What Would Aristotle Do in A Pandemic?

by Rebecca Goldstein,
Philosophy can help us navigate the moral dilemmas
of the Covid-19 crisis, from rationing medical care
to restarting the economy.

The Wall Street Journal, April 18-19, 2020, C4

Συνήγαγον οὖν οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι συνέδριον καὶ ἔλεγον· τί ποιοῦμεν ὅτι οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος πολλὰ ποιεῖ σημεῖα; ἐαν ἀφῶμεν αὐτὸν οὕτως, πάντες πιστεύσουσιν εἰς αὐτόν, καὶ ἐλεύσονται οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι καὶ ἀροῦσιν ἡμῶν καὶ τὸν τόπον καὶ τὸ ἔθνος.

εἷς δὲ τις ἐξ αὐτῶν Καϊάφας, ἀρχιερεὺς ὢν τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ ἐκείνου, εἶπεν αὐτοῖς·

ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε οὐδεν, οὐδε λογίζεσθε ὅτι συμφέρει ὑμῖν
ἵνα εἷς ἄνθρωπος ἀποθάνῃ ὑπὲρ τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ ἔθνος ἀπόληται.


Collegerunt ergo pontifices et Pharisaei concilium et dicebant, quid facimus quia hic homo multa signa facit? Si dimittimus eum sic, omnes credent in eum, et venient Romani et tollent nostrum et locum et gentem.

Unus autem ex ipsis Caiaphas cum esset pontifex anni illius, dixit eis,

Vos nescitis quicquam, nec cogitatis quia expedit nobis ut unus moriatur homo pro populo et non tota gens pereat.


Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man does many signs. If we let him thus alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away from us both the Place [τόπος] and the nation [ἔθνος]."

But one of them, Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said to them,

"You know nothing at all, nor do you stop to consider that it is expedient
[συμφέρειν] for you that one man should die for the people [λαός], that the whole nation [ἔθνος] should not perish."

John 11:47-50

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has come into notice in these pages on three occasions. One was because of her excellent philosophical biography of Kurt Gödel, which I have used but not independently reviewed here [Incompleteness, The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, W.W. Norton, 2005]. A philosophy graduate student at Princeton University, Goldstein met Gödel at a reception at the Institute for Advanced Study. She relates a priceless anecdote of her encountering Richard Rorty in Davidson's supermarket, to have him gush that he had just seen the reclusive Gödel in the meat aisle. Gödel was missing by the time Goldstein made it to the meat aisle. Her book includes recognition of how Gödel's Proofs falsify the entire philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Next, unfortunately, we find her endorsing the hatchet job done by M.F. Burnyeat on Socrates ["The Impiety of Socrates," Ancient Philosophy 17, No. 1, 1997]. Burnyeat's accusations and arguments are carefully deconstructed here. Finally, she has been noted as the wife of Steven Pinker, who is an excellent scholar of linguistics and whom I have defended against a Nietzsche Apologist who attacked him in the Wall Street Journal. However, both Goldstein and Pinker seem to be at the margins of the "New Atheism." Goldstein has received awards from the American Humanist Association and the Freedom from Religion Foundation and is on the Adivsory Board for the Secular Coalition for America. This draws little sympathy from me.

Goldstein's article in the present case is about moral dilemmas, at the moment in relation to the Corona Virus epidemic, and with the recommendation that philosophy can be of help in matters that now arise. Goldstein lays out the structure of some philosophical answers to dilemmas plainly, with John Stuart Mill representing a Utilitarian or teleological approach and Immanuel Kant for deontological ethics -- which she does not name but does describe as holding that "certain acts were intrinsically right, others intrinsically wrong, independent of their consequences." She finishes the piece with the virtue ethics of Aristotle, which she seems to endorse as the solution to the others and to any dilemmas described,
Beginning,
Virtues, Character
Middle, Action,
Means, Righteous
End, Purpose,
Goods, Consequences
Source of Action,
Character
Χαρακτήρ
Means, ΜέσαEnds, Τέλη
Actions,
Means to Ends
Consequences,
Ends of Action
AristotleImmanuel KantJohn Stuart Mill
although it is not clear that Aristotle provides any principles for resolving dilemmas, or is even aware that such things exist.

To illustrate these alternatives I have reproduced a version of the table featured under the Value Struture of Action. We see the emphasis of each philosopher, of Aristotle on the source of actions, of Kant on the actions themselves, and of Mill on their consequences.

From Goldstein's treatment, it is actually not at all clear how "Philosophy can help us navigate" moral dilemmas, when the principles of Mill and Kant clash, or why she is going to leave us with the impression that Aristotle provides the answers. Goldstein says:

The munificent person will give, writes Aristotle, "rightly, for he will give to the right people, and the right amount, and at the right time, and fulfill all the other conditions of right giving." Among all virtuous people, he writes, the munificent "are perhaps the most beloved because they are beneficial to others."

What has always remained unanswered about Aristotle's ethics is what "right" is supposed to mean in these cases. What are the "right people," the "right amount," the "right time," and "right giving"? We have no way of knowing, and Aristotle's only solution, in fact the basis of all his ethics, is that the virtuous learn to do the right things by practice, by custom, and by habit, in immitation of the virtuous individuals they see around them. Similarly, the "mean," of the "golden mean," as between cowardice and rashness, could never be determined except by the example of those recognized by reputation as "brave" in the consensus of others.

This has never been much help; and it is the reason why people looked for rules, like those of Mill or Kant, in Modern Philosophy. But it was what Socrates was already looking for when he asked Euthyphro for a "model," παράδειγμα, parádeigma, that he could use as a guide for what was pious or impious, and what was not. Aristotle dismissed such questions and challenges, even after Socrates had said that those with the greatest (μάλιστα) reputation (οἱ εὐδοκιμοῦντες, "the ones of good repute") for wisdom, whom we now might esteem as "role models," were nearly the most deficient in it. In Modern philosophy, however, following Socrates, most philosophers want to know how you determine what is "right" in each of the cases. We need, as Kant says, something that "serves as a rule." This is alien to Aristotle's philosophy.

Goldstein's treatment provides no more help than any of the other recent enthusiasts for Aristotle's ethics. They get away with it because virtues are, after all, part of ethics. But then Goldstein misses, not only the need for the Socratic "model" and the rule, but the larger point, that actions and consequences count also, and that the dilemma of dilemmas is that Aristotle, Kant, and Mill may all, in their own way, be right. Virtues, actions, and consequences are all ethically significant. So far, I have not come across any academic philosophers who have any appreciation of this, despite the issue presumably being directly addressed in a book like Would You Kill the Fat Man? [David Edmonds, Princeton University Press, 2014], which, like Goldstein, promises more than it ever delivers.

Goldstein begins with an example, a thought experiment, that discredits Utilitarianism, that doctors take a young man, admitted to a hospital for a routine test, and harvest his organs to benefit six patients waiting for life saving transplants. This is the Utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number." However, most people would regard this as criminal and, indeed, as murder. Regardless of the benefit for others, doctors have no right to kill healthy patients in favor of a number of others, although we have a bad feeling that this is done in China with political prisoners. Dostoyevsky offered the challenge of the classic case of torturing a child if it would somehow produce universal happiness.

Goldstein moves on to the claim that this kind of situation has actually arisen during the Corona Virus epidemic. But that is not quite right. Healthy people are not being killed to benefit virus patients. What Goldstein says is:

Doctors facing a shortage of critical equipment like ventilators are being called upon to make the horrific decision of whose life should be sacrificed in order that others may live.

That's not right. In emergency rooms, "triage" is often required, meaning decisions about who gets treated first. Fortunately, a shortage of ventilators in the present epidemic, if it occurred at all, was brief. And it turns out that ventilators were not always life savers, and often caused harm to patients, anyway. But the point is, no doctor during the epidemic is sacrificing healthy patients to save sick ones. Everyone involved is ill, and the only question is how care is to be rationed, if there are circumstances where it must be. If dilemmas arise, it is only about who gets treated first, and the answer to that is almost always in terms of who is the sickest and in the greatest danger. No one gets "sacrificed." This is not a dilemma of the form considered by Goldstein; and it is not even a moral dilemma when the issue is simply rapid judgments about who is in the greatest need of attention. That happens in emergency rooms every day, as anyone knows who has ever waited in an emergency room (for hours) for a minor complaint.

The next issue that Goldstein raises is that:

[T]he need for ruthless social distancing to curtail the virus's spread is at odds with the need to rescue the economy, with its diffuse benefits in health and well-being. Should the young and fit, who can better survive the virus, be encouraged to go back into the world and resume normal activities, even though that would prolong the virus's circulation, with fatal consequences for the less hardy?

Again, this is not quite right, on more than one point. First, "social distancing" is to slow the spread. This is not to "curtail" the spread, if that means preventing or limiting it. Slowing the spread, "flattening the curve," was meant to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. The virus will ultimately spread anyway, and the data is now in that people seem to be catching the disease despite staying at home. At the same time, Sweden, which has not locked down and did not close businesses, even restaurants, has a somewhat elevated death rate, but has not found its resources overwhelmed, or its economy destroyed.

At the same time, most of the "young and fit," if they catch the virus, have only mild cases. Meanwhile, the economy is not a matter of "diffuse benefits," but of the livelihood of a large part of the population. People who have lost their jobs don't need to be "encouraged" to go back to work. Many are demonstrating against politicians who have put them out of work. The Corona Virus may be the first epidemic in history where the healthy as well as the sick are quanantined, and where healthy people are cited or arrested for exercising, with "social distancing," in the open space of parks. Politicians seem to enjoy dictatorially setting down irrational rules, and then threatening people, or calling them "racists."

Finally, it is the lockdown and quarantine that are themselves intended to "prolong the virus's circulation," to "flatten the curve." The "flattening" itself means prolonging the outbreak. Some politicians now talk as though destoying the economy will allow for the disease to be eradicated. This will not be possible. And the public will not tolerate a Depression caused by such fantasies. A "cure" or even a vaccine for the disease may not happen. There is still no vaccine for influenza or even for the common cold.

Thus, the cases described by Goldstein do not embody quite the dilemmas she thinks. But in epidemics, there have always been methods used to limit individual freedoms in the public interest. Plague victims used to be sealed in their houses (the Chinese were still doing this in Wuhan), at times when hospitals simply didn't exist, the causes of disease were unknown, and treatments were ineffective to harmful. Briefly trying to slow the spread of the Corona Virus made sense when there was fear that a massive outbreak would overwhelm resources. When that did not happen, and parts of the country had few cases, quarantining the healthy made a lot less sense, and skeptics might begin the wonder if damaging the economy was a political strategy for the 2020 election, rather than a sensible epidemiological provision.

The governors and mayors who have been the most dictatorial and even insulting to "working class" and small business protestors typically seem to be in jurisdictions, like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California, where radical politics has already been damaging the economies, and where people have already been fleeing to more business and liberty friendly States. This is certainly not a coincidence. Other places, like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which switched from Republican to Democrat governors in 2018, now discover similar tyrannical instincts in their new executives. While the Wisconsin Supreme Court reined in the governor there, voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania now face the consequences of their perhaps ill considered choices, just like in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California.

Goldstein then begins to introduce her philosophers, starting with John Stuart Mill, mentioning that Mill promoted the Utility of "rules" rather than individual actions. This, of course, was arbitrary. Mill was trying to preserve individual rights in a system than would erase them; but a Utilitarian system holds no justification for respecting rules rather than specific acts that contribute "the greatest good for the greatest number." If our rule is that one innocent man ought not be allowed to die "so that the whole nation should not perish," the proper Utilitarian might wonder why we should allow the nation to perish, for the sake of the rights of the one man, when this will violate our foundational "greatest good for the greatest number" principle. Furthermore, it is not at all clear why the rule of "Utility" is a moral duty in the first place, especially when the theory of Jeremy Bentham and Mill is based on maximizing pleasure rather than a "good" that might impose some kind of obligation, as claimed by St. Thomas Aquinas. Nietzsche thought that Utilitarianism and its hedonism were laughable.

But I may be straying from the main argument. Goldstein says:

Yes, worshipers ought to be free to worship, but the contagiousness of the disease means that they would be depriving others of their freedom -- in particular, their choosing to survive in good health.

Again, this is a poor example for Goldstein. Citizens have been threatened for sitting in their cars during church services, listening on their radios, despite the impossiblity of their spreading any contagion thereby. Political authorities have simply decided that religious observance is not an "essential service" and thus could be arbitrarily prohibited, regardless of "social distancing," despite markets and liquor stores remaining open as "essential." This reflected, not rational epidemiology, but hostility to religion, a point that might escape the notice of Rebecca Goldstein the secularist and atheist.

Goldstein then moves on to Kant and considers the terms of the (unamed) Categorical Imperative, first that a moral rule should be "universalizable." Her example is persuasive, that buying up toilet paper produces the very shortages, the fear of which motivated the behavior in the first place. Panic hoarding is, in those terms, irrational. However, Goldstein has no criticism of this principle, even though it would discredit the desire of children to become fire fighters, when it is impossible, and absurd, for everyone to be a fire fighter. When an episode of the "Muppet Show" (1976-1981) had the entire cast successively turn into the Swedish Chef, we see a vivid falsification of the "universalization" rule -- since this does not discredit the right of the original Swedish Chef to be a Swedish chef. The proper universality of a moral rule is that it applies generally, not that every individual Kantian "maxim" ("I think I'll have a doughnut!") can be made universal. Kant was confused.

Kant's next principle is to treat persons as ends-in-themselves and not as means only. Goldstein at least does not make the common error with this, that we can never treat persons as means ever. So she says, "to use someone as a mere means is to involve them in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent." This is accurate enough, but then Goldstein resorts to the inappropriate epidemic example that we have already considered:

This may apply to the societal dilemma of prioritizing the economy, with its diffuse benefits to many, at a cost to the first pioneers who return to work. If the young and fit are sent out to jump-start the economy, are they not being treated as mere means rather than as ends in themselves? Would they consent to their own exposure to Covid-19 or to transmitting the disease to their loves ones?

As I have noted, this seriously misrepresents the situation. Closing restaurants means they are not ordering food, ultimately from farmers. The income of farmers plumets, and they begin destroying livestock and crops. This then can produce shortages and price spikes in food markets, which is very far from "diffuse benefits" to people trying to buy food.

At the same time, it is not a matter of the young and the fit being "sent out" to work. At the moment they are beng forcibly prevented, against their will, from returning to work. So Goldstein has this all backwards, and workers are already not being treated as "ends in themselves." Their will and consent are already abridged on the grounds of "flattening the curve," when the reason and purpose for such flattening has generally passed, if it ever reasonably applied in many locations in the first place. At the same time, workers can be protected from "exposure to Covid-19" at work, with precautions, without destroying their livelihood or the production of (often essential) goods for the public. Goldstein does not seem to understand these dynamics.

Goldstein does finish her consideration of Mill and Kant with a sensible observation:

The difference between the utilitarian and Kantian approaches shouldn't hide the similarities. Both see the point of morality as tempering a person's self-interest with recognition of the self-interest of others.

However, others have a right to the consideraton of their self-interest because of, indeed, their rights. This is central to Kant, but it can only be acknowledged by Mill with arbitrary abridgements of the principle of Utility. Goldstein continues with this slightly skewed viewpoint:

Though both maintain that the individual's right to choose is crucial to human dignity, both also hold that morality demands we temper this individualism with a recognition of the common good. Behind both views we find the key moral insight that all humans matter.

Fair enough. But we should note, warily, that the term "common good" has not previously occurred in Goldstein's treatment, and that its indefinite usage should put us on our guard. Treating an individual as a "means only" for the sake of the common good would not be allowed by Kant's principle, while harvesting the organs of the healthy for the "greatest number" cannot logically be prevented by the principle of Utility. "All humans matter" can be erased by the latter, while its recognition in the former precludes the abridgement of the competent will of the innocent. So if Goldstein has something specific in mind about the "common good," behind which may lurk collectivist and Hegelian totalitarianism, newly fasionable among the young and old fools of American politics, we have not learned of it from her article.

At the same time, it is true that morality limits "a person's self-interest." This is the precise, defining feature of morality already recognized by Confucius, but rejected by Nietzsche, to whom the herd-like "weak" are the natural prey of the strong, the predators. That is the law of Nature and the Nietzschean principle of life itself. Respecting the dignity of the weak, the vulnerable, and protecting them, however, is the essence of morality.

Something else slips by here. "Morality demands" certain things for both Mill and Kant. But we do not learn by what right it demands. While Kant actually addressed this issue, although only with a confession that the transcendent status of Reason conceals the ground of moral duty, there is no explanation of it whatsoever in either the act Utilitarianism of Benthan or the rule Utilitarianism of Mill. The only reason for me to surrender my internal organs to the "greatest number" is the presumed authority of the philosophical Law Giver. I concede him no such authority, and the many have no right, by their numbers alone, to feed on my person.

Goldstein's "third alternative" to Mill and Kant is, as we have seen, Aristotle. I have already considered the shortcomings of an Aristotelian virtue ethics, which, of course, provides us no insight about rules for action, the dignity of persons, the meaning of the "common good," or even the source of moral obligation. Goldstein ends her entire treatment with:

Whether the benefit they [medical professonals] confer on us all is the goal of their actions or a happy byproduct of their virtue, their munificence justly wins them our love and respect.

We have not a clue there about what "morality demands." It certainly does not demand that particular individuals become medical workers. Indeed, Goldstein has said:

The reason we ought to nurture these virtues is entirely self-interested: to live the best life we can, a life of flourishing of what he [Aristotle] called eudaimonia. It also happens to be true that the virtuous person benefits his community, and while that may make him loved and respected, these side effects are not what make him virtuous.

Thus, what Goldstein has called the "common good" is no more than what economists call an "externality" of the virtues that the Aristotelian cultivates as a matter of self-interest. Indeed, the goal of life for Aristotle as εὐδαιμονία, "happiness," is defined as, "The human good [ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν] becomes the activity [ἐνέργεια] of the soul according to virtue [ἀρετή]" [Nicomachean Ethics, I, vii, 15]. Nothing there about what "morality demands" or even about morality at all. Aristotelian ethics is largely a matter of self-respect. It is all my dignity, not that of those whom my actions may affect.

How Goldstein can offer this as the solution to the difficulties with Utilitarian or Kants ethics, with the issues she has raised like the "common good" or human dignity, is more than a little mysterious. It seems entirely irrelevant. Medical professionals, dedicated to their jobs and their calling, are praiseworthy, not on general moral terms, but in relation to the ethical responsibilities that they have assumed as part of their profession. It is, in a sense, above and beyond the call of duty and so supererogatory in relation to the rest of us. But we may have our own assumed responsibilities, in our own profession and calling.

The self-respect of the teacher, the carpenter, or the plumber, or Adam Smith's baker, is tied to the quality of their work. Any of them who doesn't much care, who views what they do as "good enough for government work," is owed no respect, regard, or confidence from the rest of us. This is a dimension of ethics that is overlooked by Goldstein, and other ethicists; yet even Sam Spade said, "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it" [Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, 1929, Vintage Books, 1992, p.213]. Indeed. When you're a doctor, you take an Oath, an oath attributed to Hippocrates. Many doctors take it seriously.

However, Aristotle might not take it seriously, although his own father was a physician. His idea of virtue and dignity are for the attributes of a man as such, as a "political animal," πολιτικὸν ζῷον, while craftsmen as such do not share in that status. It was Socrates, willing to talk to anyone, who thought that craftmen, χειροτέχναι, had the only real kind of wisdom of those people he examined. In later terms, the Aristotelian ideal is someone honored as a "gentleman," who does not need manual labor for a living. The "better sort" among the Greeks, which included both Plato and Aristotle, had much the same idea.

Modern Aristotelians can try and fix that up, but many of them still themselves have minimal respect for manual labor -- as, for instance, the manual labor of nurses, who, on tired feet all day, in the presence of disease, unruly patients, arrogant doctors, confusing bureaucracy, bodily waste and infection, life and death, are far closer to plumbers than are the bien pensants of academia, literature, the arts, or the press. In New York City, some doctors and nurses have even committed suicide when overwhelmed by their grim work with the dying in the epidemic. This is all a sobering far cry from what Rebecca Goldstein writes about as "munificence." Medical workers are not liberally dispensing the largesse of a Greek, or modern, politician. They are in the trenches, in circumstances just as miserable, nasty, and horrifying as those in many wars. Their virtues are not "munificence," but dedication and compassion.

The Generalized Structure of Moral or Ethical Dilemmas

Some Moral Dilemmas

Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft

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