Xavier Landes: The COVID Crisis, Catastrophe Ethics and Value Pluralism
SSE Riga Associate Professor Xavier Landes points out that the COVID crisis highlights what politics is about: collective decision-making under moral disagreement. Social life entails concessions, compromises. The choice is not trivial, it is not easy.
Social, economic, political or health crises often act as the developing solution in photography. They reveal imperfections, responsibilities, tensions, dangers. Emmanuel Rahm, former President Obama’s chief of staff, used to say that ‘you never want a serious crisis to go to waste’. One understanding is practical: not to miss the possibility to start doing things differently (if granted). Another interpretation is evaluative. If a crisis is the prelude to doing things differently, an opportunity (as well as a necessity) arises to accurately assess the situation, grasping what is at stake in various aspects.
From this last, evaluative, perspective, the current COVID crisis reveals two key features of social life: the unavoidability of hard choices; and pluralism.
Social life entails concessions, compromises. We cannot pursue all at once the goals dear to us as individuals and as a society. Decisions have to be made, and some are tough. They imply weighing different options, sometimes conflicting interests, values or principles such as freedom, equality, justice. This can go as far as balancing human lives and is currently the case in many countries. Medical teams have to decide whom to admit and whom to send back home, whom to put in intensive care units, to whom to provide assisted ventilation.
These choices, often excruciating, are inherently ethical, i.e. they involve considering reasons for divergent courses of action in order to determine the best, least worst or most acceptable decision. For instance, should young people be given priority over seniors for accessing ICUs? If so, why? I already elaborated on this aspect in another piece. However, it is enough to remember that such dilemmas have been identified for a long time in medical ethics, gathered under the label of ethics of triage, a subpart of the ethics of catastrophe. Beyond sensationalism, they are not exceptional in our societies.
If social life requires concessions, compromises, balancing and hard choices, it is because the same action often affects different values or principles dear to us (for example, health and freedom regarding COVID regulation). It is also because citizens endorse diverse ethical values, political principles, and so forth, generally for good reasons. Philosophy labels that as ‘value pluralism’. Although our moral divergences are sometimes exaggerated, this cannot be overlooked: each society hosts people of diverse convictions who disagree in good faith about the ends of life and how to achieve them. The particularity of liberal democracy consists in not accommodating every single belief, but leaving the possibility to all to express theirs as long as some limits are not crossed ‒ for example, discrimination, incitement to violence).
Does this mean that all convictions are equally worthy? No. It is difficult to find any value in positions that reject science, such as flat-earthers or anti-vaxxers. The same goes for non-falsifiable theories such as those concerning conspiracy+. This underscores a key distinction between what freedom grants and what justification requires. Freedom of expression grants the right to everyone to voice their ideas, even absurd ones. But to be entitled to formulate one’s opinions doesn’t mean that the government is forced to take all of them into account.
If we leave aside the most nonsensical claims, the COVID crisis highlights what politics is about: collective decision-making under moral disagreement. Again, as for the ethics of triage, it is about hard choices. For realizing this, we should be careful not to reject en bloc all arguments opposed to the most stringent COVID restrictions as being selfish, inconsiderate, uninformed, and so forth. Doing so would obscure a core trait of the current crisis: even if we do agree with most of the regulations, it remains that many of them represent serious restrictions of individual rights and freedoms, such as the right of association/assembly, freedom of movement, and so on.
Opposition to or criticisms of the restrictions cannot be brushed aside without careful consideration. No large-scale constraint bearing on individual rights in liberal democracies is trivial, even when implemented for the ‘common good’. On moral grounds, the crux of the issue is to balance two sides. On the one hand are propagation of the virus, the health of the most vulnerable (seniors, persons with pre-existing conditions), the security of medical teams, and the ability of the health care system to handle the infected and other sick persons. On the other hand are the economic, social and human costs of the restrictions (for example, confinement, forced closure of business) as well as the limitation of individual freedoms, such as assembly.
The choice is not trivial, it is not easy. Each option has its costs, most being serious, some being tragic. I won’t share my position, because the reader should not be drawn away from the key point: the COVID crisis is not only a health crisis. It represents a test for liberal democracies ‒ a test of their capacity to remain true to individual rights and freedoms while protecting vulnerable people and the ‘common good’ in a context of widespread disagreement. While performing such an arduous task, cracks appear, and through the interstices we begin recognizing what liberal democracy requires.