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The Golden Rule Is Dying of Covid-19

John Authers

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus forced the western world into lockdown in March, humans were confronted with a moral test. Drawing on centuries of philosophical thought that produced the world’s competing modern value systems, each person had to decide which measures were justified to limit the medical and economic carnage. There was plenty of possibility for discord.

Initially, people and leaders coalesced around a version of the biblical philosophy of the “golden rule” — that we should not do to others what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves. That was the basis for asking everyone to make personal and economic sacrifices to limit the death and suffering of the weakest and oldest. Governments of the left and the right made that choice, strongly supported by religious leaders up to and including the Pope.

At the time, I wrote, “We are all Rawlsians now,” invoking the Harvard philosopher John Rawls who 50 years ago put a version of the golden rule at the heart of his influential theory of justice.

I was wrong. Now the brief weeks of Rawlsian unity have given way to a bitter factional and cultural battle, with rival moral principles hurled like metaphysical grenades. Different countries have taken antithetical approaches while the U.S. has split itself almost into two nations, divided between those who wear masks and those who do not.

“Quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people,” Meshawn Maddock, an unmasked protester in Michigan proclaimed to Fox News.

Masks, which were not at first recommended by the public-health authorities in the U.S., have created the deepest fault line. “Mask-shaming” started as a tactic by government-supporting mask-wearers. Early in the lockdowns, Jorge Elorza, a law professor who serves as the Democratic mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, encouraged people to speak up if they saw someone in public without a face mask. “You should socially shame them, so they fall in line,” he said.

Meanwhile in Texas, chat-show host Brenden Dilley donned a Trump 2020 cap and took to Twitter to explain why he was not wearing a mask. “Better to be dead than a dork,” he said, throwing in some F-bombs for emphasis. “Yes, I mean that literally. I’d rather die than look like an idiot right now, you weakling.”

It took North Dakota’s Republican governor Doug Burgum to remind citizens tearfully that those wearing masks might be doing so to protect a loved one who was vulnerable.

What has gone wrong? What has the virus revealed about the moral principles that motivate us? The story can be told with the aid of an allegory, a novel by Steven Lukes, a British political philosopher who now teaches at New York University, called "The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat."

Professor Caritat’s Journey

Lukes’s allegory is simple but devastatingly effective. Professor Caritat is an expert in enlightenment philosophy in the country of Militaria, which emphasizes order above all else, and sounds like contemporary China. He is imprisoned for his subversive beliefs. Members of the opposition spring him from jail and send him on a trek through the neighboring countries of Utilitaria, Communitaria and Libertaria in search of the best way to run society. Everybody knows that they hate the military government, but what should they replace it with?

These countries follow three great schools of moral thought:

Utilitarians, following the Victorian reformer Jeremy Bentham, who believe in pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number, even if such an approach may bring harm to some. Communitarians, who believe that the sense of moral duty is rooted in a sense of community, and look for a concept of “common good.” Libertarians, who believe that individual freedom is paramount, and therefore resist attempts at paternalism or coercion.

In Lukes’s words, “Each of these countries takes one of these ideas to an extreme to the exclusion of the others, and each one is a dystopia.”

In Utilitaria, which is gleaming and prosperous, the elderly are routinely put to a humane death. Abortion is legal but decided on by the government, which rules whether any given birth would aid the general happiness.

In Communitaria, everyone is divided into narrow camps, and it is almost impossible to do or say anything without causing offense (which will be punished as a crime).

In Libertaria, which calls the contemporary U.S. to mind, citizens are left alone, which means that many are left to sleep on the street, city centers are full of sleaze, and a few rich people benefit from gambling.

It is a brilliant tour of moral thought, and Lukes told me the book was most influenced by Isaiah Berlin, the 20th-century British philosopher and essayist. Both Berlin and Rawls were present at the lectures in which Lukes first told the fables of the different countries that would become the novel.

“The book is really about pluralism: Is there an irreducible conflict between these values?” Lukes said. “Rawls is an attempt to somehow bring them together to give an overarching theory that somehow encompasses everything. You could contrast that with Berlin’s position that these are irreducible conflicts that aren’t going to be resolved, because that’s what life is. Instead you just have to choose what your ultimate values are.”

By the end of Lukes’s allegory, Professor Caritat has come around to the Berlin point of view: The conflicts between these competing moral systems can’t be resolved.

And looking at the real-life allegory acting itself out in the U.S., Berlin again seems to have been proven right. We are not arriving at a position of moral coherence, but instead confront moral conflict. How did this happen?

Rawlsian Phantoms

It’s evident now that those early days of Rawlsian unity were an illusion. Yes, the calls for sacrifice to protect the elderly certainly sounded as though motivated by the golden rule. But in the months since, the scandal of those abandoned to die in nursing homes on both sides of the Atlantic has only grown.

Moreover, getting people to sacrifice in the name of the golden rule requires trust in governments to make sure that those sacrifices are not wasted. In many places, that doesn’t exist. The deepening inequality across the western world would have been anathema to Rawls. In the U.S., long-standing casualties of inequality such as African-Americans and Native Americans turned out to be particularly susceptible to the virus, so the pandemic began to reinforce existing feelings of injustice.

Other than in countries where the state could rely on its ability to coerce people, like China, lockdowns worked most effectively under governments perceived to be trustworthy and efficient, like Germany or Norway. In Norway, people believed that enforced self-isolation would pay off. In the U.S., public-health failures blazed a trail of skepticism.

When governments are perceived to be unfair or inconsistent, Rawlsian discipline breaks down. Exhibit A is the remarkable story of Dominic Cummings, the Svengali-like political adviser to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Britain has a strong tradition of accepting authority, and the population had complied with a strict lockdown with minimal protest — until it was revealed that Cummings had broken the lockdown rules to drive 260 miles with his wife and child when he thought the family might have contracted Covid-19. It led to an outcry, especially as Johnson refused to dismiss him, claiming that Cummings had been concerned for his family and was entitled to use his discretion (opening the way for many more Britons to stop social distancing), and Cummings refused to apologize.

For the many Britons who had gone without funerals or visits to elderly parents, this was a fatal philosophical blow. If Cummings had broken the golden rule, and the government had supported him, there was no reason why they should follow. The ministers defending Cummings were “telling the nation that Dom’s only crime was loving his family too much — and so implicitly telling every Briton who obeyed the rules that they loved their family too little,” the columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian.

A final problem for self-sacrifice a la Rawls was that people felt that governments were asking too much, stretching the golden rule too far. Ashley Radcliffe, a stay-at-home mother from the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Woods put it this way in an interview with the Detroit Free Press:

The restrictions are too much. People want to work. They want their lives back. In the first couple weeks I was like, 'We're all staying in.' And we all did. Then that kind of wore off. 

She has restarted neighborhood play dates for her 5-year-old son.

Liberty? Which Kind?

Resisting authority is one thing. Fighting for liberty is another. Much depends upon exactly what liberty means, and Isaiah Berlin framed that moral debate. In a famous 1959 essay called "Two Concepts of Liberty," Berlin suggested that libertarians practiced either “positive” liberty, which entails the active freedom to do something, or “negative” liberty, which is freedom from interference. His point was that these two kinds of liberty are different. The U.S. Constitution is rooted in negative liberty, the freedom to be left alone. But the protesters who entered the Michigan capitol in Lansing with assault rifles in April and May were plainly pursuing positive liberty. Berlin, who was born in Latvia in 1909 when it was part of the Russian empire, believed that opened doors to totalitarianism.

What, in any case, do the protesters want? A mandatory lockdown clearly violates any definition of liberty, but can this really be said of requiring people to wear a mask when entering a shop? In one incident, a man was caught on video demanding the right to enter a Costco unmasked “because I woke up in a free country.” In Albany, Minnesota, chanting protesters tried to pull the mask off a reporter, asserting their positive liberty to violate his negative liberty. Various people have been caught on camera deliberately coughing or spitting on people asking them to put on a mask.

Libertarians often face criticism that they are justifying selfishness, and disregard for others. Such incidents confirm the stereotype and embarrass many libertarians. Resistance against incursions by an untrustworthy state does not justify violence against people who wear masks, or even going maskless in public. As Lukes put it: “You are putting other people in danger and you are putting yourself in danger. If liberty just means no restraint on something we might want to do, there are obvious deprivations of liberty that are totally justified. Like driving drunk.”

Positive liberty also violates many American conservatives’ respect for their community and its norms, even if they share an instinctive distrust of over-reaching governments. Gary Adkisson, publisher of the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, wrote of how he would arrive dirty from work in the fields at a store with a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” sign:

There were rarely any other shoppers there, but my grandfather or uncles would not let us go inside shirtless or shoeless. It didn’t matter that no one else was there, or that the shirts were no cleaner than our skin, or that we would take them off as soon as we left. We wore them because that’s what the proprietor required. It was a matter of respect.

Opposition to lockdowns and masks is led by libertarians, but — much as Berlin might have predicted — self-isolation also runs afoul of communitarian and utilitarian ideals. Communitarians, on the right as well as the left, sense that lockdowns violate traditions and harm the community. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, was articulating a communitarian spirit when he said on a Sunday talk show: “We take the virus very seriously. It’s a risk. It causes death. But you can’t cloister yourself at home. That is just contrary to the American spirit.”

And of course there is the powerful utilitarian argument that lockdowns are wrecking the economy. That can be attacked as preferring profit to people, but record unemployment numbers suggest a real risk of a mental health crisis that could counterbalance the public-health benefits of reducing the Covid-19 death toll. In Italy, where the disease swamped hospitals for a time, doctors resorted to utilitarian rationing of care.

None of the great schools of philosophy appears to have been deemed adequate on its own for the great test posed by the pandemic. 

Principles and Tribes

If no version of moral philosophy has triumphed, what ideas are left standing? Is rhetorical allegiance to principles, such as the golden rule, liberty or the “American way,” just a cover for tribalism? As the virus has so far hit the geographical regions where one tribe of Americans lives, while mostly sparing the other, principles tend to rationalize behavior instead of guiding it. For people in the densely populated cities of the Acela corridor, who tend to be politically liberal, wearing masks and following government instructions seems like a good idea. For the more sparsely populated states in the middle of the country, whose citizens are philosophically more inclined to distrust the government, it is different.

“People can vote or take political positions for a whole variety of motives,” said Lukes. “But nevertheless, when it comes to justifying their ideas they reach out for principles. Whether those principles are truly important to them is different.”

And that is what has happened. Governments, with some exceptions, couldn’t persuade their people that they were really following the golden rule and treating everyone with equal respect. They also failed to prove that it was worth doing so. Protesters lost their patience, and misused the notion of liberty as a cudgel against lockdowns, while also bringing valid utilitarian, communitarian and libertarian criticisms into the fray. All may claim to be motivated by principle. But in the U.S., at least, people seem to be taking refuge in tribes, and joining those with whom they already share grievances.

At this point, it looks as though Isaiah Berlin has been proven right.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

John Authers is a senior editor for markets. Before Bloomberg, he spent 29 years with the Financial Times, where he was head of the Lex Column and chief markets commentator. He is the author of “The Fearful Rise of Markets” and other books.

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