A reasoned counter to Peter Singer and Michael Plant’s 'When Will the Pandemic Cure Be Worse Than the Disease?'

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By Gwenael Velge

April 28, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On April 6, the well-known Australian ethicist Peter Singer (author of Animal Libertion and other influential philosophical texts) and Michael Plant, a research fellow at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and Director of the Happier Lives Institute published an article in the on-line journal, Project Syndicate. They weighed up the competing benefits of using society-wide lockdowns to control Covid19 against the costs of unemployment, social isolation, and widespread bankruptcies.

Although Peter Singer and Michael Plant, spend the second part of their article on ‘well-being’ – which, as good utilitarians, they nevertheless frame as a measurable ‘currency’ that can be maximised in abstract – they knowingly and provokingly introduce it with the more common argument of pitting lives against the economy, going as far as stating that Trump is right: “the cure cannot be worse than the decease”. 

This critique seeks to highlight some of the ways in which the pair are making an epistemological mistake that leads into a moral one by wishfully thinking that a detached objective view provides insight into the future. It does not, at least not in the way they seem to think it does. 

Their ‘back of envelope’ calculations and measurements give an air of objectivity and neutrality, but they also hide a tendency to fall prey to the problem of induction, and in turn a tendency to ‘naturally’ or ‘rationally’ side with the political and economic status quo. This is especially unsettling given that we find ourselves in the midst of a so-called ‘black swan’ event: we not only do not know the future but also do not quite understand the present. It is time to think outside the box, not reproduce it by providing old ‘solutions’ to a new problem. 

The two authors presumably would protest this view, and so, as always, the crux of the issue is not primarily to determine what and who is ‘rational’, although it is that too; instead, it is primarily a political struggle between different ‘rationalities’ as to what variables matter now and what is deemed an ideal future.  

Let us be clear, my argument does not in fact contest Singer and Plant’s tentative and cautious conclusions. It is undeniable that a wide variety of variables must be taken into account when making public policy decisions. My concern is rather pointed towards the authors’ style, as well as with their conspicuous silence on the creative counter measures and opportunities available to address a drop in ‘well-being’ due to economic ‘fall out’.

Singer and Plant’s argument is that a ‘large economy’ is not necessarily better in itself; it is better because it is best able to provide ‘well-being’ – that ultimate currency that can be measured independent of politics. Bigger is necessarily better! Perhaps this is a pervasive tendency with people passionate about measurements? There are obvious arguments to support the authors’ case and it certainly should not be automatically dismissed. 

Nevertheless, in their text (and others like it), the argument mostly functions as self-evidence rather than something that requires demonstration – it relies on a set of unwarranted assumptions that dissimulate the political project for which they work.

The caricatured narrative goes like this: maximise GDP or everything will collapse, especially profit, but also ‘livelihoods’ and ‘well-being’. Of course one can point to simplistic cause and effect examples, a series of ‘if-thens’: if companies need to shut down, then people can’t work, if people can’t work then people can’t pay, if people can’t pay then what? Then the people who were making money from those payments no longer make money, which mean they can’t pay other people, etc. You get the gist: the sacrilege of deflationary phases in a system built on ‘growth’. 

Financial profit is at stake of course, but our productive capacity remains: we can still make houses, food, etc. It is ‘just’ that at the moment the kernel of the way in which we have organised our world is challenged at its deepest core. A shrinking economy is necessarily ‘destructive’ in this particular system. We leave crops to rot rather than feed people, we leave houses and hotels empty rather than shelter the homeless, etc. We have an overproduction of goods and services that have no quantitative financial value, but which nonetheless have plenty of qualitative value for people’s lives. Is this the creative destruction cycles of capitalism described by Schumpeter or is it an ultimate challenge to a system we have so deeply internalised we are no longer able to consider an alternative?

It is obvious that in such circumstances there will be a lot of stress -cultural, political, institutional, mental, physical, etc. This is because any social system carries a certain material inertia and because the majority buys into the self-evident narrative that is currently challenged fundamentally by the deflationary phase triggered by the health crisis. Yet this compulsion to maintain the status quo even in times of crisis always fails to take into account the ways in which we can address the stress and plausibly find new ways to live and organise. Singer and Plant artificially restrict the set of potential responses by considering only those used in the past – the positions culturally sanctioned as reasonable. 

They simply assume that the only future possible is the past. Some call that ideology.

It might be noted in passing that there are arguments pointing out that Singer and Plant’s ‘vaguely defined set of individuals’ (aka the majority) were increasingly worse off pre-crisis due to the never-ending rise of socio-economic inequalities. Nevertheless, the pair suggest that we do more of the same because this way we would avoid making the moral mistake of focusing on the “specific, known victim”. From this perspective, it looks like the authors’ framing of the issues we face is too narrow, or, alternatively, their sense of normality and ‘well-being’ is itself morally mistaken. Of course, the width of the framing of issues is eminently political, it is in fact one of the main tools of the status quo ‘realist’ to defend the supposed ‘rational’ superiority of their claims.  

But normality is out the window these days, even fiscally conservative governments have become fiscal heretics! Counter measures qualitatively affecting the livelihoods of ‘the vaguely defined set of individuals’ are already legion and they are not adequately assessed or measured by GDP or Singer and Plant’s text. Markets and governments have already ‘reacted’ and changed the shape and function of the economy, large volumes of private capital has been burned and public money has been created to support people (and businesses) without work or unable to pay rent, etc. There is even talk of suspending – some say erasing – developing countries’ debt repayments. How much is that worth in terms of ‘well-being’ as compared to GDP? 

Further, if the authors were going to make the economy versus lives argument, putting forth ‘well-being’ as the primary variable could alternatively be argued to be ethically obscene. Why not give priority to access to food and shelter, or mental health issues, as primary variables? Perhaps the authors assume this is encompassed in the term ‘well being’ – that convenient ‘single unit of measurement’? Yet they focus on reduction of ‘life-satisfaction’, ‘happiness’, etc. But these variables are not even an issue when one is simply trying to survive or is already dead. Life expectancy isn’t considered as a measurable variable for example. 

Do the authors actually believe that well being is a more ‘objectively measurable’ variable than life expectancy or is there an implicit political assumption smuggled in? This simple observation reveals, if only indirectly, who the authors are concerned about in their ‘rational’ model; it shows once more that their concern with the size of the economy is more focused on income/profit than it is on the actual socio-material, and thus also ethical consequences of the deflationary phases of the so-called ‘business cycles’.

The spike in domestic violence is another example of a genuine concern Singer and Plant might want to accuse those guilty of “wishful thinking” of not taking into account. But again, while numbers can be pointed at in a narrow manner (lock down caused percentage increase in comparison to ‘baseline’), this can also be framed in a different way: the increase in domestic violence puts it on the agenda, it is acknowledged rather than swept under the rug by citizens and governments alike, which means that community strategies and government funds are being devised and unlocked to address this central issue that has so far largely been invisible and underfunded. This, from the perspective of the authors’ own utilitarian ethics, looks like it could produce a net increase of well-being long term. But again, how are we to measure this at all, let alone against GDP? We are just comforted to know that if the economy went back to normal earlier, we would no longer have to worry about domestic violence. 

How does this strange paradox occur? How can crises produce ‘good’? Simply because we have an ability to respond to them, which means we can alter the outcomes. Crises materially change our world but also make us see it anew, they make the ‘vaguely defined set of individuals’ (read long-standing, barely-registered structural issues) palpable and visible, they turn them into ‘specific, known victims’, which in turn, compels us to help them. 

The two ethical/rational effects that Singer and Plant present to the reader as paradoxes, in order to highlight what they see as ethical/rational ‘non-optimisation’ (i.e. moral mistakes), are reminiscent of Zeno’s paradoxes. Yet again, the analytical/utilitarian take could easily be seen as detrimental here: in order to avoid theoretical incoherence the pair of authors end up embracing a kind of empirical nonsense. They are so focused on the theoretical possibility that the arrow (a la Zeno) never reaches its target that they cannot see it already has. In other words, they overlook the asymmetry between what we know empirically or near empirically, and what we think we know but have mostly reified ideologically (i.e. economy, politics, etc.). 

Indeed, in contrast to hard-to-predict socio-economic outcomes with a wide variety of counter measures available, epidemiologists have actual predictive models. They know relatively well how the epidemic will unfold depending on the steps taken by citizens and governments, and they do not have a wide variety of measures available to mitigate the negative outcomes (social distancing, PPE, etc.). This is why their recommendations are intuitively more appealing and rational to follow than ‘vaguely defined set of collateral issues’.

If we kept the “identified victim effect” within the realm of reality as we experience it rather than within the thought experiments of moral psychology studies, it would be rather obvious why we rationally favour helping ‘the specific, known victim’ rather than a ‘vaguely defined set of individuals’: presumably we know better how to help the ‘specific, known victim’ empirically – the problem is there, in front of us – whereas we most likely don’t know how to, let alone have the means to, help a ‘vaguely defined set of individuals’. 

More theoretically, induction is a poor method to predict historical outcomes in a complex and dynamic system made up of sets of ongoing ‘stimulus-responses’. By definition future outcomes cannot be known, induction is no logical base for prediction – a fortiori in a complex system. The utilitarian approach, which relies on ‘converting outcomes into units of value’ to guide ethics, will thereby always tend to side politically with the perpetuation of what can be named and measured, what is thought to be known, what is quantitatively concerning – the status quo. 

Below is an example of the problem of induction in regards to the utilitarian perspective: given that WWII ultimately produced social welfare, the UN consensus and neo-colonialism (better or worse the regular colonialism?), was Hitler 'ethically' justified to start the war? This should be a fair question if, as utilitarianism asserts, Hitler’s intentions are irrelevant and only actual outcomes matter in assessing the maximisation of well-being of the majority. Five years of war for 70 years of prosperity for the 'world' (so the narrative goes), sounds like good ethical calculus, especially given that it is the same war that got us out of that GDP-destroying Great Depression. Double stroke of luck!

But of course, although outcomes don’t care about feelings, it remains that without knowledge of the outcomes in advance they are utterly useless to decision-making and thus to guiding utilitarian ethics. The point is that Hitler did not aim to attain what actually ended up happening; his vision and design of an ideal future was ethically reprehensible, for obvious reasons that have nothing to do with the actual outcome. 

Consequently, it is fair to state that the utilitarian ethics approach is ill-suited to think beyond what is considered normal now, but also therefore, ill-suited to react to new challenges, like a global pandemic. 

Instead, my argument proposes that there are two levels of ethical decisions: the direct ones that tend to concern the ‘specific, known victim’ for which we know what to do empirically/rationally, and the more indirect ones that tend to concern the ‘vaguely defined set of individuals’ for which we only have a vague sense of how we could help. 

Regarding the former, we can do ‘back of the envelope calculations’, such as epidemiologists do, because they are more direct/better known problems with narrower sets of material and timely solutions. Regarding the latter, there is more space for creative and ideal thinking because there are too many variables to produce adequately predictive models. This therefore shifts the debate from a kind of ‘pragmatic’ ethics level to a more ‘ideal’ ethics level. If we know little about a more distant future (and increasingly less as it gets more distant), then our ethical goals must necessarily aim higher than is considered ‘reasonable’ now; they must necessarily become more ideal because at this level there is no so-called ‘realism’ to guide/restrict/normalise us any longer. 

Consequently, there is a rational reason to think politically ‘progressively’ as well as political one (i.e. discontent with the present). This in turn means that to call the people most concerned with the ‘specific, known victim’ ‘wishful thinkers’ is necessarily a political move in favour of the status quo as well as a statement that could potentially, but not necessarily, be ‘true’. 

There is simply no good reason to automatically align with the status quo, nor is there good reason to frame reality as a narrow zero-sum game as Singer and Plant do. The world is not a thought experiment, we cannot boil it down to a trolley problem in which only two options are available and we must decide in advance who gets to live or die. 

In the real world we have an opportunity to address issues as they arise, that is, we can continuously change track. In the real world, we can address a pandemic with the known tools we have to address an economic crisis with the known tools and the creative thinking we have. In the real world, the debate between ‘experts’ is rarely about which of the two options the trolley (i.e. society, the nation) should take. Rather, ‘experts’ mostly fight rationally, but also necessarily politically, over how many tracks there are available at any one time. An author concerned with Ethics in the Real World. (one of Peter Singer’s books) might want to give more consideration to the real political dimension of the real world as well as to the unbelievably complex nature/structure of the trolley tracks. 

Everyone knows there are empirical trade-offs, or costs of opportunity, to every decision made. Even wishful thinkers live in the real world! But that is not the issue of course, because mostly, no one knows in advance which specific opportunities will be missed, even though everyone knows in advance that, whatever they might be, all but one will be missed. The issue is not between idealist emotional ‘wishful thinkers’ and utilitarian, rational, realist calculators, the issue remains squarely with what is claimed to be known now – which variables are deemed to matter now – and what is deemed to be the ideal political project for the future. Whether Singer and Plant like it or not, politics plays a significant role in settling these questions, their ‘rational’ approach is also therefore a political one, it should be acknowledged as such. 

Those arguing that the health crisis is the priority, that the cure to the disease is to cure the disease, are not necessarily ‘wishful thinkers’, they may in fact have good rational and political reason to do so. Who knows what socio-material scenario will unfold, but if history is any guide, there is less good reason to predict or prescribe a return to the status quo rather than long-lasting change after such a deep and global crisis.

Either way, one can always reason backwards with history, as we saw with the Hitler example.  The status quo defenders , the historian accountants of ‘well-being’ (e.g. Steven Pinker), will argue that periods of crises are a drop in the ocean in comparison to the overall immutable liberal capitalist progress (which, of course, is no comfort at all for the ‘specific, known victims’) – look at those GDP and other graphs over the last 200 years they say! On the other hand, progressives will argue that their push for change, especially in times of crisis, has in fact been the engine of history, the progress that accountants of well-being only measure in hindsight, once it has been normalised.