Taking precautions and weighing costs: How do we think about lifting lockdowns?

As people debate the merits of lifting lockdowns and relaxing social distancing standards (which I will call restrictive practices, hereafter), two frameworks of ethical reasoning are becoming more evident to me. Yes, there may be others that might explain the behavior at the edges of bravado and cowardice, but I set those aside assuming they are unreasonable. For those that are reasonable, those that would have us continue restrictive practices tend to be guided by precautionary reasoning and those that would have us relax them tend to be guided by cost-benefit reasoning. Since there are good and bad models of both forms of reasoning, there are good and bad applications of each. I don’t assume to know who is right about how we should proceed in the coming months, nor do I assume to know which form of reasoning is correct. Rather, I take the debate over easing restrictions to be indicative of a larger divergence between these two forms of reasoning, and an interesting case study of how our attitudes are shaped by abstract ideas we don’t always notice or understand. 


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Against consequentialism in triage planning

There are two ethical issues involved with triage planning during this pandemic that I have been thinking a lot about. Taking them each in the form of the question: 

  1. What are the fundamental values that guide our plans and actions regarding who will be prioritized for treatment under crisis conditions? 
  2. If those values are non-utilitarian and construed in terms of justice, fairness, and professional integrity, then how is triage justified if it disproportionately deprioritizes (burdens) patients who are elderly or disabled (or both)?  

It is not uncommon for triage policies to invoke Bentham’s aphorism in their call to maximize “the greatest good for the greatest number” (Denver Medical Center, U of Pitt). The “good” however is not defined in terms of pleasure, as Bentham would have it. Rather, it is defined in terms of “survivability,” which is further defined either in terms of the number of patients who survive to discharge or in terms of the number of life-years saved (or both). Whether or not this definition of “the good” is faithful to the spirit of utilitarianism is debatable (which is historically invested in maximizing welfare), but I will assume that it is for the sake of argument, because it is sufficiently “consequentialist” for our purposes. A consequentialist view of triage obligates us to implement policies that will produce the best outcomes for a given community in terms of “survivability.” Curiously, however, these policies are to be implemented only under “crisis conditions” — conditions under which we simply do not have enough medical resources to meet patient needs brought about by some disastrous event. 

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In Defense of #NeverTrump

NggkowGPI read through Wayne Grudem’s defense of voting for Trump the other day, and I thought I would use this as an occasion to articulate my own argument in favor of the “Never Trump” position that grants his assumption that a Clinton presidency is unacceptable. Grudem’s article is characteristically long and wide-ranging, yet his core argument is simple enough:

  1. Christians ought to vote for the candidate who is most likely to improve the country.
  2. The candidate who is most likely to improve the country is Donald Trump.
  3. Therefore, Christians ought to vote for Trump.

One of the virtues of Grudem’s argument is that he denies the “lesser of two evils” approach to voting that has become so prevalent in this election. This is a good thing, because no one should intentionally favor evil in any form. That would be to violate a first principle of practical reasoning: pursue the good and avoid what is evil. To act in favor of what one knows to be evil while believing that what one is doing is good, is to perform a senseless act. And if one doesn’t believe that what one is doing is good, then one is doing evil. So, the first premise on Grudem’s argument is on solid ground as far as practical reasoning goes, and it applies to everyone, not just Christians.

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Is There Hierarchy in the Trinity? A Response to Gons and Naselli

With all the recent discussion about whether there is some sort of eternal functional subordination (EFS) relation between the members of the Godhead, I thought I would post some thoughts in relation to one of the more philosophically sensitive articles that interacted with some of my previous work.

The work I refer to is “An Examination of Three Recent Philosophical Arguments against Hierarchy in the Immanent Trinity” by Phil Gons and Andy Naselli. There goal is to defend a view of authority and submission inherent in the Godhead that is analogous to the authority and submission which they take to be normative in Christian in marriage. They primarily interact with Thomas McCall’s challenge to their view (see chapter six of this book), a challenge I am sympathetic to, but will bypass so as to focus on my own questions.

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Against the “Combined” Account for Justifying Killing

I’ve been thinking harder about what might be called a “combined” account for justifying killing: it is permissible for A to kill B if the harm A inflicts on B is negligible, and B gives valid consent to being killed by A. Problem: what counts as a harm and who decides whether or not it is “negligible?” One might think that A cannot be harmed if A’s preferences are satisfied, which just collapses harm into the logic of preference satisfaction making the combined account redundant — consent is all that is needed. Still others think that the harm must be construed as something lost in terms of a “worthwhile life” (Glover, 1977), or “biographical life” (Rachels, 1986), or “a future of value” (Marquis, 1989) or  some ability “to act or do things” (Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller, 2013). It is thought that there is little if not nothing left to lose near the end of life if these things constitute what would be lost in act of harmful killing. But who decides whether there is little if not nothing left to lose? Is it the patient? The doctor? Both? If it is the patient, then once again, the combined account is redundant, for harm just collapses into the logic of preference satisfaction, which can be explained in terms of respect for autonomy.

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A Primer on Physician-Assisted Suicide and Voluntary Active Euthanasia

Here’s a primer on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and voluntary active euthanasia (VAE). Nothing I say here is meant to endorse anything that follows (though I am against both practices); rather, what is said here is to help the uninitiated get a better sense of the issues and polarities concerning arguments for and against PAS and VAE. 

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Favorite Pieces of Writing: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

From the scorching rhetoric of Frederick Douglass: fb4be33877

…I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land… I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

Favorite Pieces of Writing: Excerpt from Moby Dick

In 2013 I listened to the great American novel on the great American road trip: driving from southern California to South Carolina, I listened to the Frank Muller’s reading of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick.  I had never heard such a great command of the English language, and I doubt I ever will again. There were several passages worth citing, but this one is that I (somewhat arbitrarily) selected:

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”

My Favorite Pieces of Writing: Excerpt from Infinite Jest

I am only three-hundred pages into David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), which is a strange, idiosyncratic, yet majestic read so far. I am not sure what to make of a book where I skip over several pages at a time and then stop and slowly read over certain passages again and again. I suspect there will be more to come, but this one in particular is one that I regularly come back to since it is so applicable to our contemporary, “smart-phone” charmed kind of life

It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion— it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation— utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes— let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet— and this was the retrospectively marvelous part— even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided. During a traditional call, e.g., as you let’s say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line’s other end’s voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice’s owner’s attention was similarly compressed and focused… even though your own attention was not, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.

Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril-explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.

(p. 145-46).

My Favorite Pieces of Writing: Excerpt from Surprised by Joy

Of all the things C.S. Lewis wrote with his fluent pen, my favorite comes from a short interjection about his experience in World War I, an event that is strangely absent in Lewis’ writings. Alan Jacobs, a literary critic and biographer of Lewis, suggests that the following passage is a “rhetorical hand-waving away the horrors of war” and “a critique of the massive literature by his fellow soldiers […]” (The Narnian, p. 74). Indeed, it seemed Lewis was bored by such realism, but that did not mean he could not express it. From Surprised by Joy (p. 196):

But for the rest, the war–the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [high-explosive shells], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet–all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant.

Jacobs goes on to remark that this is less than fully honest or at least self-knowing as his correspondence with his family shows that he suffered from “nerves” as many a returning soldier did (and still do). What I like about this passage is that Lewis clearly shows he is capable of adding to the great literary history of the War, but would rather not. Other things were more important to him, though what he wrote above has a tantalizing if not terrifying beauty to it.