation to make the most of them. That's the way that you would hear this put in the normal parlance. You want to use your resources to the best ability that you have. You want to try to bring about the most good as possible, and so when you're thinking about the most good, for many people the most good is not just preserving lives but preserving life years, quality of life years. That gets you conclusions that end up prioritizing healthier people and younger people, all else remaining equal.
Those policies have recently come under sustained criticism, and I myself have been one of the people, at least behind the scenes, raising some flags because that approach, in my opinion, ends up giving you moral justification for ignoring both the disabled and ignoring the fact that there are many people in our country, particularly in communities of color, who suffer comorbidities and therefore make it less likely that they will enjoy as rich of health outcomes as others, not due to any decision making on their own but due to structural injustice that's gone on for generations. And so if you just approach things through a utilitarian lens, you tend to abstract away or completely miss those dimensions, and in my opinion, at least, you get the wrong results.
Behind this, though, is the question, "Well, how does one go about reasoning towards these conclusions?" How about we think about it? If it's not utilitarianism, what else might it be? And here I want to suggest a way of going forward. I don't think it's a cure-all. I don't think it solves all of our problems, but I find it persuasive and I find it persuasive not just having to do with ventilators but for many of the issues that we're approaching, and that's engaging in Rawlsian veil of ignorance reasoning.
Again, for those of you that hand me in class, Rawls, John Rawls, the philosopher who gave us political theory, are probably not going to be surprised by this, but when Rawls was thinking about what a just society should be, what a fair society should be at a very high level of abstraction, he invited us to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance where we knew that we were human beings, but we didn't know much else about ourselves. We didn't know anymore what our genders were or what our races were or what our religious convictions were, if we had any religious convictions at all. We didn't know if we were healthy or not. We didn't know what our intelligence was or our athleticism or our beauty. You get the idea. We knew none of these things.
But then we had to come together and reason together about what we wanted society to look like, knowing that when we were done, we were going to have to sort of step out from behind that veil of ignorance and live in that society. And so Rawls invited us to think in terms of self-interest. He wasn't asking us to be altruistic. He said, "No, think in terms of self-interest, but self-interest when you don't know all these other things about you."
So the thought is supposed to be, "Well, if I were creating society like that, here I am behind a veil of ignorance. I don't know what faith tradition I'm going to have, so I'm obviously going to want to live in a society that doesn't care what faith tradition I have. It's going to allow me to practice any faith or no faith at all. And I don't know what gender I'm going to be or whether I'm going to have a gender at all. So I'm going to want to build a society that doesn't care about gender in terms of jobs or any of the rest of it. And I don't know how smart I'm going to be ..." You go on and on and on. You get the idea.
I find this reasoning appealing to use in cases like ventilators and many other policy questions in this space. Rather than just immediately going to the idea of trying to do the most good with the most resources, maybe we should step back and imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance and ask ourselves, "Well, not knowing where I would end up, what policies would I want? Not knowing whether I would be disabled or elderly or a member of a community of color that had suffered through historical and current injustices, would I want the decision of whether to get a ventilator or not be based on any of those features?" No, the thought is, as a matter of self-interest.
So I propose that that is a good way to help us think more systematically and maybe more fairly about how to settle some of these issues. Now, I want to just immediately mention that this practice has been problematized by good friends and colleagues, Max Bazerman and Joshua Greene, amongst others. They have a series of papers out that compelling argues for the conclusion that in many cases, veil of ignorance reasoning like I've just described ends up getting you exactly the same conclusions as utilitarianism would.
And so if I'm proposing this reasoning as a contrast to utilitarian reasoning, this is a really bad result for me, if it's true in all cases. We've talked at length, we're on very good terms, and I have raised some concerns about whether the veil of ignorance reasoning gets us the utilitarian conclusion in a lot of the cases that I think are particularly relevant to COVID-19. And for my conversations with them, they do seem at least open to that possibility. This is something that would have to be tested and they themselves admit that the cases that they were looking at do lend themselves to be cases where a Rawlsian and a utilitarian would probably agree anyways. So I'm putting an asterisk by the policy I just put out there because in the spirit of full disclosure I don't want to pretend that it's not without its problems, but that's how I've been thinking about some of these issues.
Now I want to turn very quickly to what are our responsibilities as consumers? I was recently interviewed for an Atlantic piece on this and the reporter was just wondering, "Hey, should we, who are healthier, be using Instacart? Should we feel that we're doing wrong to people who are doing our shopping for us?" I think there's a lot to say here in this space. My disposition, though, is not to think that there's an obvious moral wrong provided certain things are true. One of those thing, and I'm not going to give you all of them, but one of those things is we want to make sure that the people who are doing our shopping for us are not in an exploitative relationship with the job.
By that, I mean we don't want them to be taking the job out of desperation, fear of destitution or any of the rest of it. Many of us have jobs that we don't enjoy. That's not what I'm claiming. I happen to be very lucky. I have a job that I cherish, but at the same time, the standard isn't, "No one should have a job that they don't like." It's much more significant than that. This would be, our folks doing this out of desperation, and if so, then we don't want them doing it for that reason. This is one of the reasons why I think it's really important for federal policy here in the United States, at least, to make sure that people are doing okay enough during this so that they don't feel desperate and therefore doing things that would risk their health that they otherwise wouldn't do. I don't think federal policy has succeeded on that front at the current moment.
And so I think that that's one of the things that we should think about when thinking about workers currently shopping for us. I also think that we should make sure for those of us that are at risk less, not completely having no risk, but less at risk of this than others, we want to make sure that communities at high risk, particularly the elderly, are the ones who have first access to these shoppers. So long as there's plenty of people going around, that's not a problem, but if there were to be a reduction of people willing to do this, we'd want to make sure that the elderly had first access to them. We can talk about that more if you'd like, but I'm just going to go on to this last issue because I know it's animating a lot of you.
What do we do going forward if the best solutions out there on how to get to the other side of this before a vaccine include downloading apps that trace us and having the federal government keeping tabs on who has this, where they've been, at every moment being able to monitor us. Well, here again there's obvious trade offs that we're going to have to consider, but I do think that one thing that we want to try to do our best at is to make sure that we minimized the amount of trade offs that we have to make and that we also put in place institutional mechanisms to monitor how these powers that we may give government are being used.
So here I would suggest that we learn some hard lessons from the Patriot Act after 9/11. As we all know, the Patriot Act was passed and it gave government a lot of power and it did instill some judicial oversight, but that judicial oversight often just rubber stamped whatever government was doing and we end up with whistleblowers like Snowden revealing that at least at some level, the American public was being spied on legally, in some cases perhaps illegal others, based on the Patriot Act.
I would just propose out there as just a sort of working idea, that we're going to want a body, a bipartisan panel, so this is something that we would build not through Congress but maybe alongside it, guaranteeing that there were always an equal number of Republicans and Democrats so that this doesn't become a new football that would provide oversight over any kind of massive national contract [inaudible 00:13:35] program and that this panel would regularly be put in front of the American public to be evaluated on its success, again, in a way where this wasn't just "vote for your favorite team" but something more substantial than that. Whether we can pull that off in this current political environment, I have no idea, but I would want protections in place because privacy is very serious and I don't want us to become comfortable on the other side of this with government knowing every single time that anyone steps outside of their homes.
I'm going to quickly pivot to one last topic in ... I'm going to quickly pivot to epistemology and then open this up for questions. In the epistemological realm there's a bunch of interesting stuff going on right now. Some things that I've talked about to other people is this notion that misinformation can kill, and I want to point all of you to a report that just came out of University of Chicago. I'm forgetting the center or the think tank that produced it there, but it tries to do a good job. It's not peer reviewed yet but people are taking a look at it, of showing how consumers of Sean Hannity on Fox News compared to consumers of Tucker Carlson on Fox News, increase their likelihood of becoming infected and dying over the course of end of February until mid-March.
Misinformation does kill and filter bubbles and particularly echo chambers can really be problematic during this time. I define echo chambers in the same line that some people that have written about this substantially have done. An echo chamber is much worse than just a filter bubble. A filter bubble's where you only have so much in front of you. Let's say it all reaffirms your position, but if I just introduce a little bit new information, something that you haven't considered before, the bubble pops.
Echo chambers are much more resistant to that. Echo chambers are almost cultish. When you find yourself in an echo chamber, you have strategies in place to resist any contrary evidence to the evidence that you want to hear. These strategies are very, very powerful, and so people often think that, "Hey, if these people just learn the facts, they would change their mind." That's just not the way that echo chambers often work. Echo chambers work in a way in which new evidence contrary to what one believes is already accounted for, sort of like the "of course you would say something like that" approach.
We're seeing right a country enthralled to echo chambers and as a result, there's once more sort of two communities going around, at least in the American context. One who's taking the science and the serious of this at face value and others who think that this is, to one extent or another, all a sham. And that, too, is likely going to cost lives as we go forward.
The last thing I'll just mention here, and then I'll open up for questions, is in the space of epistemology. Many of you that are on this line are experts. I myself am an expert in some areas. All of us need to be careful not to engage in what I call epistemic trespassing. It's an idea borrowed from a philosopher named Nathan Ballentine. Epistemic trespassing is when one is very good and very knowledgeable about one area and then decides to talk about another area that they're not an expert on.
Richard Epstein has been an example of this kind of thinking and you've probably read about him recently. I think the New Yorker did a piece. He was an economist who came up with a model about this that predicted something like only 5,000 people were going to die from this. The New Yorker article ... the interview really reveals that Epstein is a super smart economist, or I actually think he's a lawyer, but he actually just doesn't know what he's talking about in this space. That's not to say that epidemiologists are all in agreement. They're very much not in agreement. That's part of the problem, but folks like Epstein have no business entering the fray here, and that becomes patently obvious the minute that you read that article. So we want to just make sure that we don't mistake our expertise in one area for expertise in another. I have said a lot already and I'm looking at the time, so let's open it up to some questions.
Q: The lieutenant governor of Texas made a case for reopening the nation's economy and letting the chips fall where they may, meaning that many older people, possibly including himself, would die. Historically this is what a plague met. From an ethical and policy standpoint, is the choice purely binary?
My short answer to that is no. I think any of you that have gone through any of my simulations know that when we're in a crisis like this, we run the risk of mischaracterizing what the trade offs are. There are always going to be trade offs in crises. I should say almost always. Maybe there's an exception, and those trade offs are always going to be between fundamental values. So, that can't be avoided. But at the same time, in the moment, I think we do run the risk of sometimes mischaracterizing exactly what the trade off is. And so we've seen a lot of people present this trade off in very simplistic terms, health versus economy. But of course, even a moment's reflection suggests that that can't possibly be exactly what the trade off is. On the one hand, just sort of opening up the doors and saying, "Come on in, everything's fine," could help the economy, but given that a lot of people are already in a state of fear, it's just not clear that the economy wouldn't take substantial hits every if everything were opened up.
I'm talking to all of you from rural Ohio, Northeast Ohio, about an hour outside of Cleveland, and if tomorrow they said Governor DeWine, who I've been so impressed with, so, so impressed with during this crisis, if he said tomorrow, "All right, everyone. You can go to restaurants ..." I live in a community that is aging rapidly and that includes myself, but the community has a lot of people that are 60 and older, and they are absolutely not going to be rushing to those restaurants. So on the one hand, I think we're going to be taking serious economic hits regardless. On the other hand, a terrible economy affects health, affects a lot of things, but it certainly affects health.
There will be people who are driven into poverty, there will be people who don't have access to healthcare that they need, et cetera, et cetera. So to me, I think we just need to have, from our public leaders, tolerance for and an invitation to engage in, a much more serious conversation about exactly what the trade offs here are, and the annoying and frustrating thing about this that no one can really help is, it would be wonderful if we could just do cost-benefit analysis on this. I should just say for the record, I'm not the sort of person who thinks that cost-benefit analysis is always the way to make these decisions, but it would be nice if we at least had that in front of us. But the problem with cost-benefit analysis in these situations is we just don't know enough yet.
So people who will argue and say, "We should just develop herd immunity," awesome, but we don't know enough about what herd immunity would look like. We're getting conflicting reports already about people becoming recontaminated with this, or is it just a relapse when they were never better? We don't know. We know so very little at this stage that it's hard to make the kinds of quality decisions with data that we would want, and that's why it's a crisis. I think I'll end there for now, but if people want to push me on this more or talk more about it, great.
Q: Good morning. My name is Joshua. I was a mid-career student, 2017 to '18. I'm now out in Tucson, Arizona, and I'm curious what you think the moral and ethical obligation is for those of us that are outside the disinformation bubble with regards to those inside of it. Thank you.
That's a really great question. What this is, it's an invitation for me to share probably some not terribly uplifting news, which is how hard it is to make progress on this front. So, I went over this pretty quickly when I was talking earlier, but just to slow it down for a minute. The literature that I'm exposed to and that I teach, I'm teaching right now a course called Ignorance, Lies, Hogwash and Humbug at Harvard College and brought in 225 undergrads. So there's very much a thirst for talking about the post-truth age out there.
I've assigned some papers to them that make this distinction between filter bubbles and echo chambers, and just to elaborate on that a little, because it's very relevant to your question, it's pretty easy to puncture someone's epistemic bubble. I just find myself ... One example that would be ... I grew up here in rural Ohio. I was raised Catholic. I was well aware growing up that there were other Christian faiths. I was sort of abstractly aware that there were other entirely differently faith traditions, but I never bumped into anyone like that.
And then you go to college and suddenly you do. You bump into atheists, you bump into Buddhists, you bump into Hindus. My epistemic bubble was burst. There was nothing bad about it. On the contrary, it expanded my horizons in rich and wonderful ways, but it was pretty easy to burst that bubble. I was just exposing to more information. The reason it was easy to burst for me is I was open to it. I didn't have an agenda. I didn't feel threatened by being exposed to these others' ideas.
What we're seeing is that many people are in something much, much harder to puncture than a bubble. They're in what's being described as an echo chamber, and again, people talk about ... they used these terms loosely. Philosophers are trying to add a little bit more clarity to what these differences might be. An echo chamber works very much like a cult. I said that before, but here's what I mean. If you're in a cult and the cult leader says, "Look, you're going to have people come at you and they're going to tell you that you're in a cult and they're going to tell you that you're throwing your life away and they're going to say all these things, but that's what you should expect." And on you go.
Family tries to rescue someone from a cult and they say all the things that the cult leader told them that they were going to say, and so the people in the cult are like, "ah-ha, I knew it. I'm not going fall for this." In fact, their confidence in the truths of the cult and the cult leader are even increased. What we're seeing, sadly, in some of our community, that is the American community, at least, are people who are kind of in that situation but through the consumption of online news and television news, where they have been fed a steady diet not just of alternative facts, but of mechanisms to disregard evidence. Evidence that would otherwise convince someone who didn't have an agenda of not being convinced. And so it's never going to be the case that merely pointing out X, Y or Z to these individuals is going to change their mind, and indeed, they're really good at this, so they'll say, "The same can be said of you." And we can sort of go relativistic and postmodern all the way down.
I'll be honest, and this is a confessional, when this first got going, I told my students, 225 undergrads, "I don't know, this course may be obsolete in a couple of years." I said, "When death is on the line, when expertise is so desperately needed, when science is really the only way through this, surely this might be the sort of death toll for the post-truth age." What a fool I was. I'm not a very optimistic person but I still feel like that was undue optimism because what we're seeing now is, no, even with death on the line, even with the kind of stakes that we're currently living through, we're just going through the same motions.
That said, I am a firm believer that if things get serious enough, at some point public tolerance of people who are in echo chambers is going to diminish to a point where maybe they'll make a way through. I wish I had good answers to this. I will tell you something that's a bit of a punt and I admit it's a punt, but it's the best that I can do. I'm outsourcing this problem. So, for 225 Harvard undergrads who are brilliant, as many of you know, yourselves as Harvard students, their final project, I said, is, design an intervention to make some progress on this post-truth age. It's not a final paper. It's like, design an intervention. Give it a shot. Throw the spaghetti on the wall, see what sticks.
And I can't wait to read what they write. I'm going to read all 225 of them, and probably a lot of them are never going to work, but we don't need all of them to work. The very practice of getting into the habit of thinking, "What might work?" I think is really important. That's the best that I have to say at the moment.
Q: Good afternoon. Monte, self-isolating in Toronto. To begin with, my compliments to your brief, which is most excellent, but my question and comment, in terms of pure epistemic ontology, it's almost counter-intuitive in terms of what I would term as being descriptive leadership grounded within prescriptivism, because leadership ought to assuage. It ought to calm, and most importantly, of course, speaking truth is to me the ideal normative and no schadenfreude, I do feel very sad, if not concerned, to what I consider to be leadership bereft in the centers of power. So, how do you reconcile that I consider to be these two disparate terms in terms of philosophy as opposed to what I ... let's be blunt, crass leadership, which is designed to be reelected, but grounded within that ontology of assuaging the people and directing them to their better angels? I thank you, sir.
Thank you very much for that. I hope you won't consider this an entire cop out, but the way that I would make progress on your question is to not reject but complicate our notion of what leadership demands, and this may be me confessionally being influenced after a decade and a half at the Kennedy School. I've had a lot of conversations with people like Marshall Ganz and Ron Heifetz. In particular, I've done a lot of work with Ron on adaptive leadership. And so, that model of leadership does not say first and foremost that leaders' job is to assuage concern, though it does have part of that built into it. Namely, you've got to sort of keep checking on the heat of the group that you're working with, and if it's getting too hot, if the temperature's rising too much, then you absolutely do need to move in to calm things down so that you can have what is often described as productive disequilibrium. Not equilibrium, productive disequilibrium, so the appropriate kind of learning can take place.
So I think that, yes, leaders have that role, but it's part of a much larger role of trying to make progress on adaptive issues, create a kind of learning environment in which that can be done, build capacity for productivist equilibrium. So to that end, I think that the pursuit of truth in the public arena is very compatible with that. Ron and I have had a lot of conversations about what does good moral leadership look like? And part of that answer is you cannot be a good leader if you are misdiagnosing the situation. So part of it, you do need to be scientific about this. How in the world can you make progress on the work at the center if you haven't properly diagnosed the work at the center?
So that's one thing. But I want to just use this as an opportunity to talk about where I see good leadership and bad, my own opinion, my two cents, worth exactly that. I point to Governor DeWine here in Ohio as someone who I think is striking the right balance. He's being transparent, he's leveling with the people. He's not BS'ing us or giving us false hope, but in being transparent and open, there is a hopefulness there, and so I think that there's something very powerful, that sometimes the truth can be both ugly but at the same time there's hopefulness that can come on the other side of that.
And the best leadership that I'm seeing right now is striking that balance, leveling with the people, not BS'ing, not lying, not sugarcoating, but not letting us collapse into despair either. There' is a way forward on this. I'm not seeing that leadership in other places, I'll just say it like that, and I sure hope that that leadership arrives soon, because I think the public, in these sorts of situations, absolutely needs the truth or else there's just no trust in the leadership. But it can't let that truth paralyze them and let them collapse into despair. The art of going back and forth with that is part of what I think makes for good adaptive leadership, and adaptive leadership is the kind of leadership that I find most persuasive.
Q: Hi, this is Charlie, an MPP from 1991 living in Chicago. Some writers have envisioned a dystopian society in which we have a group of people with antibodies and another group who don't have the antibodies, and the first group has immunity from reinfection. I realize we don't know right know that anyone is truly immune from reinfection, and at the moment we don't have sufficient testing and maybe we don't have a perfectly accurate test either, but let's assume for the moment that we get there on all of these issues. At that point, how do you think about the ethical issues involved in allowing the immune group to return to work, to health clubs, to restaurants and so on, while still telling the other group that they have to continue to self-isolate?
It's a great question. I'm not sure I would automatically call that dystopian. It's certainly not ideal, but let me at least explain why I wouldn't automatically call that dystopian. I wouldn't automatically call that dystopian because if, and as you nicely laid out, if a lot of things happen, if we're able to track antibodies and if those antibodies meaningfully immunize, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and if we are able to find a portion of the population can go back to work, to me, I think it's a good thing to get a portion of population back to work. We cannot have a stalled economy for months and months and months on end, and I think that some of the good that would come out of those individuals going back to work can then be carried over to those individuals who maybe asked not to return yet.
This is a policy question, and I just gave a warning about me saying more than I'm an expert on. So, some of this is for people who are experts at policy craft. I'm more in the space of evaluating policy craft from an ethics and epistemological standpoint. But I would hope, I would hope at least, that those experts would find some meaningful space for people who we'll continue to ask to self-isolate, if that's what they were being asked, to do so in a way in which they still felt productive and were reaping some of the benefits of a reignited economy.
I'm just not so sure what this would look like. I've been imagining more scenarios where there are people who have antibodies, they are immune, they're happily at work. Everyone else is still going about their day, but there's just a lot more contact tracing when episodes occur. I don't know what it's going to look like, but I will say that I would be thrilled, just objectively I would be thrilled, if we found out that this had spread a lot farther than we thought, a lot faster than we thought, and there's already a chunk of the population that had meaningful antibodies and was ready to go back to work. I think that'd be a good thing.
I think the other thing that may happen ... And again, this is speculative, we just don't know. There's just so much we don't know, but most of the time, except in the movies or in one of my zombie apocalypse pandemics, most of the time, not all but most of the time, when viruses mutate, they tend to become less lethal because it makes it easier for them to just spread further. So one thing that we may find is that after a couple months, versions of the virus are everywhere, there's still the risk of some people getting a more serious strain, but maybe even some of the lesser strains develop some degree of immunization and antibodies, and that also would be a really good thing. So many unknowns, but my short answer is I sure do hope we find some ways to get some people back working over the next few months, keeping in mind that rushing towards this, as I read recently, the mayor of Las Vegas wants to do, is ill-advised historically, and probably ill-advised at this moment.
Q: Hi Chris. This is Nathan. I was an MPP business school student from 2015 until 2018. I have a kind of two part question. The first is when I see the protestors going to state capitols around the country, I don't see people that are really questioning the science behind COVID. They seem to all be wearing face masks and standing apart. Furthermore they have a lot of Trump banners and a lot of guns, which are really not related to COVID. So I'm kind of curious if you thought more, maybe there's something else going on with them. And the second, on the utilitarian point of view, I think the most compelling argument I've heard for shutting down parts of the economy to due with COVID is that if it stuck to the government's estimate that the proper tradeoff between regulations and human life would place a human life worth about nine out of 10 million dollars and the potential loss of life would exceed one or two million people, and the US economy is only $20 trillion, it would make clear mathematical sense to shut down the entire economy for a fear of six or more months, that that would actually be less costly than letting those people die. I'm kind of curious if you are moved by that point of view as well, and why we don't see that talked more about. Thank you.
Sure. These are really great questions. I'll try to address both. I haven't figured out the protestors yet. I'm trying to put the protestors in conversation with what we're seeing with early polling, and it's still early polling, but early polling seems to show, and there's one pretty decent one that came out this week, though, again, we're just going to have to ... I'm sure these numbers will change over time, but early polling this week showed, at least right now, a very healthy chunk of the American public, a majority if not a supermajority, more or less onboard with the policies the government has put in place and not wanting to rush back to open up the economy soon.
So, in this sense, these protestors who are to the extent that I understand them as advocating for reopening things very quickly, they are in a minority. Now, minorities need the right to protest, and I think again I'm just going to lean on Governor DeWine here who says everyone has the right to protest, and then when he's speaking of himself, he's like, "You want to protest me? Protest me. Do it in a responsible way," as some of them are trying to do, but that's the American spirit.
I think there's a couple of things that people could be protesting, whether this is actually getting into the mind of the protestors. I'm going to take this as an opportunity to sort of point to some things that I think are worth criticizing, so I am definitely not putting this on the protestors. I really don't know what's going on with some of them. But, there have been plenty of failings, in my opinion, that we have suffered through for the past couple of weeks here that are worth being upset about. Among them, a pretty terrible federal economic recovery plan. Again, I'm not a policy expert, so this is just my two cents, but I think that some of you can appreciate that.
Several other countries adopted policies where basically people were kept on the payroll and government paid businesses to keep people on the payroll. That creates a tremendous amount of less anxiety and makes you be able to pivot back to opening up the economy easier than what we're going through. Now, obviously it costs a lot, and a lot, a lot of money, but it would have been nice to have seen something a little bit closer to that.
We are failing catastrophically in terms of testing. There just aren't enough tests out there. There aren't enough tests for having the illness. There aren't enough test for having antibodies. There just aren't enough tests going around at all, and I could go on. So there certainly are things here that I think are worth complaining about and protesting, whether the actual protestors are upset about those things or not.
In terms of the calculation of value of human life, run the numbers, you get the conclusion that you can shut down the economy for a period of time from a cost benefit analysis. I've talked to a lot of people about those. For me it wouldn't be definitive, but it would be part of the considerations I would take seriously. I think the reason that you find, and this is sort of a meta observation, I think the reason that you find not a lot of people publicly ... I'm talking public leaders, pointing to that is because there is a real distaste in the public for putting a dollar amount to a human life, even though that is done all the time. But of course, it being done all the time doesn't mean it's morally justified.
But you go out there and you start talking about people being worth $7, $8, $9 million a head, you've just got yourself national headlines and probably a whole bunch of headaches that you don't want. So my suspicion is that calculations like that are absolutely happening in some governor mansions, but they're not the sort of thing that they're going to lean forward with the public on. Which brings us to this. I argued before about being transparent and being honest and being open, and I think that's all true, but that doesn't mean don't be strategic at the same time.
This is a contest in which we really do need the public to comply, and for a large part to comply of their own. If my whole community here ... It's only 5,000 people, but if they all decided not to comply, there are definitely not enough police officers to stop us from doing so. We could collectively do whatever we want, quite frankly. So you do need the public involved in this and you want to level with them truthfully, but I think you also want to be strategic in a way that keeps them invested in the project. I hope that was an okay enough answer.
Q: Hi. This is Blain calling. I had sort of two things, one is a question, one's an observation, going back to our friend, Richard Epstein. He has this general epistemological view that one would call sort of a hard libertarianism and a couple of other law professors like him have been writing about it, and he's been doubling down, actually, on what he said. Not necessarily on the deaths, but the need to just reopen everything and go back to normal. And his view is that the government should just never be involved and the market should take care of everything, and so that's sort of what motivates some of his ... It's a set of motivated reasoning, perhaps. On the other thing, though, is that with the economy shut down, and you mention the poor federal response, I wonder, does this actually require us to do some serious thinking, too, as to what, as a society, we actually owe each other both now in a time of crisis, and beyond, and what are our sort of obligations to one another beyond mere sort of normal interactions. What should a government's role be? What should the role of redistribution and other things be in this situation? So it's sort of that old debate anew, and does that have, do you think, some sort of vitality? Because it seems like we never really talk about it and we always dance around that issue in a lot of our debates, but maybe this is making it starker. Thanks.
Blain, as always, it is great to hear from you. Big smile on my face. Blain was amongst my first students in my course, Ignorance, Lies, Hogwash and Humbug, when I was offering it as a small little seminar at the Kennedy School many years ago. It seems like a lifetime ago now but actually that was around 2012. At that time, as, Blain, you will recall, at that time, we were just hearing the term post-truth gain popularity. In our seminar we were talking about things like Paul Ryan exaggerating his marathon running speed and reading articles of people going, "Does no one respect the truth anymore?" It all seems so quaint compared to where we are now.
I'll start with Epstein first, and the hard libertarianism. I also teach a course on economic justice now at the Kenned School and I'm wrapping that up this semester as well. We've had a lot of great conversations, and Blain describing it as hard libertarianism, I think that's the really crucial part. Libertarians come in a lot of different stripes and they come in the softer and harder variety when it comes to their allegiance to certain core principles.
Many hard libertarians line up behind Robert Nozick and his book, Anarchy, State and Utopia. One of the things I do with students is I teach them that Nozick's hard libertarian is grounded on a certain reading of Immanuel Kant, so it's not just from out of nowhere, and Immanuel Kant had these beliefs about it always being inappropriate to violate certain of our negative rights, no matter the consequences. And so Kant ... Now, for many people, that was enough to just leave the Kantian project whatsoever, but Kant very much considered himself an antagonist to utilitarians and indeed for pretty deep, that I will not get into in this talk for anyone, pretty deep theoretical reasons thought that it was completely and totally ridiculous to assign rightness and wrongness to how things turned out. Because for Kant, we're not entirely in charge of how things turn out, but we are morally responsible.
So if I'm going to hold someone praiseworthy or blameworthy for what they've done, then they better have been in charge of what they've done, but as we all know, all of us, the world often doesn't cooperate with the best of our intentions. So Kant felt for pretty deep reasons that I am massively glossing over, that it was just the wrong way to think about ethics, to think about consequences, and he gave us a tradition in which there are certain rights that we have, and one of those rights is not to be lied to no matter the consequences. And so, for those of you that are familiar with Kant on this, Kant has these notorious ... There's notorious cases that are raised to Kantians. Kant was writing before this, but to Kantians, and you say, "Well, what if it's the holocaust? You're hiding a Jewish family upstairs and a Nazi comes to the door ..." This is a famous case, "and knocks on the door and says, 'Are you hiding a Jewish family upstairs?' According to Kant, you're supposed to say, 'Why yes I am.'"
And most people are like, "Thank you very much, Kant. I think I'm done," but it was very much in the spirit of, "You just don't get to do certain things despite the horrible consequences that would come about." In that sense, Epstein's being completely consistent. He's being a good Nozickian, but this is one of the reasons why there are so few libertarians that are actually Nozickians. It is really far out for most libertarians. Most libertarians think that Nozick went way too far in and that you can embrace a good, healthy libertarianism without the all-or-nothing. But in this sense, at least, pointing to all the horrible consequences that might emerge from doing what Epstein wants us to do, at least if he's being consistent with the Nozickian kind of libertarianism, he should just blink and say, "Yeah, but I'm not in it for the consequences."
So, that's one thing. In terms of the second point, I think for anyone that's been through my simulations, one of the things I try to emphasize is that during crises, the sort of moral character of your country, your organization, yourself, a bright light is shined on it, the good things and the bad. On the other side of a crisis, there's definitely an opportunity. When you talk about all the negative things, we should talk about opportunities too. There's definitely opportunity to revisit the bad and ask yourself, does this need to stay bad? And the answer to that, of course, is almost no. It doesn't need to stay bad.
So I would love for leadership in this space, and it would be moral leadership in the space, to take this opportunity as it unfolds, and it's going to unfold for a while in one form or another, as an opportunity to revisit in the American context our social contract with each other. We have been a nation of high individuality that talks about being one community, but it seems to just be talk. And so I think that something like this could, under the right leadership, be an opportunity to us to revisit the contract we have with each other, to maybe dial back some of the individualism. Not all of it, because it's important, but to reinvest in the commitment of community, of bringing everyone along, and reduce some of the tribalism that we see in play.
I don't think that's going to happen without the right sort of leadership, and it's going to be up to us to decide what that leadership is going to look like. But it's a great question. Thank you, Blain.
Q: Hello, this is Don Shepherd. I'm in Wellesley, Massachusetts outside of Boston. I was MPT, 1973 and PhD, '76. I teach benefit-cost analysis at Brandeis University and I wanted to ask about what might be an incremental step in utilitarianism, to ask whether it might be acceptable. Just stay within the health context. Could a selective opening of gyms that focus on individual activities like using a treadmill be something that would show a trade-off of health benefits from physical activity with people advise to wear a mask, possibly shutting locker rooms against what might be a theoretical small risk of COVID? Thanks.
Hard to know how to answer in the specifics. I'll just tell you some things that I would want in place, and I hope I don't sound like a broken record, but I really think this is important. As an epistemologist, I know that there are many times when we can't make the kind of decisions we would want because we don't have the information that we need to make them at the high level of quality that we typically do. And in a crisis, sometimes that low information is just a feature of the situation. Yes, the models on this have changed dramatically.
Unlike some people who I've been in discussions with, I don't think that that's particularly because of high levels of incompetence in the people coming up with these models. I personally feel it's just because of the nature of the enemy we're fighting. That said, we do have some responsibilities to try to make as informed decisions as possible, even in crisis. So to me there are serious complaints to level against government if government is not doing everything that it can right now to get us to know as much as we can.
So to bring all of those observations into the gym example, my answer would be, I would feel very uncomfortable with this until we were able to test people more regularly. I would want tests to people going into that gym, minimal sorts of tests. Again, that's intrusive and I understand that's intrusive, and I definitely appreciate the point here of, if we're just having a bunch of people sitting around their homes all the time, guess what? We're going to have a different kind of health crisis in no short order and we're already seeing some people not going to the hospital who are in need of medical care because they're afraid.
So I really do take this point seriously. I would resist making a decision without saying, first, let us try to get in place a better ability to just see who's coming in and out of doors like that. And this to me is just a big concern. Most of the papers that I've read, the white papers that I've read about restarting the economy or any segment therein have all had some version of much, much more pervasive and better testing in order to pull this off in a way where it just doesn't replicate the problem.
And just to emphasize this one last time, I can imagine people going to that gym, waking up and saying, "I feel fine." They go to the gym, they don't have a temperature, they come home, but they actually are contagious because one of the insidious things about this is it can mask its symptoms, sometimes throughout its entire time in your system, sometimes at least for four to five days. So that, to me, is all the more reason why we need to be careful about this. It's not merely a matter of self-monitoring. A person in good faith could say, "I don't feel any symptoms," and go out into the public or a gym or whatnot, and they're nevertheless being a problem.
Q: Hi, my name is Rashi and I am calling in from Canada. I want to piggyback on a question that was asked a bit earlier about one's obligations to other people, and you were speaking specifically within the American context. I was wondering if you could extend that in terms of foreign relations. So, what is one country's obligation to another country within this COVID crisis? And I'm specifically thinking of the N95 masks produced by 3M in Minnesota being banned for export to Canada even though we have a well known free trade agreement across our border. So, in that sense, if you could speak about that and then also about the ethics of globalization extending upon whether we're obligated to other countries during this context.
Great. Hi Rashi, it's good to hear from you too. I will answer the first one and then in the last minute or so talk briefly about the second. Anyone who's been through my zombie pandemic simulation, or for those of you for whom this is news, for many, many years I've run a pandemic simulation. The fun part of it is it features zombies. That's to make it a little bit less intense, but besides that, it tracks so much of what we've been seeing right now as anyone who's gone through it can testify.
I bring this up now because in one of the stages of that simulation, all the countries of the world have to sort of come together to solve this crisis, and students are somewhat shocked at how easy it is for them to still be thinking somewhat myopically about their country, their borders, their standing in the world when you've got a crisis that doesn't care at all about the borders of countries.
In the debrief I talk about how easy it is for us to think about "it's us and them" even when factually this is not the case. The novel coronavirus doesn't care at all about national borders, as we've all seen, and we saw early on what I considered to be some good faith efforts. President Trump was criticized about this, but I actually think it was the right move to send PPE to China when the thought was that this could be kept in China. The spirit of that is this is good for you and it's good for us and it's good for all of us. He was criticized later on because of our own crisis of PPE and rightfully so in terms of production of that, but the idea behind that, I think, is a good one.
So I definitely think the countries of the world need to recognize that this problem is ours, period, whether we like that or not, and global cooperation is a requirement, and so holding onto supplies from other countries are going to backfire on us and vice versa. That said, it's easier said than done, especially when desperation seems to be in play, and our current leadership at the top is, and I think I'm doing this fairly and descriptively ... I'm trying to be as descriptive as I can, is very comfortable in an "us versus them" mentality. It's entirely unclear to me what some of the recent ideas about immigration are going to do. Obviously we need to be careful about who we're bringing in, but it's not clear to me that that's exactly the thinking behind this, and I'll just leave that at that.
So, short version of this is I do think we have a moral obligation to view this as a global problem, and that's not just altruism. That's like it's in our interest, it's in everyone else's interest to view this as a collective action problem, and not something that even if one country does great, if another country doesn't, that's not going to work. Just as in the United States, if one state is doing a good job and another state isn't, well, that's not going to really help all of us.
Last thought on this, pure speculation, treat it as such. Hard for me to imagine right now, today, that open borders and more globalization are what's going to come out of the COVID-19 world. Maybe eventually, but I think you're going to see a lot of countries looking inward more, somewhat reasonably in some instances. We want to protect supply chains going forward from being as threatened as some of them are, but somewhat unreasonably as well, and you're already seeing panic and bias. I'm already seeing in my Facebook feed, people saying, "If it says 'Made in China', don't buy it. It's not safe," or, "Shame on them" or whatever.
The Chinese government has done some extraordinarily problematic things when it comes to this virus and did not embrace truth or openness at all, and should be held accountable for that, but the reaction that I just described is also not going to help whatsoever. So we're going to need massive leadership for anyone committed to the idea of more open borders and the goods of globalization ... That good, by the way, includes keeping people out of poverty and starvation. We're going to need massive leadership in order to avoid those significant moral harms.
Great. Well, thank you very much for that answer and thank you very much for joining us this morning, Chris Robichaud.
You are welcome.
Thank you to everyone who called in to listen. Just a reminder, our next call will be in a week, next Thursday, April 30th at noon Eastern Time with Danny Roderick, who will discuss whether COVID-19 will remake the global order. Thank you very much, and everyone have a great rest of the day.