DiscourseAugust 18, 2021 13:36:26 IST
To take the vaccine burn down, stories have begun to emerge about people who refused to push and ended up in intensive care, when you have not received the vaccineand dies later. These cautionary stories are sure to get attention, but is it right to publish or post them?
If human morality depended only on the accumulation of costs and benefits, our moral life would be simple accounting. On the plus side, if a vaccine saves lives, the warning story to get uninsured must be good – right? On the downside, maybe warning stories don’t always work. What about the effects on sad families if your loved one is heartlessly described as a victim of your own madness?
Precisely from a philosophical point of view consistency – which suggests that it is morally right to do what makes the world the best of the future – we should “make sums” to the best of our ability and check that the benefits outweigh the costs. But the consequences, whether good or bad, are only part of our complex moral psychology, as long history has shown, especially the famous wagon problems. The runaway wagon travels along the railway towards a crowd of people who are sure to die. There’s a switch that turns the wagon into a siding, saves crowds but hits and kills one person. Should the clutch be turned and the carriage moved?
The cost-benefit story is clear: turn the switch! But in experiments, many people refuse to turn the switch. If nothing is done, the whole crowd dies. But perhaps not doing so is not killing, we are just letting a tragic series of events unfold.
Turning the clutch becomes much less popular in the smart option, where a runaway wagon can only be stopped by pushing an innocent and heavy bystander who happens to stand on the footbridge into the approaching wagon path (Imagine you are too light) to stop the wagon by diving over the railing itself). Few people want to push an innocent person to their death, even if it saves many. And surely even those who judge this morally correctly feel contradictory and uncertain.
So our moral confusion about reporting the deaths of vaccination skeptics doesn’t go away just by showing that the goals justify the means. But what exactly is the missing moral ingredient that makes us so uncomfortable?
Researchers in moral psychology often believe that our morals dominate two forces. One is a slow, sensible process that raises costs and benefits. The second is a rapid emotional process that cares primarily about following moral rules (“killing is wrong!”). This way of presenting things gives the impression that it is a sensible system that we should listen to.
An emotional system whose blind desire to follow the rules pulls us away from “right” action. From this perspective, moral discomfort should be acknowledged but set aside. If announcing the deaths of vaccine skeptics helps save others, we should do it, whether we felt uncomfortable or not.
But there is a third philosophical tradition in ethics that psychologists have only recently begun to reflect on. This puts things in a whole different light and helps us understand moral issues in a new but insightful way.
By contract-based approaches ethically, people care not only about the consequences and rules, but also agreement. Roughly speaking, something is morally okay if people agree to it – or we would agree to it if we had time to ask them.
This perspective helps explain why we are morally at odds in turning the switch: an unhappy person on the sidelines certainly refuses to die. In contrast, we do not need to get anyone’s consent not to do so. Doing nothing is just the default option.
And consider the person on the footbridge. We think they will certainly protest even more strongly against the horrific possibility of being pushed to death. And that is why this seems even less morally acceptable.
From the perspective of contract moral psychology, the crucial question is: would the tragic victims of COVID have agreed to report their case? What about their family? And would they have accepted the tone and the story?
In some reported cases, people close to death or their families have asked for their stories to be sent to warn others. These cases feel morally good, as the contractual view suggests. In other cases, however, no such authorization has been requested or granted. Here our anxiety is greatest, especially where people are portrayed, albeit subtly, foolishly endangering their own lives. No one would agree to print such a developed story.
And there is one more element. Our moral psychology also cares about whether people — and especially ourselves — are virtuous. Yet schadenfreude – the joy of the accidents of others – is certainly evil: better to be kind and compassionate. Thus, the announcement of and exposure to the tragic deaths of vaccine skeptics invites us to enjoy this evil, and we feel morally uncomfortable.
Our mixed feelings about announcing the deaths of vaccine skeptics reflect the complexity of our moral selves — consequences, rules, agreements, and virtues can take us in different directions. There is not one source of moral intuition, but many, each with deep psychological roots.
So when is reporting justified and when not? Moral psychology can only help us understand why people have different opinions and why many of us feel contradictory. Resolving these conflicts is not the job of psychology. It must be done for democratic societies and for every conscience.
Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioral Sciences, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick