Now that our President has been persuaded that, unlike Louis XIV, he is not the state, the heavy burden of deciding just how and when to take the first steps toward a modicum of normalcy falls upon the shoulders of the nation’s governors. They will each have to steer the ship of state between the shoals of recklessness and hysteria, or as Governor Pritzker has framed it, between lives and livelihood. Those of us with secure jobs or pensions forget that millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and will have to choose between medicine, rent or groceries if they don’t go back to work soon.
Gov. Pritzker will consult with epidemiologists, doctors and nurses, police and fire officials, educators and the business community. I would suggest he add a philosopher to the group.
A philosopher would tell him about a thought experiment in ethics known as the Trolley Problem. It involves a fictional situation in which a runaway train is barreling down a train track, and five people are tied up on the track ahead. You control a lever that can divert the train to a side track, but one person is tied up on the side track. Do you switch tracks? You can of course change the number of people and their bios in this scenario. Does it make a difference if there are just two people — a criminal and a geriatric? What if the one on the side track is a scientist close to the discovery of a COVID vaccine or a toddler?
Generally speaking, there are two ways to look at the problem. Many would say that killing one to save five is the right way to go. This utilitarian approach focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number. Another school of thought, deontological ethics, argues that an action is either right or wrong regardless of the consequences. Never kill a human being.
The ethics presented by the Trolley Problem is not so academic as it might seem. Whenever a country goes to war, it has to decide how many soldiers can die to achieve victory. The United States eventually decided that the number of young men dying in that war was not worth the price of preventing Communism in Southeast Asia. Increasing the speed limit to 70 almost certainly increases highway crash deaths. Similar tradeoffs are presented with respect to drugs, alcohol, obesity and guns. Our society is obviously willing to accept an increased loss of life for a greater economic or political benefit. COVID-19 will likely be no exception.
The Trolley Problem suggests that there is no easy solution to the question of how and when to begin reopening the country. Not everyone looks at the world the same. The deep political divisions and media exploitation of those divisions doesn’t make things any easier. I have great sympathy for all of the governors tasked with deciding which track we should take. May they choose well.