A Psycho-Philosophical Counter-Response to Claims of ‘Lockdown Dystopia’ | Charles A. Robinson

Over the last few weeks, I have been dejected at the foray of ‘dystopian’, ‘illiberal’ and ‘authoritarian’ charges levelled at the British Government for its enforced lockdown. The majority of such charges have emanated from the political right, generally under the pretense that the lockdown is an unjust violation of personal liberty, a value central to conservatives. I wish to argue in response, by drawing on psychological and philosophical studies, that such a view is ideologically dogmatic, and to such an extent that it distorts the only entity which is truly inviolable: the value of innocent human life. In consequence, I hope to show that the possibility of coexistence of support for conservative politics, indeed any politics, and support for the Government’s lockdown within one’s internal values is undeniable.

Let us begin in mid-1980s Toronto, the capital of Ontario. In a seminal experiment, individuals of a randomly selected sample were informed that each year 2,000 migratory birds (fittingly, let’s say they were mallards) drown in oil ponds. When asked ‘How much would you be willing to pay to stop that?’, the average response was about $80. We may call this Sample A.

Next, the same question was asked to another sample (Sample B), although now with one amendment: they were informed it was 20,000 – not 2,000 – birds who drowned each year. The average response was still about $80. That is strange; a 900% increase in consequence produced a ~0% change in valuation.

It gets stranger. Individuals of a third sample (sample C) were, too, asked the same question, although now with a revision of the amendment: it was 200,000 birds who drowned each year. The response was staggering: roughly $80, again, the individuals responded. That is really strange; a 9900% increase in consequence (from sample A to C) produced a ~0% change in valuation. Why would this be?

Daniel Kahnemen, one of the foremost economists and psychologists of our time, has a theory. He writes:

“The story… probably evokes for many readers a mental representation of a prototypical incident, perhaps an image of an exhausted bird, its feathers soaked in black oil, unable to escape…

“The prototype automatically evokes an affective response, and the intensity of that emotion is then mapped onto the dollar scale”

Instead of meaningfully calculating the rise in deaths with respect to one’s internal values, people ask “How does this make me feel?”. And whether it is 2,000 or 200,000 dead ducks, people’s answer is still just “Bad” – which happens to level out at around $80 in this case.

Formally, this psychological phenomena is called ‘attribute substitution’. However, Philip Tetlock, a psychologist of a similar pedigree, opts for the less intimidating ‘bait and switch’, where the subject is ‘baited’ by the emotion to ‘switch’ the difficult question involving calculation and introspection for the much easier question of “How does this make me feel?”. Broadly, this taps into human’s insensitivity scope: a cognitive bias that occurs when the valuation of a problem is not valued with a multiplicative relationship to its size.

Now, what do drowning ducks have to do with our enforced lockdown? The answer has something to with people’s general incapacity to meaningfully calculate numbers in such a way to modify their belief on the matters to which the numbers are relevant. In short, just the way people don’t properly realise the difference between 2,000 and 200,000 bird deaths, I suspect the same is true of people not realising the difference between, say, 20,000 and 500,000 human deaths and changing their belief on the lockdown accordingly.

At this point philosophy enters my argument. I contend that this bias also operates in the ethical sphere, where there is a certain incapacity for individuals to sufficiently grasp the moral disparity between the deaths of, say, 20,000 and 500,000 fellow citizens. The valuation of the problem isn’t multiplicative to its size.

This is deeply important, and not only because a 2400% increase goes unaccounted for. The priority of, if not the obsession with, positive entities such as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ also detracts from the more morally significant negative entities such ‘suffering’ and ‘death’. As Sir Karl Popper, a thinker commonly considered a liberal conservative, observed:

“[T]here is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness…. suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man is doing well anyway…”

Suffering, specifically the alleviation thereof, outweighs happiness, or more pertinently, ‘liberty’. Popper understood this isn’t “decidable by rational argument”, but, in truth, nor is the rest of morality – or, at least, it is commonly thought today. It is an appeal to moral experience, and a successful appeal at that, in my opinion.

Does the alleviation of suffering necessarily supersede liberty? Absolutely not; a reductio ad absurdum of that view might require that humans are forever forced to stay at home so as to not ensure any deaths from anything, be it from murder or illnees.

A joint derivation from this mode of thought – that x doesn’t always supersede y – is that a line of compromise must therefore be drawn somewhere between x and y, and that such a line cannot exist, meaning the whole exercise is nonsensical. Whilst this derivation is occasionally of merit, it is usually the product of lazy, unscrupulous thinking.

Contextually, it has been claimed that ‘if we are under lockdown for COVID-19, we should be under lockdown every year for seasonal flu’. This derivation is of the latter kind. It is wrong.

First, an equivalence between COVID-19 and seasonal flu seems clumsy. This is not my area, so I won’t indulge too much. However, for example, such statistics that purport some instances of relatively similar death-rates, if not those worse for seasonal flu, fail to take into account the limitations of not only a couple of months of empirical data, but also the moving nature of the data. Moreover, and more worryingly, such statistics only record death, when there are other morally significant items, namely suffering. Even if less people were to die by COVID-19, it seems highly unlikely that less people would suffer or suffer to such depths. That is *really* relevant.

(Of course, there are other reasons to object to the lockdown. Indeed, it is admirable that some say they will stay at home regardless, but are, on principle, arguing against the compulsion to do so – but this misses the matter at hand. People, even if they don’t bear your name, will still surely go out and, as a consequence, other people will suffer. It does not circumvent the real issue, which is the suffering )

Second, it is clear that such a line of compromise must be drawn, and, further, that this is entirely possible. Just because such a line may appear rationally arbitrary, that does not render it obsolete. Proponents who claim that the negotiation between decimal death rates is a ludicrous exercise are, in effect, substituting the difficulty question Given that no action may produce 500,000 deaths, should a lockdown, which is predicted to limit the death toll to 20,000, be enforced?’, and its necessary calculations plus introspection, for, the much easier, ‘How do dying humans make you feel?’, to which the answer is a certain, and seemingly unchangeable, degree of ‘Bad’, which is then mapped onto one’s moral compass (instead of their $80), and decided to not outweigh political liberty, likely because of central conservative axioms.

And whilst it is undoubtedly a difficult question, it is not an impossible question. In the required calculation: athough I am not comfortable providing the exact number which should constitute a lockdown; logically, it does not follow from this that no number should be chosen at all. Similar to how theologians use via negativa to say what God is not, and therefore define Him, we may say what isn’t the number upon which a lockdown is warranted on each side of the scale of deaths and construct a range. I say 2 lives on the lower bound and 20 million for the upper bound is a good starting point; the answer is therefore located somewhere within. For me, a potential 500,000 deaths is certainly sufficient.

It’s classic ‘bait and switch’, a product of people’s insensitivity to numerical changes (this time, a 2400% increase). 480,000 lives matter, and so do the potential millions who would suffer. They’re real. They’re close to home. They’re your friends, your family. You could be one.

Hoisting up the notion of liberty above all else is ideologically dogmatic. And, further, it needn’t be anti-conservative.

In modern politics, a certain fallacy of sequence plagues. Too often, one claims to be a conservative (or an adherent of any other party), for reason of background or genuine support of a central principle, and, ipso facto, adopts the remainder of its principles, policies and their consequences. This is not how a rational person would act.

A rational person would, first, come to their own moral and political conclusions, then, and only then, choose the party which best accommodates their own conclusions. It would not be a consequence of this view that they are to adhere to further views which they don’t believe in.

Then, the rational sequence is: You, then find Ideology to accommodate – not: Ideology, then, to which You accommodate.

This subtle distinction, but important one, shows that one may, for example, be practically a conservative because they’re a free market believer, which the party best accommodates, but also not repress their intellectual autonomy and blindlessly accept the rest of its possible policies, of which the rejection of the lockdown has been claimed to be included. However, if one is to address their own moral and political sensibilities, to answer the ‘difficult question’, and then arrive at the conclusion that a lockdown is wrong, then so be it – that is rational thinking.

But there are two relevant points here, one crucial: just because you’re a conservative and believe that a lockdown is wrong, that does not mean that someone who doesn’t believe the lockdown is wrong isn’t a conservative. And second, it is my suspicion that if one answers the difficult question, they won’t believe that the lockdown is wrong anyway.

Drawing from point one, it is therefore true that support for the lockdown and support of conservative politics can coexist.

Still, there is a certain fanaticism with ideology, there are those who claim its omnipresence and inviolability. Whilst I am not an enemy of ideologies, I find them frustrating. I am naturally drawn to the aphorism of the legendary statistician George Box, that:

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Perhaps it would be one step too extreme to substitute ‘models’ for ‘ideologies’ in this sentence, but it is reflective of my point.

Ideologies are incredibly useful to us – they organise political debate and provide helpful guidelines for us to navigate issues by – but they are not inviolable, ever-reaching and incontrovertible, especially in situations lacking a precedent by which to inform our decisions. In such times, politicians need judgement.

Overall, I have argued that people in the political sphere, too, are suspect to scope insensitivity, which is revealed in the indifference of hundreds of thousands of deaths to their belief on the lockdown – not too dissimilar from the Torontorians reaching into their pocket for drowning birds nearly half a century ago. In doing so, I have implicitly supported the lockdown. Further, I have shown that if I, or anyone, supports the lockdown this does not come at a contradiction to their support for conservative, or any party’s, politics.

Reflecting on the original claims to which this piece responds: the only dystopia here is the one which dares contend that the satisfaction of an abstract principle outweighs the suffering, death and destruction of thousands of innocent human lives. In fact, isn’t that the definition?

Ideology isn’t everything. We are.


Photo by Rein Nomm on Flickr.

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