The moral dilemma of the Corona Virus

Foto de Martin Krause
Martin Krause

Member of the Academic Council of Libertad y Progreso.
PhD in Administration from the Catholic University of La Plata and Professor of Economics at the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences of the UBA. His research has been collected internationally and he has published books and scientific and outreach articles. He has served as Rector of ESEADE and as a consultant for the University of Manchester, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, OAS, IDB and G7Group, Inc. He has received awards and scholarships, including the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship and the Freedom Project of the John Templeton Foundation.

LA PRENSA – Suppose you have Ana Frank and her family hidden in the back of your house and suddenly a Gestapo officer knocks on the door asking if there are Jews there, as they understand that they have been hiding in some houses in Amsterdam. What do you do?

This is a typical exercise in introductory ethics courses in which two of the main schools have been confronted since the late 18th century: on the one hand the deontological,associated with Immanuel Kant, according to which one must be governed by the principle one who would like to be a universal law, that is, that they all complied, regardless of the consequences; on the other hand, the consequential,associated with Jeremy Bentham (although he also used the term deontology), which precisely points out that we have to take them into account, and in which we find two types, the consequentialism, or utilitarianism, of acts, and that of rules. In the first case, an action is good if the benefits outweigh the costs; according to the second, it is not necessary to take into account action per share but that rule or rule of conduct that generates more benefits than costs.

In the case of Anne Frank, if you are consequential you will evaluate the situation, but it is not easy to define benefits and costs: for whom? Just for me or for the Franks too? For all the Jews hiding in Amsterdam? And if you are deontological you encounter the difficult problem of evaluating two valuable principles. For example, in this case, the most important value seems to be to protect life; but there’s also another at stake that’s the truth, not lying.

How do I choose between one or the other? Am I not going to be taking into account the consequences of choosing to protect life or protect the truth? It then turns out that the deontology ends up cornered by the consequences, which it initially put aside. And the consequentialist may be guided by a universal principle to assess which ones to consider.

Anyway, it’s not about solving a discussion that takes more than two hundred years and several entire libraries, but some of this seems to be happening to us in these times of pandemic. A large majority seem to be thinking in terms of ethics: the first duty is to protect life. For this reason, it accepts all kinds of measures that restrict your freedom: quarantine, isolation, the prohibition to commute, travel, work, events, etc. All very Kantian, doing their duty.

But as the days go by, the consequences begin to grow in the consideration of many: it does not occur, it is not billed, wages cannot be paid, stocks will begin to be reduced and missing will originate. And this thing that starts small will grow, maybe not as fast as the pandemic itself, but we all know it will. We happened to think it wasn’t the important thing. And as the dilemma grows, will the dilemma arise: should we continue to follow the principle, regardless of the consequences? Careful, if we don’t produce anything, there can be other deaths. What would happen to quarantine support if deaths, say, from hunger, or lack of other medical supplies, because a nurse cannot go to care for an older lady at night or for so many other things, outweigh deaths from the disease at some point?

Perhaps at that point, the Kantian will be able to say that to protect life is to produce, to avoid all these deaths; and the consequentist, with other fundamentals, will be able to say the same, the benefits of producing than its costs are greater.

On one side or the other, common sense will be the consensus that is generated to relax quarantine and return to work. But get back to work seriously. No barriers for those who want to produce, and no gifts for those who don’t want to. The truth is that in both cases we find a difficult decision: between principles or another; between one consequence or another. I don’t have an answer. Just a tip for those who are deontological: look at the consequences: and for whom it is consequential: to sort its costs and benefits according to some principle. It’s like jumping the gap: does it sound familiar?