Morality in the time of plague

Andrew Brown, journalist and commentator, explores moral dilemmas in the face of the coronavirus. What is the right thing to do when the consequences cannot be seen or understood and no amount of calculation can provide an answer?

One of the strangest discoveries of modern science is that we seem to have two methods of moral reasoning built into our brains: different areas of the brain light up depending on what sort of ethical framework we are thinking in.

The central question of all moral reasoning is: “What is the right thing to do right now?” There are two broad ways to answer it:

  • One is to ask what the rules are, which usually means remembering how you have been brought up, but which can also involve an appeal to authority. This is what philosophers call deontological reasoning.
  • It is opposed by consequentialist reasoning, where we try to think through the consequences of our actions and choose on that basis.

We all use both these methods flexibly, sometimes one, and sometimes the other, and this has probably been true for as far back as there have been humans.

The first philosopher to reflect on these two modes of reasoning was Niccolo Machiavelli in Renaissance Florence, at the beginning of the modern age. He saw that bad men could make good princes: that a ruler who was too kind, too merciful and too honest, might, through weakness, cause much greater suffering than a ruthless and treacherous bastard in a world where the greatest threat was anarchy.

This was deeply shocking at the time, and still is when we look at it closely. But over the past 500 years Machiavelli’s reasoning has triumphed almost completely. Our culture now takes for granted that the only way to think about moral problems is to calculate the consequences of an action and then see which one minimises suffering, or maximises happiness. The only disagreements are whose suffering should be minimised, and whose happiness we should care about.

In fact, we seemed, until a couple of months ago, to have combined the two modes of reasoning to the benefit of society as a whole: experts weighed up the consequences of a likely action, and then we did what they told us. At least, that was how it was supposed to work.

But the virus is deadly to consequentialist reasoning. We just don’t have enough information to judge the likely consequences of our actions. This is true both for experts, for governments, and for each one of us as individuals.

On a personal level, I know that I ought to self-isolate, for the sake of other people as much as for myself. But should I to visit my mother in her care home? She’s very old, and at the moment ill. But if I go, and if I am infected, I am putting in danger everyone else in the home – unless, of course, some other relative has done so before me.

This throws upside-down our culture’s notion of how morality works. In popular culture – and in the rich world’s expectations – goodness and success are deep down the same thing. When bad things happen to good people this seems so remarkable that it provided the title of a bestselling book. The coronavirus threatens all of that. Bad things are going to happen to good people as a matter of routine. No amount of calculation can tell us what to do.

The goodness that will go unrewarded is not the kind which will be obviously admirable. Most of us don’t work in the front lines of healthcare. We have no opportunity for the sort of self-sacrifice that newspapers notice. Nor do most of us currently seem at risk of dying at the virus.

Our moral choices are not about how we should save ourselves. They are about small boring acts of self-denial: what we should do or stop doing to avoid passing it on and how much we should inconvenience and impoverish ourselves for the sake of the community.

If we do these things it will be at the urgings of the second part of our brains: the one that tells us to do what’s right without counting the cost. The best result, if you calculate it all out, is for everyone to behave unselfishly, except, perhaps, you. But the only way to get the calculation to work out for the best is for everyone in fact to behave unselfishly, just because it’s right.