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Mar 22, 2020

The probabilistic ethics of solidarity

My colleagues demonstrated an incredible outpour of solidarity during the last week. I do not know most of things, but do know for sure that several tech-savvy faculty went to their colleagues in need, helped set up Canvas shells, Zoom sessions, and everything else. Our staff figured out a myriad of small and large work processes, so both students and faculty get uninterrupted help. Out of 6000+ students that take our classes not one panicked of complained. And on top of that, we were working on a new initiative I cannot quite disclose publicly yet. The giant organized shift into the new reality was remarkable to watch. It was like a large Roman legion silently took down its thousands of tents, kitchens, armories, marched into a completely unknown territory, and rebuilt it again in a matter of hours. You cannot manage this process; it is guided by people’s own competence and driven by the sense of solidarity. You can only help it a little if you can, but mainly stay out of the way. Ethics is the strongest force of a human society.

The probabilistic ethics of social distancing is a whole different beast. It is counter-intuitive and takes an effort to practice. For example, one’s instinct is to take personal risk and to come to work. However, it does not turn out to be the best thing to do. You want to support people during the difficult times, which has always meant socializing, hugging, talking. None of these normal behaviors are available. And the reason we are doing it is quite bizarre: it is not to prevent the disease; that fight has been lost already. No, the goal is to slow down the disease so we have enough healthcare resources to cope with the pick of the epidemic. The countries plunged themselves into a deepest economic recession because of the possible shortage of lung ventilators.

Many observers pointed out that our societies have not been that compassionate before. For example, almost 200,000 people die prematurely each year in the US from air pollution. 37,000 people die in car crashes per year. In comparison, 5476 people died of the coronavirus in Italy so far. No one was suggesting we through massive resources to fight air pollution. No one suggested we stop driving to save all those lives. Of course, ethics is not about logic; ethical thinking looks like a calculation only to some analytic philosophers, and to no one else. Ethics is about imagination, about pictures we see and remember. Military trucks in Italy carrying dozens of coffins is a powerful image, and the power comes through novelty as much as anything else.

Yet there is some hope that people will learn to apply the ethics of probabilistic solidarity. The very economy we have created does have massive unintended consequences. The question that we are forced to face is simple: is it worth it? Is our consumption, our entertainment worth the deaths they literally cause? We have learned to see that you do not need to be directly putting someone in danger by your action or inaction. No, we just realized that shaking hands may spread the disease, and kill someone many handshakes away from us. OK, apply the same logic: my buying many cheap clothes will kill someone because of the environmental damage the textile industry causes.

Is it ethical to grow the economy? Why should it grow, and perhaps it can shrink and stay shrunk?

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