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Fun With Morality! Or: It's Complicated (5.5.20)

The debate these days is whether the economy should be reopened, but of course it was never entirely shut down. For an orderly stay-at-home situation to even be possible, parts of the economy still have to function -- shipping, food-chain related industries, medical facilities, utility companies, emergency responders, etc.

The people in those "essential" jobs still have to circulate, and articles such as this one suggest that they're accounting for a large number of new infections even as lockdowns persist. Then they're taking the infection home and giving it to their families.

So is there a moral dilemma in calling for continued lockdowns in the name of saving lives?

If person X feels they can only be safe via a system that exposes essential worker Y to increased risk of infection and death, is person X implicitly placing a higher value on their own life?

One widely spread notion is that you have a moral responsibility to protect the people who MIGHT eventually be in a chain of infection that you started. If you want essential person Y to put himself at risk to keep you safe, would you still be responsibile to the people in a chain of infection started by person Y? (If someone asks, "which family member are you willing to lose to this virus," does that have the underlying premise that my family member is more important than the grandma of the checkout lady at Safeway?)

Solidarity (4.21.20)

My "for fun" reading right now is a biography of Herbert Hoover I got for Christmas. Right now I'm at the meaty part, where Hoover -- who spent a lot of his adult life as a revered humanitarian, leading relief efforts to save millions from man-made and natural disasters -- sees the world crumble around him.

I don't know what lessons today's leaders would take from the start of the Great Depression. What I'm seeing in the book is this: There's solidarity, until there isn't. The federal government was much smaller back then, but Hoover leaned on private-sector bankers and labor leaders to voluntarily do the right things to stabilize the financial system after the 1929 stock market crash. There was grumbling, but they did what he wanted, and for a while it seemed to work -- there were months where it looked like a recovery was happeneing. (One big problem, though, was that the tools for measuring the economy weren't well-developed and they had a hard time figuring exactly how bad certain things were. Sound familiar?) When international financial problems started to spread -- tied in large part to reaparations payments from World War I -- Hoover leaned on European leaders to shuffle some obligations around and buy more time in the hopes of stabilizing the banks. It worked for a while.

Failure might have been been unavoidable, as too many systems around the world were imploding at the same time. But any sense of unity crumbled once things got bad enough for the individual actors. European leaders worried about their own economies stopped bowing to Hoover's demands; the DNC conducted an (at the time) unprecedented smear campaign meant to undermine Hoover's reputation; American financiers no longer saw the point in spending their money to voluntarily save other failing banks. Large groups of unemployed people started to fix personal blame on Hoover -- who less than 10 years before was considered by many to be one of the best human beings on the planet.

It seems ... predictable, I guess, because this is how a lot of crises go. Today we're already at the point where solidarity is starting to crumble, because it really is that bad for a lot of people.

Return to Normalia (4.5.20)

Let's say there's a village of exactly 100 people, called Normalia. It's a progressive village with a hip mayor -- maybe he has a man bun! -- and they like to go for walks as an entire village. It's corny but sweet. One day, the whole village is walking through the woods, a few miles from home, when a freak lightning storm rolls through.

It's a bad one. Lightning sets the forest on fire. And from a clearing at the top of a hill, the people of Normalia can see that a third of the village (meaning their homes and shops) is also on fire. They need to get back to Normalia, quick. Running down the trail, they reach a fork. Both paths lead to the village ... but now they have a dilemma.

The path to the right is shorter, but it goes through a very dense part of the forest. If they go that way, it's a very dangerous trip through intense fire and thick smoke. The village's fire expert guesses that if they go to the right, five people will never make it home. The only blessing: Because the path is shorter, they might make it back to Normalia in time to save most of the homes and shops. There's going to be serious fire damage, but they could save a lot.

The path to the left is much longer, but the the forest along that path is thinner. If they go that way, fewer people from the village will die from smoke and fire along the way. The village's resident fire expert guy guesses that maybe two people are goners if they take the path on the left. That's better than five -- but because the journey is longer, the fire in the village might be out of control by the time they get home. It could completely destroy lots of buildings and at least damage most of them.

What should they do? Everyone wants to get back to Normalia, but opinions will vary. Weaker villagers, or those who have the closest ties to the weak, might want the long path; the healthiest villagers might want to take their chances on the short path. Villagers with homes or shops on the outskirts of towns might be fine with the long path; those who could see their homes already on fire might want to race down the short path. Some people will argue that lives are irreplaceable and saving them has to be the priority. Others will say that if the village burns down, everyone's life gets much, much worse for a long time.

Some people might say, we should each get to choose our own path! Others will say, we have to stick together as a village! And the mayor, wanting to please everyone, might say, "Let's start down the long path, and hey, maybe we'll find a shortcut along the way!" The only thing they all know is that standing there in a forest fire isn't going to help anyone.

If you lived in Normalia, how would you get home?

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