Friday, April 10, 2020

Can I or Kant I?

Immanuel Kant thought the fundamental moral question was a different one: what if everyone did that? Kant thought it was right to act only in ways that could be a universal law. We know that if everyone picnicked in the park, no one could do so safely.
Alison Hills. "'Can I sunbathe in the park?' is now a deep moral question"
But this presumes that "everyone" also includes the currently infectious. And so that raises a question. Should, post the current epidemic, should we expect that no-one sick with any sort of respiratory ailment be allowed out in public? It's common to reason that our reactions to COVID-19 are due to its specific dangerousness, but if it's that much of an outlier, it's a poor candidate for invoking universal moral imperatives. And the fact of the matter is that there are other respiratory diseases that show disparities in symptoms from person to person and can be fatal for some people.

In this sense, "Can I sunbathe in the park?" has always been a deep moral question, especially in this age of medications that can suppress symptoms while leaving one infectious. Because if we presume the Kantian imperative in this case deals with "the conflict between individual choice and the common good," that's true in a much broader set of cases than just the current COVID-19 outbreak.

And, note, the idea here isn't to try to create equivalencies between COVID-19, seasonal influenza, viral pneumonia et al. It's to ask: "What is the universal imperative being posited?" Because I think the problem that we actually have is that this particular risk is being presented as infinite orders of magnitude greater than risks that we routinely ignore. But I don't know that people actually experience it that way. And I think that disconnect is what is causing the difficulty, because what normally stops people (at least in the United States) from being out in public with dangerous infectious diseases is incapacitation, rather than concern for public health.

And in this sense, sunbathing or picnicking in the park may be bad examples, because they are considered trivial fripperies that anyone should be willing to forgo. But not long ago, I encountered a worker at a juice bar in a grocery store who was clearly unwell. In his case, being out in a place where they could pass their disease (and other than being a respiratory ailment, I don't know what it was) along wasn't a matter of personal luxury, but of maintaining a paycheck.

And this becomes the problem with attempting to come up with universal imperatives in the modern world. Attempting to configure them so that they cover certain things, exempt others and don't devolve into moral absurdity is more difficult than it is given credit for. Sunbathing and picnics are low-hanging fruit that are often chosen because it's easy to slam people who would defend them as uncaring and selfish; such people are often considered to be not entitled to understanding and kindness. But I think that selecting somewhat more difficult cases, and working through the logic of those selections, would make essays like this more useful for everyone involved.

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