How can I be high in life

How high can the price be to save lives?

Imagine you don't know how old you are. And you don't know if you're sick either. You could be of old age and in excellent health. You could be a young adult with a chronic illness. But you could also belong to that section of the population that is one of the people most at risk from the corona pandemic: over 60 and with previous illnesses. But you don't know. What would you do to prevent the pathogen from spreading?

The thought experiment is a modified version of the "veil of ignorance" of the philosopher John Rawls. According to the philosopher, the less we know about ourselves and our social position, the sooner we will agree on a just society.

With regard to the coronavirus, this means: It may turn out that we or our loved ones belong to the risk group as soon as the veil is lifted and we find out how old and healthy we are. That's why, according to Rawls, we would agree that even the weakest shouldn't look too bad - it could happen to you yourself.

Necessary measures

The mind game from the 1970s is very relevant in times of the corona pandemic. Because governments are faced with a great ethical question: What can the population be expected to do in order to save a few thousand lives? The lives of the "most vulnerable", as Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen said. But it is also about those who are expected to renounce liberties and prosperity.

Strict measures to contain the pandemic have been in place in Austria since last week. Only what people need for everyday life is still available in stores. Meetings are forbidden, schools are closed, many work from home or not at all. Since the beginning of last week, the AMS has registered over 115,000 new unemployed. The economy is slipping into a deep crisis. Is that appropriate?

The question is difficult to answer not only because there are so many uncertainties. This is where individual and collective needs collide as well as medical and economic interests. For a comprehensive answer one has to consult ethics.

Interest in life

At least for the emergency measures there is currently no alternative. That already shows the unity between the government and the opposition. Other European democracies go the same way, no matter who rules. Even US President Donald Trump, who first downplayed the danger posed by the novel pathogen, ultimately declared a national emergency. And the British government, which initially relied on contamination, rowed back.

"If you have the strongest interests in the game, your concerns should have priority," explains Kirsten Meyer, philosophy professor at Berlin's Humboldt University: "There is no stronger interest than an interest in your own life." Therefore, the measures are ethically covered.

It's not just about the lives that are directly threatened by the coronavirus. But also about those who depend on there being enough beds in the hospitals. One cannot consciously head towards a situation in which one has to decide who should receive life-saving treatment and who should not. "Most ethical theories are categorical," explains Meyer: The restrictions are necessary.

In practice, the problem is a little more difficult. Governments can still afford to compensate people for job losses or income. Especially those who have practiced budget discipline so far have financial leeway. As in Italy, loans can be deferred, as can rents. However, this cannot be a permanent condition. Because the longer people are restricted in their freedoms, the less understanding they will show - the more important their legitimate interests become.

Do not sacrifice individuals

Too long a quarantine means not only tangible economic losses, but also loneliness, blandness and frustration. In addition to a lot of applause, there is also those who warn that standby mode claims more victims than it saves lives. So how far can the government go?

Utilitarianism provides a formula for this. In very simplified terms, it means that the well-being of the largest number of people should be promoted. Is collective well-being overall greater when risk groups are sacrificed for the freedom of many? There is room for interpretation, but the direction of utilitarianism is clear: If necessary, the happiness of the individual is sacrificed.

Behind the veil of ignorance, utilitarianism will hardly prevail. Who would agree to a form of society that would sacrifice one for the good of the other? However, we will not ask the state to save an individual's life at the cost of a system collapse.

Another famous formula that Immanuel Kant wrote in the 18th century can help - in several variants. A formulation of the categorical imperative says that humans should never be treated only as a means to an end. You have to take human dignity into account. This means that one cannot simply sacrifice the most vulnerable members of society in order to spare the economy and leisure habits. Harsh measures to protect life are therefore required.

Lonely death

But Kant's formula also requires a sense of proportion. Because visiting bans in hospitals, for example, do scratch the dignity of people who may not be able to take their last breath with their relatives. The categorical imperative also speaks against quarantining vulnerable people until the danger for them has been averted. Freedom of movement, social contacts, taking risks - these are all part of human dignity.

The countries hit by the corona pandemic are facing a balancing act. Because if you ask around among experts, you will hear again and again: Without contamination and herd immunity, it will not be possible in the long term to save the health system from collapse. British scientists calculated in a recently published study that the coronavirus would break out again no later than two months after the measures were stopped.

To suppress the virus, social interactions must be shut down for at least five months, the researchers said. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) also recently said that it would be "a very, very long time" before normal operations would be restored in Austria.

Create trust

What the government can do is create confidence that the measures are working and that they are only temporary. Trust that individual freedoms are valued and that forced restrictions on private life are part of the political toolbox, but only in extreme emergencies. Then people will not rebel if personal freedoms are restricted again in an emergency.

Go back behind the veil of ignorance. This time you forget everything: gender, age, health, occupation, just everything. You could be a 25 year old start-up founder, a 34 year old chef, you don't know. The coronavirus breaks out. What do you agree on? There are so many interests that count. But you certainly don't want society to forget your interest in life. (Aloysius Widmann, March 24, 2020)