Thursday, March 19, 2020

Please and Thank You

Yascha Mounk is unhappy that there are people who are not engaged in isolating themselves in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak here in the United States. He explains this behavior, which he considers dangerously risky and irresponsible by offering up four theories:

  • Simple, honest ignorance of the threat.
  • Selfishness.
  • Callousness due to perceived distance from those potentially harmed.
  • A deficit in people's moral instincts.
"This" Professor Mounk notes, "helps to explain why so many people have been ignoring public-health advice."

But I think that there's also a point that perhaps Professor Mounk is overlooking. He touches on it when he notes that in some places, people were acting in defiance of explicit orders. Public-health advice is different from a legal mandate.

When I worked with children, one of the things that I learned to do early on was to be very clear as to whether I was giving a child an instruction or making a request. And maintaining that separation improved my relationship with them, because they understood when they could say "no" to me and I would accept that.

The nature of a request, or the nature of advice, is that the recipient is still free to choose whether or not they comply. After all, public-health officials also advise that smokers to whatever they must to kick the habit, and we know that second-hand smoke carries risks. But I am not aware of anyone who expects that those people who still choose to smoke should be treated as if they unjustifiably flouted a politely worded command. The fact of the matter is that, for the most part, public-health officials are not empowered to demand the compliance of the public on specific issues. They can advise, and they can recommend, but they cannot simply order.

And perhaps more importantly for this situation, commentators shouldn't treat them as if they had that authority. Because it lets the people who do have the authority off the hook. If going out for coffee or meeting up with friends is so dangerous that it shouldn't be an option, then it shouldn't be an option. And those people and agencies that have been duly empowered to make such calls should formally make them.

The difference between ethics and law is that while ethics may seek to explain why the options for behavior in a given circumstance are limited or non-existent, law (and its close cousin, regulation) grants to power to demand obedience and exact punishments when disobeyed. Professor Mounk references a thought experiment by ethicist Peter Singer:
If you went for a walk in a park, and saw a little girl drowning in a pond, you would likely feel that you should help her, even if you might ruin your fancy shirt. Most people recognize a moral obligation to help another at relatively little cost to themselves.
But a "moral obligation" is still, in the end, a choice. There are likely some people out there who are convinced that allowing the child to drown would earn them the ire of whichever deity they follow, and it's likely that the Court of Public Opinion would have something to say about it, but the collective "we," as a society, have not determined that prioritizing one's "fancy shirt" above the life of someone else's child is an offense. There is no general, universal, duty to rescue in American jurisprudence outside of individuals or organizations that one may expect have taken some responsibility for another. (Note that there are different rules in different jurisdictions, and some do have laws on the books that require providing assistance to a person in danger, but typically, the United States does not define inaction on the part of a random member of the general public as either a tort or a crime.)

None of this is intended to be a call to leave people to drown, or to potentially infect them with a disease of widely variable consequences. But it is sort of a call to acknowledge that "public-health advice" and "executive or legislative actions" are not the same, and that invoking morality to justify an expectation that they be treated as if they were is not helpful.

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