There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the West’s performance with regards to the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, and how it compares to the East’s performance. These arguments look at the published statistics, showing that the virus is apparently under control in Eastern nations, and isn’t in Western nations, and suggest that perhaps the supposedly example-setting Western democracies need to take a lesson from these Eastern countries. I have even seen some essays suggesting that the progress of the pandemic in the East and the West demonstrates that the time for Western-style democracy has passed. What is left unspoken in all of these arguments is that these discussions are assuming the primacy of utilitarian morality – that is, that the needs or wants of the many always outweigh the needs or wants of the few.
It’s left unspoken for a simple reason: it’s much easier to argue with utilitarianism as a philosophy than it is to argue about data, at least for most people. Philosophy, by its nature and reputation, is open for argument and debate. While science is supposed to be just as open for debate, the current societal mode is to assume that the data and statistics reported by “experts” in the name of “science” are like an impregnable fortress, completely immune from argument or questioning. From the walls of this scientific castle, it is easy to cast stones on those who question the dominion of data. How could something possibly be right, if there are sensationalistic statistics to show that it might cause a higher percentage of harm?
Perhaps this is a natural result of a system that puts such stock in the will of the majority. So much of Western society inculcates the idea that taking the course determined by the majority is the fairest way that it is not an immense leap to conclude the utilitarianism, which is essentially the philosophy of majority will, is the “right” philosophy to follow. It’s not expressed so explicitly, but that is the subtext behind many of the arguments that I have witnessed, especially during the recent election season. Such an argument might go something like this.
Person A: I think that the government shouldn’t be allowed to tell me how many people I’m allowed to have in my own home.
Person B: It’s a negative externality. It’s not just about you – it’s about all the people that could become infected as a result of your actions.
Person A: People should be free to make their own, informed decisions. Especially on their own property. Right to private property, anyone?
Person B: Your right to property does not supersede the right of thousands of people to not die of a virus.
I will stop the hypothetical argument there (and yes, I realize that many of the arguments that have actually occurred would have been significantly more vitriolic, but let’s call this an idealized version). You’ve likely experienced or witnessed similar arguments and debates. If you’re reading this from a Wester style democracy, especially if you’re reading this in America, it’s probably quite familiar to you. It’s admittedly hard to argue with that last line of Person B’s. How do you follow that up? How do you make an argument that, according to that line of reasoning, would condemn thousands just for your whims? It makes the ideas of “individual freedom” and “right to property” seem shallow, selfish, and callous.
This is what makes the Eastern style approach so apparently attractive. In a more authoritarian system (which can be any system with large government presence in daily life and few protections on individual liberties, not just dictatorships), the government can take far more drastic steps to force people to comply with its will. China, with its pervasive surveillance network and social credit scores, as the means, the desire, and the wherewithal to track their citizens throughout their daily lives, and force them to quarantine, isolate, and so forth. Even Australia, which is a fairly Western-style democracy, was willing to forcibly escort would-be virus carriers to isolation in guarded hotels to prevent them from bringing the virus into the country’s populace.
Is that right? Let’s not look at China or other, authoritarian examples. That is a different debate than we’re trying to have here. Let’s look at Australia or New Zealand, which are democracies. The premise under which they are operating, and the premise implicit in the argument between persons A and B above, is that the will of the majority is the strongest moral argument, and that it is the government’s job to enact policies and decisions that will do the most good for the most people.
If you’re been following the site for awhile, you’ve probably seen me write about edge cases before. In engineering, “edge case” is a term we use to describe the outliers, the behavior of a system at an extreme or unusual circumstance. It’s used to help understand how materials will behave under extreme circumstances, or if a system will survive everything that is thrown at it. For instance, in software engineering, testing for edge cases is what makes sure that when the user does something they weren’t supposed to with the software, it doesn’t break the software. I find edge cases to be a useful lens to inspect other parts of life, too, including philosophy and civics. So let’s look at the edge cases of the idea that the government’s job is to “do the most good for the most people.”
Even pretending for a moment that it is easy or simple to know what “good” is, that maxim quickly runs into trouble. We could probably agree that preventing murders is a good thing. Yet this idea would permit the government to use a system of predictive policing to identify anyone who, based on their background, is likely to at some point in the future commit murder, and incarcerate or even kill them. The latter certainly sounds barbaric, but if doing so is the only way to guarantee that they will never murder someone? I think most of us can agree that this is wrong, but according to “do the most good for the most people,” such an action would not be condemned – it would be lauded as necessary and just.
What if, instead, we flip the maxim on its head. Instead of instilling government with a mandate to “do the most good for the most people,” what if we instead instructed it to “do the least possible harm to the fewest possible people.” Unlike the former example, under this paradigm the hypothetical and idealized government we’re using for this thought experiment will never go to nightmarish extremes in order to fulfill its maxim. In the extreme case, the government would simply do nothing. While this could also have negative consequences – imagine if a government decided it couldn’t wage war to protect its people, because some of them would get hurt – the consequences will be less dire for the individuals involved in the system. In fact, if we assume that this government is acting in isolation, which was the assumption we applied to the first government, even the war edge case here identified falls into irrelevance. In other words, while impractical for real world implementation to such an extreme extent, this idea is far more benign in the thought experiment than was the former.
Aristotle tells us that virtue is the mean between two vices. In other words, taking something to an extreme will necessarily make it a vice, but most things become virtues in moderation. I have often cited this is support for my own idea that it is best to avoid extremes, because they become dangerous from whichever direction they happen to be approached. I suspect that the Framers thought similarly, because the US Constitution is a masterpiece of balance between two extremes: the tyranny of the majority, and the tyranny of the minority. Its drafters were equally suspicious both of a government not subject to the will of the people (tyranny of the minority), and of a government entirely subject to the whims of the people (tyranny of the majority), and they crafted a system that would, in balancing both, hopefully permit neither. This is why there is an electoral college, a bicameral legislature, and three competing branches of government. It is also why there is a Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights enshrines certain individual rights and liberties as being unassailable by the government. Far more than the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is there to protect the smallest minority of all, the individual. It suggests that the Framers had a refutation to the utilitarian and majoritarian arguments made earlier in this essay, that they believed that there are things more important than the needs and wants of the many. Any majority, after all, is really just a collection of individuals who happen to have some commonality that aligns them. So let us now return to Persons A and B, now that Person A has read this essay.
Person B: Your right to property does not supersede the right of thousands of people to not die of a virus.
Person A: If individuals’ rights become subject to majoritarian whims, then they cease being rights at all, and become nothing more than privileges, bestowed by a rulership with the power to repeal them at will. It completely undermines the rule of law.
Person B: And what about the people who will die because you chose to exercise such a right?
Person A: Everyone makes decisions with regards to their own self-interest. I can choose what risk is acceptable to me, and so can those who choose to associate with me. Information, not edicts, will allow everyone to make the decisions that are best for them.
Person B: What about people who have to associate with you?
Person A: I’m not the government. I have no special power to compel anyone else to spend time in my presence.
Person B: But it’s still a negative externality. If you go out in public, you could be transmitting the virus to people who don’t know that you’ve been recklessly exposing yourself, and they have no way to choose or not choose to be in your presence. It is reasonable for the government to intervene when there is a negative externality like that.
Person A: But where does one draw the line? My mere presence in public, sans virus circumstance, is probably a negative externality to someone who would rather that I wasn’t in their way as I was walking along. Should the government regulate when certain people are allowed to be outside?
The argument could continue, but I think by now you’ve probably grasped the gist of the argument. My goal here is not to say that either Person A or Person B is necessarily right – both have some good points, and I am not nearly qualified to make a determination. I suspect both answers are probably wrong, and that there are no right answers. Instead, I will leave it to you to consider what the least wrong answer might be. Consider posting your thoughts below.