Monday, June 29, 2020

End of the Corona Crisis

Sooner or later the corona crisis will come to an end. A photographic impression how it will happen.

Monday, June 22, 2020

“A man is a wolf to another man”?

Thomas Hobbes’s main work Leviathan is a book about the state. Part II of the book, titled “Of Commonwealth” discusses the elements, characteristics etc. of the state as such; Part III (“Of Christian Commonwealth”) discusses the Christian state and Part IV discusses the “Kingdom of Darkness”. But here I am not interested in the state, but I am interested in Man, and that’s what the first part of the book is about. (I write Man with a capital in order to indicate that I mean the human being and not only the male version).
In order to understand Hobbes’s portrayal of Man, one must know that he wrote Leviathan in a period of civil war. The book was published in 1651, the year that the English Civil War ended. Two years before, for the first time in history an English king had been executed. Did these circumstances make Hobbes’s portrayal of Man so negative? He didn’t use the expression “A man is a wolf to another man” in the Leviathan (but in his De Cive — by the way, the saying is not from Hobbes, but it is an old Latin proverb —), but this expression fully shows the way Hobbes thinks about Man, if you interpret its meaning this way that basically Man is cruel to other Men and that Man thinks only and only of himself (or herself, of course, but for Hobbes Man is only a masculine being). This is a bit strange, for actually a wolf is a social animal.
So for Hobbes Man is quite an egoist being. He is there only for himself, and maybe with the exception of his family, he doesn’t care about others. Man is also a materialistic being. “Higher values” don’t count. I can give here only some illustrations, but for Hobbes, love is a desire of the flesh, or friendliness at most. Religion is a kind of fear for an invisible power. Happiness is a continuing desire of going from one object to another, and once you have it, you use it get the next one. As if there isn’t more in it.
But alas, Man’s fellow Men are of the same kind. The result is that Man is continuously at war with his fellow Men; maybe not always in practice, but the possibility of war is the background of everything Man does in relation to other Men. This situation can be solved only in one way, so Hobbes: An agreement between all Men to appoint or choose a kind of higher authority, the Sovereign or otherwise a kind of sovereign council that rules society. But I’ll not talk about this, for then I am in the field of politics.
There are certainly many people who agree with Hobbes’s view of Man: Man need to be tamed and for this we need a dictator, a strong man. Otherwise society will be a mess, they think. However, I think that such a view of Man is completely at odds with reality. As I have expounded in my blog on shared intentions two weeks ago (, Man came to be different from the other primates and from the other animals in general just by becoming less egoist than those fellow animals. Man’s fellow animals could cooperate, indeed. Anyway, primates like chimpanzees could (and can) and wolves could (and can). However, they cooperate from egoist motives, as we have seen in this blog two weeks ago. Man, on the other hand, doesn’t have only egoistic intentions when cooperating with others, but Man has also intentions that s/he shares with others. Philosophers and psychologists still disagree what this sharing involves, but one thing is clear: In one way or another Man can and does share intentions with others. Moreover, Man doesn’t only share intentions with others, — which manifests itself, for instance in the way Men make plans; have you ever seen animals that come together and make plans? — but s/he also cares for others, and then I mean others who don’t belong to her or his family. Man is a sharing if not caring individual. An individual, indeed, for Man is often egoist. However, Man is not only an egoist; egoism is only one of his/her characteristics. Man is social at heart. Man is a sharing and caring individual. Don’t you believe it? I’ll give you a simple illustration. You are walking in a street. A woman passes you. Then you see that her purse falls on the ground. What do you do? I agree that not all people will do so, but I guess that you pick it up, and you call: “Madam, madam! You have lost your purse!” And you give it back. And if she doesn’t hear you, you’ll run after her and stop her. You’ll do it, although she is a stranger for you; although you’ll never see her again in your life; and although nobody will know that it was you who picked up the purse. A man is a wolf to another man?

Monday, June 15, 2020

False reasoning in Covid-19 times

Leviathan swimming in the Rhine near Utrecht.

False reasoning often happens. I think that it is as old as humanity. It’s true, often it can be difficult to develop a correct argumentation, and I am afraid that I, too, am sometimes guilty of using incorrect reasonings. Being a philosopher I should have developed a professional immunity against false reasoning, but alas, a man is human and makes mistakes that are human. Philosophers are no exception. In fact, it is not strange that people fail to see through complicated reasonings that are even difficult to understand for philosophers. However, people also often fail to see through reasonings that are transparent and that have been rejected as false already since long ago and in many books. Apparently, correct reasoning is quite a job and one has to learn it.
I became again aware of all this, when I started to read one of the most famous books of modern philosophy: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although this book is especially known because Hobbes presents here his political theory, its first part is devoted to man and also to the way man reasons. Everybody should read this part of the book, for you can learn a lot of it that is useful in daily life. Don’t be afraid that the text is difficult to understand, for the book is clearly written and very readable, especially when you take a modern edition. In this blog I cannot give more than an impression of what you find there, so I just pick out a fragment that I find striking in the light of the present corona crisis. In my last blog I promised to write again on other themes, but I cannot help that it stays in my mind.
Since I am reading a Dutch paper edition, I have quoted for this blog from the online text of the Renascence edition. It gives the original text, which may be a bit difficult for some readers, but, as said, modern editions are very well readable. The fragment I have chosen is from Part I, chapter 11 (, pp. 90-91):

“Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive. And hence it comes to pass that in all places men that are grieved with payments to the public discharge their anger upon the publicans, that is to say, farmers, collectors, and other officers of the public revenue, and adhere to such as find fault with the public government; and thereby, when they have engaged themselves beyond hope of justification, fall also upon the supreme authority, for fear of punishment, or shame of receiving pardon. Ignorance of natural causes disposeth a man to credulity, so as to believe many times impassibilities: for such know nothing to the contrary, but that they may be true, being unable to detect the impossibility. And credulity, because men love to be hearkened unto in company, disposeth them to lying: so that ignorance itself, without malice, is able to make a man both to believe lies and tell them, and sometimes also to invent them.”

What the first part of the quotation says, for instance, is that the messenger is blamed for the contents of the message, even when he has nothing to do with it. We see this also sometimes in these days that the coronavirus rules the world. A virus has spread from Wuhan in China all over the world. No matter how it came there, once it existed and spread, there was only one thing to do: Try to stop it. Therefore, in most countries the government ordered a lockdown or a semi-lockdown. At first, most people agreed, but already soon people began to grumble. Many complained not about the effectiveness of the measures and were asking whether the governments had taken the right measures, but more and more people began (and begin) to say: Why does the government do all this to us? Hasn’t the virus already gone back somewhat? Haven’t we correctly followed the restrictions imposed on us? As if it is the government that has spread the disease and as if it is the government that has made people ill. It’s true, governments often make mistakes or deceive people, but the disease is not spread by governments but by a virus. For instance, on a press conference by the Dutch Prime Minister, this question was asked: “Mr. Rutte, already for some weeks you see that the Dutch behave very well and maintain the corona restrictions. Nevertheless, the Dutch government extends the term of the restrictions with another three weeks. How can the latter be reconciled with the former?” Implicitly in this question the Dutch government is hold responsible for the necessity of the restrictions, while actually it is the spread of the virus that makes the restrictions inevitable.
In the second part of the quotation, Hobbes says: Ignorance of the facts makes that people tend to believe all kinds of impossible things that cannot be true. Take for example so-called conspiracy theories, which I have discussed in a blog some time ago ( Many people don’t know or don’t understand where viruses come from. So, even if scientists say that the origin of the corona virus or what else we are talking about  is natural, many people don’t understand what this involves. Therefore, they invent their own explanations. In the past, people often thought that a disease was the scourge of God. Nowadays conspiracy theories have taken its place.
Old books and less old books contain a lot of wisdom, but what is this wisdom worth if we ignore it? 

Monday, June 08, 2020

Shared intentions

Musica Temprana in Vredenburg/Tivoli, 15 December 2019

Now that the lockdown gradually is lifted in many countries, maybe it is time to write in my blogs about something else than about themes related to the corona pandemic, as I have done during the past weeks. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore it so long as the world hasn’t returned to normality, or maybe to a “new normality”, as some say, thinking that the world will never be again as it was before. Therefore I want to talk about a phenomenon that is wider, although it has made all these measures against the coronavirus possible: shared intentionality.
As Michael Tomasello upholds in his Origins of Human Communication and in other works, the main behavioural characteristic that makes men different from all other living beings on earth, including their nearest relatives the apes, is the phenomenon of shared intentionality. As such the idea of shared intentionality is not thought out by Tomasello, but it has already been used by philosophers before him, albeit often in different wordings, like David Hume, or recently Raimo Tuomela, Margaret Gilbert and Michael E. Bratman. The latter says about it, for instance: “a shared intention is not an attitude in the mind of some superagent consisting literally of some fusion of … two agents. There is no single mind which is the fusion of your mind and mine. … [N]or should we assume that shared intentions are always grounded in prior promises. My conjecture is that we should, instead, understand shared intention … as a state of affairs consisting primarily of appropriate attitudes of each individual participant and their interrelations.” (p. 111) In this way, it “helps coordinate our planning; and it can structure relevant bargaining. And it does all this in ways to track [our common goal]. Thus does our shared intention help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in ways to some extent analogous to the ways in which the intentions of an individual organize and unify her individual agency over time.” (p. 112).
The end of this quotation is a bit confusing, for shared intention is not combined individual intentions but it is a phenomenon of its own, which Bratman certainly will endorse. In order to explain the difference between a combination of purely individual intentions and a shared intention, I’ll use an example discussed by Tomasello somewhere in his book, which I have adapted and extended.
Apes, like chimpanzees, don’t have shared intentions but they can combine individual intentions, so Tomasello. Let’s assume that a group of chimpanzees is hungry and goes out hunting. They see a prey and one chimp, the leader, starts to pursue the prey. When the prey flees to the right, one or a few chimps go to the right in order to stop it. When then it flees to the left, another chimp goes to the left, and in order to prevent that the prey may escape in a forward direction, a few chimps try to close this escape route. But each chimp basically reacts as the situation is. Once the prey has been caught, each chimpanzee takes as much of it as it can get, and if some chimps come too late, then sorry for them. If a chimp gives a part to such a latecomer, it is only in order to prevent that this latecomer will rob his piece of the meal from his hands.
How differently a hunting party is organized by men. Before the hunt begins, there is a meeting and the hunters agree who will be the drivers and who will shoot. Among the drivers it is determined who will go to the right and who will go to the left and who will close the front escape route. And so they act when a prey is discovered. After the hunt the preys are brought together and divided, each participant getting a fair share. A part of it is kept apart for those who’ll come later and maybe also a piece for John who couldn’t participate because he was ill.
These two cases clearly show what the difference is between combined individual intentions and a shared intention. The chimps know what the other chimps will do, they understand their intentions and in this way they cooperate with others and perform their actions in order to fulfil their individual wishes to get a piece of meat. But in the end everybody decides for and cares for him or herself. How different it is with man. Of course, man often behaves individualistically and egoistically but fundamentally they can share their intentions and take care of others, also if the others are not present, but do belong to the group.
Now that I have come so far, I cannot help to return to the problem of the corona crisis that determines so much our intentions these days. My blog last week started with the question “Should we sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of the population health?”. My answer to this question was “yes”. However, I can give this answer only, if I know what a shared intention is and if I can have shared intentions. Even more, I can ask this question only if I can have shared intentions. But to quote Tomasello, although apes “have human-like skills for understanding individual intentionality, they do not have human-like skills and motivations of shared intentionality.” (p. 181) The upshot is, while men can organize a lockdown, apes cannot.

- Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008
- Michael E. Bratman, “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. 109-129.

Monday, June 01, 2020

The prevention paradox

“Should we sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of the population health? Or should we simply help those who really need it? These are questions that health authorities in all countries struggle with.” These are the first sentences of an article that I came across on the Internet. Today, in a time that the coronavirus rules the world, these questions are extremely relevant. For were all these measures to stop the new virus really necessary? Many countries were locked down in order to bring this new virus to a halt, and although the figures are much higher than in case of a flu pandemic, often the number of victims was much less than initially expected. It looks like a paradox, a prevention paradox: Steps were taken to prevent a calamity that didn’t occur. However, as the Wikipedia explains, this is not a paradox but an example of a self-defeating prophecy. Nevertheless, a prevention paradox does exist and it is also relevant in the corona crisis.

The term prevention paradox was coined in an article in 1981 by the epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose. It is based on the dilemma which strategy to choose in case of a widespread disease: an individual approach or a population approach. Take these examples, which I quote from the World Medical Card website (see Sources below), but which are also often mentioned on other relevant websites:

- An American study found that most alcohol-related harm and injuries occurs among individuals who are not alcoholic and have alcohol consumption habits which are considered normal and not harmful.
- The risk of giving birth to children with Downs syndrome is much higher among women over 40 years of age than among younger women. However, only 13% of children with downs are born from mothers over 40, and 51% of children with downs syndrome are born from mothers under the age of 30, who have the lowest risk.
- Although individuals who are overweight and who do not exercise, are at relatively higher risks of dying from coronary heart disease, there are in absolute quantities far more deaths from this disease among individuals who are not overweight and who have led a life with normal healthy levels of physical activity.

The paradox is then that while the majority of the population has a low risk of a certain disease and a minority has a high risk, the absolute numbers of people who get the disease is much bigger among the low risk group than among the high risk group; therefore prevention measures that concentrate on the low risk group are more effective than measures that concentrate on the high risk group. Of course, nobody wants to say that you must not help people who are hit by a disease, but if your financial or other sources are limited, from a cost-effective point of view it is often better to invest them in prevention than in treatment, or, in other words, it can be more advantageous to invest your means in the low risk group than in the high risk group, since it saves more lives.

This conclusion makes the prevention paradox also relevant for the corona crisis. Again and again you hear: Why all these measures that hit me who is healthy and doesn’t belong to the high risk group? Why then a lockdown that restricts my freedom? In view of the prevention paradox the answer is clear: It is because general restrictions save more lives than individual treatments of corona patients, certainly if the big number of patients would make that the health system breaks down. Moreover, in the end, the economy as a whole may be better well off as well. To quote an example of the Encyclopedia of Public HealthThe widespread wearing of seat-belts has produced benefits to many societies but little benefit to most individuals.” Nonetheless, we all profit.

P.S. On the question whether a general lockdown is allowed, if it restricts individual freedom, of course, also my blog on the trolley problem is relevant ( )

- “Prevention paradox”, Wikipedia,
- “The prevention paradox”, World Medical Card,
- “Prevention Paradox”, Encyclopedia of Public Health,

Monday, May 25, 2020

Face masks

In these days that the coronavirus rules the world, we see a new phenomenon: People publicly wear face masks. Also in the past (especially in East Asia) people sometimes wore them in public, usually in order to prevent that others would be infected when you had caught a cold or when the air was seriously polluted. But never before people used face masks on such a large scale in order to protect themselves and others against a nasty virus, the coronavirus. Some wear it voluntarily, others do it while the authorities have ordered it; or while it is prescribed in public transport or in shops; and so on. And it looks reasonable to wear a face mask in order to stop the coronavirus, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, wearing a face mask for this reason is not undisputed. This is what the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which advises the Dutch government, says about it:
- Wearing a face mask in daily life has no surplus value.
- Face masks have only sense, if there are patients who are seriously ill and who spread many viruses.
- Face masks must be used in the proper way and must be replaced at least twice a day.
- Therefore, in the Netherlands face masks are recommended only for medical personnel.
So, according to the RIVM it has no sense to wear face masks in public. Not only the RIVM says so. Also the World Health Organisation (WHO) doesn’t recommend them. And indeed, investigations into the effectiveness of face makes against infections of the same type show that their public use is not very useful. For instance:
- In twelve relevant investigations only three show a positive effect of wearing face masks. Moreover, the chance to become ill decreased with only 6%.
- An Australian research team investigated in Vietnam about 1,600 people wearing face masks. Some used official face masks, some used cloth face mask. The latter group caught more viruses than without a face mask, so they were worse off.
Studies like these confirm the views of the RIVM and the WHO. I think that such studies show that a good face mask – not necessarily a medical face mask – properly used may have some sense and may decrease the chance to become ill somewhat. But how much is somewhat? 6%, 12%, 25%, 40%? However, the practice is that face masks in public are not properly used and for that reason they may be counterproductive: People can get more viruses just by using face masks. Then they have more chance to become ill. Nevertheless, authorities often prescribe face masks against the spread of the coronavirus and many people use them, not only because they are prescribed but because they think it helps. Why? I think that there are several sociological and psychological factors that are relevant:
- It is counterintuitive, so against intuition, not to use a face mask. A face mask looks like a screen that stops the virus. However, people don’t realize that viruses are very small. You cannot see them and they can pass holes so little that you can’t see them. Viruses, caught in the mask can be spread by your hands, if you touch the face mask. Sooner than you realize, face masks become dirty. Etc.
- People are imitators: Other people wear them as well, and are they so stupid that they wear them, if they are not useful? Moreover, many people feel ill at ease if they are one of the few who don’t do what everybody considers normal.
- Authorities prescribe them, so it must make sense. But authorities often don’t follow expert advice (and as shown above, expert advice – at least the RIVM and WHO – discourages from non-medical use of face mask). Besides, you can be fined if wearing a face mask is prescribed by law and you don’t use it.
- However, if people wear face masks, they become on the alert that they must be careful and that a nasty virus is about everywhere, and that it is better to keep distance from others.
- On the other hand, a face mask can give you the false idea that you are protected and/or that others are protected against your viruses. Then it can happen that people who have only mild complaints don’t stay at home thinking that they will not infect others.
Should we use face masks or shouldn’t we? I think that only one conclusion is possible: Be careful and stay safe.

- De Volkskrant, 8 May 2020

Monday, May 18, 2020


Exceptionally, this week's blog consists only of a photo, titled "Incubation", without further explanation. It's up to you to give it an interpretation.

Monday, May 11, 2020


Self-confinement has become a vogue word today. Although it exists already longer, only few people such as physicists used it (it’s a physical term). My Oxford and Collins English Dictionaries don’t give it, nor does my English-Dutch Van Dale dictionary. But since a few months everybody uses it and everybody applies it. From fear to be infected by the new coronavirus, people stay at home as much as possible trying not to become ill. In some countries, like France, Spain and Italy people are or were even ordered by law to stay at home and there we can better speak of confinement, although many people agree with the measure (but you can be fined if you leave your home without a legal reason). In other countries, like the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, people are seriously requested to stay at home, but there are no sanctions if they don’t. Nevertheless, also there most people comply with the request. Then we can really speak of self-confinement.
Although the term self-confinement in its social sense is new, the idea isn’t. Introverts like it to do things alone and sometimes avoid other people, which doesn’t mean, however, that they retire themselves deliberately from the world. They simply like it to avoid others now and then. Writers often retire themselves and close themselves off from contacts with others, so that they can better concentrate on the writing process, although some authors, like once Sartre, don’t mind to create new work in – once – smoky and noisy rooms like cafes. Here I want to talk about philosophers who isolated themselves.
For many who know a bit about the history of philosophy a clear case of self-confinement is Montaigne. Montaigne was a counsellor of the Parlement (high court) in Bordeaux. However, he hated the intrigues and machinations there. His father died in 1568 and Montaigne inherited the castle and the estate and so “in 1571, he retired from public life to the Tower of the château, his so-called ‘citadel’, in the Dordogne, where he almost totally isolated himself from every social and family affair”, as the Wikipedia tells us. ( In other words, Montaigne went into self-confinement. However, do you really believe that an ordinary country gentleman who has isolated himself from the world will be urgently asked by the King of France to become mayor of Bordeaux ten years later? No, of course. Montaigne retired from his job and the world of the Parlement, but he held friendly relations with his neighbours like the Marquis de Foix, travelled to Paris, was a mediator in political conflicts between the King of France and the King of Navarra, etc., etc. You can read all this in the outstanding biographies by Desan and Bardyn. It’s true that Montaigne regularly confined himself to his Tour for writing essays. In that sense Montaigne confined himself, but he didn’t retire himself from the world.
A philosopher who does have lived almost in self-confinement now and then was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Sometimes Wittgenstein wanted to flee from the people around him and to isolate himself from the world. Therefore he built (with his own hands) a cabin on a fjord far away in Skjolden in Norway. Certainly then in 1913 Skjolden must really have been an isolated village. It must have been difficult to get there, not only to Skjolden but also to the cabin. I was there in 2011 (see my blog dated 29 July 2011) and you could get to the cabin only by climbing along a steep, stony and dangerous path. Or you could come there via the lake and climb from the shore under the cabin to the cabin. If there is one place where a philosopher lived that can be described as self-confinement it is Wittgenstein’s cabin in Norway. He used it now and then between 1913 and 1951.
Another philosopher who sometimes lived in a kind of self-confinement was Friedrich Nietzsche, although also Nietzsche didn’t live an isolated life. From 1881 till 1888 Nietzsche often stayed in the little Sils Maria in Switzerland, always in summer. However, the philosopher didn’t stay there because he wanted to isolate himself, but he suffered from migraine and here in the healthy climate of the Swiss Alps he felt well. He made walks through the mountains and he had always a notebook with him in which he wrote down his philosophical thoughts.
Here we see three famous cases of philosophers who are known to have lived in a kind of self-confinement. It will not be difficult to mention more. Two other well-known cases are Heidegger and Thoreau. The former often retired himself to his Hütte (hut) near Todtnauberg, Germany, where he looked for rest and wrote many of his important works. Thoreau built himself a hut near the Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where he tried to live a natural life. But also Thoreau didn’t live there an isolated live. He often went to the nearby Concord and also received guests in his hut. Moreover, he hasn’t lived there continuously. But be it as it may, such cases make clear that even if you confine yourself or have to confine yourself to a certain place in order to live there in isolation, this doesn’t mean that you have yourself cut off from the world. The latter is really exceptional. Most self-confiners are no hermits. When people confine themselves or are confined to a certain place, it is for an apparent reason and usually only temporarily. Nobody can survive in complete isolation, for in the end humans are social beings.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Freedom in corona times

I always avoid to write here about themes that I have treated before. Nevertheless, sometimes it happens. It can be that I have forgotten what I had written about before, which is not strange if you realize that I write these blogs already for thirteen years. Or it can be that I want to add something to what I have written before, or that new developments put an old theme in a new light. Now, I want to talk again about the so-called Frankfurt-style cases (named after Harry Frankfurt, who discussed them first). In the first place, Frankfurt-style cases are about responsibility but they are also about freedom, and in that respect they are relevant for the corona crisis. In this blog I am going to discuss such a Frankfurt-style case and I’ll show how it is relevant for our idea of freedom in the corona crisis.
When we talk about freedom, there is a tendency to think that it means that you can and are allowed to do what you like. But the present corona measures, and especially the forced self-confinement, restrict us very much. Therefore, you often hear: Our freedom is at stake. It’s true that some government leaders abuse the crisis by intentionally increasing their powers, more than is necessary to bring the virus under control. Other authorities issue weird measures like a ban on gardening. However, here I don’t want to talk about this but on the idea of freedom. For, when philosophers think of freedom, usually they don’t think of an unlimited individual choice to do what you like, but they have something else in mind. They call someone free, if this person can follow his/her own choices. This can also happen if the number of options is limited, by nature or by man. To be exactly, a person is free if
- s/he has alternative options to choose from
- if this choice is her or his own choice.
In my blog dated 23 February 2012 I discussed this Frankfurt-style case (see there for the references): Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a mechanism in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should Black detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black is prepared to activate his mechanism to ensure that Jones instead votes Democratic. As a matter of fact, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes.
Take now the present corona crisis. A new nasty virus has spread all over the world: the coronavirus. It makes that many people must be hospitalized, and many people infected by the virus die. The medical services threaten to become overloaded and to collapse. It is absolutely necessary to take radical measures, including forcing people to stay at home, the so-called self-confinement. You are a rational person and according to you the only option is to accept the measures proclaimed by your government, including self-confinement. And so you do. You leave your house only for buying food, for physical exercise or for other reasons allowed by the government. It’s true that, if you would break the coronavirus emergency laws, you would get a high fine and be forced by the police to return home. However, this never happens, for you are fully convinced that the best you can do is obeying the coronavirus emergency laws. In other words, it’s your free choice to follow these laws.
As said, Frankfurt-style cases like the one I just presented were used to discuss the question whether someone is responsible for his or her actions, even if in practice s/he has only one option. However, they tell us also much about the idea of freedom. As we have seen, a common idea of freedom is the view that you can and are allowed to do what you like. I think that it is acceptable to add here “unless it hurts other people and affects the freedom of others”. Now the present situation is such that, unless people restrict their usual behaviour, they’ll hurt other people: If they would keep going along with family, friends, colleagues and others in the usual way, many people would die of the coronavirus and many others would become seriously ill and some of them would become handicapped in some way. This makes that restricting yourself and even going into self-confinement is the only kind of behaviour that respects the freedom of others. Actually, this is the only rational way to do. And so you conclude that the only thing you can reasonably do is to accept the coronavirus emergency laws. That you would be fined and be forced to stay at home, if you break these laws, doesn’t even come to your mind. In the end it’s not your government’s fault that there is such a nasty virus in the world. Following these laws is your own choice.
The upshot is that you can still be free, even if you have only one option. And this is the situation of the present corona crisis. So, don’t complain that your freedom is affected by these emergency measures. Another question is, of course, which measures are the best and whether the measures taken are the best, let alone whether some governments or politicians abuse the corona crisis for increasing their power.

And so it happens that the Frankfurt-style cases no longer are thought experiments but have become real-life scenarios.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The consolation of philosophy

Now that the coronavirus rules the world, I wonder what philosophy can mean for us. Can it help answer new questions that we come across? Can it help answer life questions? Can philosophy give us consolation now that our life have been turned upside down and we have lost our hold on what we are doing and on the world around us? A world in which we see so many people die, including people who are so dear to us? In order to find an answer how philosophy could console me I bought a book that I always wanted to buy but never did, one of the most read books in philosophy, namely The consolation of philosophy by Anicus Manlius Severinus Boethius.
Boethius (c. 477-524) was a Roman philosopher and politician, who lived in the latter years of the Roman Empire. He had an outstanding political career but he was falsely accused of high treason and executed. During his time in prison Boethius wrote his Consolation. It would become one of the most famous and most-discussed philosophy books of the Middle Ages and it is still widely read. With right. It’s a deep book that make you think. It contains a cosmology and treats questions that are important for everybody who wants to think about life and destination, free will and fortune, good and bad, and much more. It treats questions that are especially relevant for Christians without being a theological book or a Christian book. Boethius combines pagan Roman and Greek philosophy with Christian philosophy. The structure of the book is also special. It contains a conversation between Philosophy and Boethius in prison, where Philosophy has come to console him. But did Philosophy succeed to console Boethius? I am doubtful about it. My conclusion is that fate is as it is, and that’s it. Is this consolation, is it comfort? Nevertheless, Boethius’s Consolation has us much to say that is relevant to the present fate of the world: the coronacrisis. It asks relevant questions and it gives relevant observations, especially in Books (= chapters) I and II. In the next section of this blog I give a compilation of quotes from these books, which I present without comment.

Philosophy: “Do you remember that you are a man?” Boethius: “Of course, I do” Ph.: “Do you not know that you were ever any other thing?” B.: “No,” Ph.: “Now I know, the cause of your malady: you have ceased to know who and what you are. You are confounded with forgetting of yourself; for you cry that you are exiled from your own possessions. And since you do not know what the end of things is, you believe that criminal and wicked men are strong and healthy. And because you have forgotten by what law the world is governed, you think that these mutations of fortune fly about without governor. These are great causes not only of illness, but of death. But I thank the Maker and Author of health that nature has not totally abandoned you. I have a great treatment for your health, and that comes from your true understanding of the governance of the world. Therefore, have no fear; for from this little spark, the light of life shall shine.”
Then Philosophy began to speak in this way, “If I have understood and utterly grasped the causes and habit of your sickness, you are still desiring and longing for your former fortune. Fortune has apparently altered herself toward you. This has perverted the clearness and stability of your heart. However, if you clearly remember the type, the manner, and the works of Fortune, you shall well know that in her, you never had, nor ever lost any fair thing. No sudden mutation can occur without a kind of shifting of the heart. And so, it has befallen that you are a little removed from the peace of your mind.”
What is it that has cast you into mourning and weeping? You have seen some new and unknown thing. You assume that Fortune has changed herself to oppose you; but if you believe that, you are wrong. Those have always been her ways. She has instead shown toward you her own stability in the changing of herself. Just such was she when she flattered you and deceived you to become unlawfully attracted to false goods. You have now known and seen the changing or double face of the blind goddess Fortune. She has shown you her true self. If you approve of her and think her good, then follow her ways and stop complaining; but if you are aggrieved by her false treachery, despise her, and cast away she who plays so hurtfully. For she, who is now the cause of such sorrow to you ought to be the source of peace and joy. She has truly forsaken you. Do you now consider Fortune precious, since she is unfaithful, and when she departs, she leaves a man in sorrow? At the end, it behooves you to suffer with calm spirit, in patience, all that is done within the domain of worldly Fortune.”
“Fortune says to you: ‘When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb, I received you naked and needy of all things. I nourished you with my riches and was ready and attentive to sustain you with my favor and that causes you now to be impatient with me. I surrounded you with all the abundance and glitter of the goods that are rightfully mine. Now it pleases me to withdraw my hand. You have been graced with alien goods. You have no right to complain as though you had lost all your own things. Why do you complain? I have done you no wrong. Riches, honors, and other such things are rightfully mine.’ ”
B.: “Certainly, that’s true but the misery brings a deeper feeling of harm.”
Ph. “Just so, but since you will not cease to consider yourself wretched, have you forgotten the amount and ways of your happiness? If any fruit of mortal things may have any weight or value of happiness, can you ever forget, despite any shock of harm that has befallen, the happiness of the past? If you consider yourself unhappy because the things you deem joyful have passed, there is no reason that you should judge yourself wretched since the things that seem sorrowful will also pass.”
B.: “That’s true, but in all adversities of fortune, the unhappiest kind of contrary fortune is to have had happiness.”
Ph.: “I will not put up with your delicacy that complains so, weeping and anguishing because some things are lacking for your happiness. What man is so satisfied or enjoys such true happiness that he does not strive for, or complain on some account against the quality of his existence? That is why man’s condition is so miserable; for either he doesn’t get enough, or else it doesn’t last forever. No man is reconciled to the condition of his fortune; for always to every man there is missing some unknown thing, or else he dreads losing what he has attained. And add this also: that every well-off man has a delicate constitution; so that, unless everything goes according to his will, he is impatient, for he is not used to adversity. Right away, he is thrown by every little thing; and those are the ones that rob the most fortunate man of perfect happiness. Nothing is wretched but when you believe it so by coddling your feelings. All fortune is blissful to a man who bears it agreeably or with equanimity. Why do you seek happiness outside of yourself, when it has been put inside you? Is there anything more precious to you than yourself? If it is true that the tranquility of your soul makes you mighty over yourself, then you have something in your power that you can never lose, and that Fortune cannot snatch from you. Why are you swept away by idle joys? Why do you embrace alien goods as if they were yours? Fortune can never grant you things that are naturally alien to your nature. It’s true, without doubt, that the fruits of the earth are made to be food for beasts; but if you will fill yourself beyond natures requirements, that is the indulgence of Fortune. For with only a few things, and with a little amount, nature is satisfied. But if you will choke yourself with excess, certainly these things that you will thrust by force into your body will be unpleasing or harmful to you.”
Compiled and adapted from Boethius, The consolation of philosophy, on

This is the human condition that we now have to think about.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Philosophy and the corona pandemic


Now that the coronavirus rules the world, what can philosophy do for us? In recent blogs I have tried to give a few tools that help us answer difficult questions. But I think that some people expect something different. Isn’t is so that one of the main purposes of philosophy is to give us meaning, practical help if not consolation in difficult situations? Although you can see from my blogs that I don’t think that this is the main purpose of philosophy, I do think that it can be a purpose of philosophy. Therefore, in these days that life often seems to stand still (and then again to run), in these days that we need interpretation of what is happening, I have written down a few points of what philosophy has to say. Since I always need a handle to write my blogs, I have let myself be inspired by Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy.
1) Our world has become restricted. Some of us even are not allowed to leave their homes any longer or they can only for very special reasons. Many things we were used to do and maybe loved to do, we cannot do any longer. On the other hand, now we must do, can do or choose to do things we would never do in normal circumstances; things we may have neglected too much in the past, like giving more attention to our family, reading a good book, being creative etc. In other words, your rat race has suddenly come to a halt. Now you can ask yourself: What is important for me? Is my job really so important, or is my family? Do I really need to go out so often? Do I need my friends, or which friends do I need? Is it really so annoying that I cannot get on holiday? Etc.
2) A lesson we should learn from Socrates’s life is, so de Botton, that we must be careful not to listen too much to “the dictates of public opinion”, but instead we must “listen always to the dictates of reason”. (p. 42) Many strange stories go around about the origin and spread of the virus and many people deny the most reasonable explanation, namely that the virus has a natural origin. Some even belief that the virus is spread by G5 antennas! But ways of reasoning that are incredible in the coronacrisis, are often accepted and believed in normal times when they are used by some politicians on other subjects. So, here the lesson is: be critical (more in my blog dated 9 March 2020).
3) Happiness is the highest good in life, so Aristotle, Epicurus and other classical philosophers. However, what makes us happy? For Epicurus happiness is the same as pleasure. Now that you must stay at home, you have time to think. You live now in a life experiment: Before and after the (semi-)lockdown. Compare what you like and don’t like in both situations and adapt your life to your conclusions. Following Epicurus, so de Botton, “the only way to evaluate their merits is according to the pleasure they inspire … [the feeling of pleasure] is our standard for judging every good. And because an increase in the wealth of societies seems not to guarantee an increase in pleasure, Epicurus would have suggested that the needs which expensive goods cater to cannot be those on which our happiness depends.” (p. 70) I wouldn’t identify happiness and pleasure but judge yourself.
4) Things often happen to us, and we cannot prevent that they happen. So it is with the coronacrisis. As long as no reliable medicine and no vaccine will have been developed, the only thing we can do is adapt ourselves and make the best of it. That’s also what Seneca would have told us. Accept the facts, even if it is death, he taught us. So when the Roman emperor Nero ordered him to commit suicide, he did it with stoical calm, and slit his veins without protest. As he once had written: “In certain places we may meet with wild beasts or with men who are more destructive than any beasts … And we cannot change this order of things … it is to this law [of Nature] that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey” (p. 111). Do what is possible and don’t try what is not possible.
5) The French president Macron compared the coronacrisis with a war. Seen that way, it’s cynical that this crisis seems to subdue real wars, for instance in the Middle East. Also the number of crimes in corona infected regions has decreased much. Therefore, one of the main philosophical lessons we can learn from the coronacrisis is what de Botton writes in the last sentence of his book (p. 244): “Not everything which makes us feel better is good fur us. Not everything which hurts is bad.” Was pre-coronacrisis life really good for us, even if we felt well then? Is the coronacrisis only bad for us? Anyway, the good thing is that the crisis makes us think about life and existence.
But let me stop here. Too much of what I have written so far is derived from what others have said. As Montaigne told us: “There are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other. All is swarm with commentaries: of authors there is dearth.” (Essays, Book III-13). So go to the authors and read them and find then consolation in philosophy.

Alain de Botton, The consolations of philosophy. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The trolley problem and moral judgment

The so-called “trolley problem” is more relevant than ever before in these days that the coronavirus rules the world. Lately yet, in my blog dated 23 March 2020, I discussed its relation to the corona crisis. Since then, again and again I have seen discussions on TV that prove the topicality of the problem.
To recapitulate, there are two versions of the trolley problem. In version 1, a runaway trolley is headed for five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. However, when you turn a switch, the trolley will be directed to another track where it will kill a man who is walking there. Will you turn the switch and save five lives against one person killed? Most people say yes. In version 2 you are standing on a footbridge and a fat man is standing next to you. Now you can stop the trolley by pushing the fat man off the bridge. His body will stop the trolley but the man will be killed. Will you push the man in order to save five lives? Most people say no. Generally, your options here are seen as a dilemma: Either you let utilitarian arguments prevail or you let deontological arguments prevail. Utilitarians reason that promoting the “greater good” is best. Since five lives saved is better than one life saved, you must push the fat man. Deontologists argue that certain moral lines ought not be crossed. They argue from principles. If your principle is “You shall not kill”, you are not allowed to kill the fat man.
These basic approaches are seen as alternatives, but recently, a Russian philosopher friend draw my attention to an article that throws a new light on the question. The philosophers and neuroscientists Joshua D. Greene et al. didn’t just want to argue about what the best approach is in trolley-like cases, but they wanted to see what happens in the brain, when people take decisions in such cases. (see Source below) I’ll skip the details, but the essence of what they did and found is this. First, they distinguished between personal and impersonal moral judgments. Personal moral judgments “are driven largely by social-emotional responses while other moral judgments, which we call ‘impersonal,’ are driven less by social-emotional responses and more by ‘cognitive’ processes.” Personal moral judgments concern the appropriateness of personal moral violations, like personally hurting another person. They require agency, doing something yourself. Impersonal moral judgments are then those that are not personal. They require not so much doing something actively but they are more a matter of interfering, directing or following (my words). Greene et. al say it this way: “it is ‘editing’ rather than ‘authoring’”, not agency. An example of a personal moral dilemma is the “footbridge version” of the trolley problem and an impersonal moral dilemma is the “turning the switch version”, so the authors. “Footbridge” arouses much emotion when deciding what to do, while “turning the switch” is a matter of calculation. According to the authors there is reason to believe that the distinction personal-impersonal is evolutionary. Impersonal approaches of moral dilemmas came later in human development than personal approaches.
Next, the authors developed a test in order to see what happens in the brain when moral decisions are taken. What did they find? When impersonal moral judgments are taken cognitive parts of the brain are involved, while in case of  personal moral judgments those parts of the brain are involved where social-emotional responses take place. Moreover, the authors found that in relevant cases impersonal judgments tend to prevail over personal judgments.
What does this mean for moral philosophy? I think that I can best extensively quote from the “Broader Implications” section of the article: “For two centuries, Western moral philosophy has been defined largely by a tension between two opposing viewpoints[: Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill) and deontology (Kant)]. Moral dilemmas of the sort employed here boil this philosophical tension down to its essentials and may help us understand its persistence. We [=the authors] propose that the tension between the utilitarian and deontological perspectives in moral philosophy reflects a more fundamental tension arising from the structure of the human brain. The social-emotional responses that we've inherited from our primate ancestors …, shaped and refined by culture bound experience, undergird the absolute prohibitions that are central to deontology. In contrast, the ‘moral calculus’ that defines utilitarianism is made possible by more recently evolved structures in the frontal lobes that support abstract thinking and high-level cognitive control. … We emphasize that this cognitive account of the Kant versus Mill problem in ethics is speculative. Should this account prove correct, however, it will have the ironic implication that the Kantian, ‘rationalist’ approach to moral philosophy is, psychologically speaking, grounded not in principles of pure practical reason, but in a set of emotional responses that are subsequently rationalized .... Whether this psychological thesis has any normative implications is a complicated matter that we leave for treatment elsewhere ....”
If all this is true, I think that as important is that making moral judgments is not simply a matter of either-or, in the sense that one follows either utilitarian rules or deontological principles. Even if one turns the switch, one can rightly have the feeling that one breaks the rule “you shall not kill”. And even if one doesn’t push the fat man from the bridge, one can still wonder whether it hadn’t been better to save the five lives of the people on the track. Taking decisions and making moral judgments is not simply a matter of choosing a guiding approach and that’s it. Apparently, utilitarianism and deontology are not alternatives but options.

Green, Joshua D.; Leigh E. Nystrom; Andrew D. Engell; John M. Darley; Jonathan D. Cohen, “The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment”, in Neuron, 44/2 (October 14, 2004); and on

Monday, April 06, 2020

Montaigne and the plague

In the days of Montaigne, life-disturbing epidemics were nothing exceptional. Of course, Montaigne didn’t know about the coronavirus. This virus is new, and as such viruses ̶ and bacteria as well ̶ were phenomena that had yet to be discovered. In Montaigne’s days it was especially the plague that could ruin lives and society as a whole.
Some say that Montaigne’s friend Étienne de La Boétie died of the plague, but I think that this is unlikely. Probably La Boétie died of dysentery. However, there are two famous cases that Montaigne was confronted with the plague. During a big part of his life France was plagued, so to speak, by one religious war after another. Altogether nine religious wars were fought during Montaigne’s life, especially just in his region, which was a bulwark of Protestantism. Because of these wars social life was often disturbed, and the plague had become endemic in France. And so it happened that there was another outbreak of this disease when Montaigne was mayor of Bordeaux. It was in June 1585. 14,000 inhabitants of the town would die of the plague, which was about half of the population. When the outbreak begun, Montaigne wasn’t in Bordeaux. He had just finished a mission outside the town and then he had returned to his castle. It was at the end of his term of office. In July he had to lead yet only the meeting in which the new mayor and aldermen would be elected. The name of his successor was already known. Actually the meeting was a formality. Should he take the risk to die for such a thing? No. Montaigne wrote a letter that he wouldn’t come and that he wanted to turn over his office somewhere just outside the town. And so it happened. Some accuse Montaigne of cowardice. But in other situations Montaigne had always shown courage. Why taking a risk for an office that would last yet only a few days? As Montaigne says somewhere in his Essays: The mayor and Montaigne have always been two different persons.
But the real misery had yet to come for Montaigne. The plague didn’t go away, and although Montaigne writes that he lived in a healthy region, the plague reached also his castle. It was September 1586. He doesn’t give details, but in his essay “Of physiognomy” (Book III, chapter 12) Montaigne writes that he was visited by the plague both within and outside his house. Apparently one or more members of his personnel had died because of the disease. Therefore, Montaigne sees only one way out: To flee. Again, he doesn’t give details. But, following his biographer Bardyn, I think that we must imagine that he travelled around with some wagons and carts and horses: Montaigne on his horse, his wife, his daughter and his seventy years old mother on a cart, and some servants. Where did he go? We don’t know, and actually Montaigne himself didn’t know where to go. Nowhere he was welcome. Everybody was afraid that this caravan could bring the plague. As soon as one of the travellers had caught a cold everybody had to go in quarantine; for forty days. He, so Montaigne complains, who always had been prepared to receive others, couldn’t find a place stay. His money run out. He couldn’t buy new clothes or new horses. However, he was not forgotten. Catherine de Medici heard of Montaigne’s misery and she sent him money; not just a fee but a substantial amount. Of course, this was not only out of pity, for again she needed Montaigne as a mediator between her son Henri III, King of France, and Henri of Navarra, the leader of the Huguenots. So even during his ramble Montaigne was involved in political affairs.
In March 1587, six months after he had left his castle, Montaigne and his family and servants returned home. The plague had gone and the region had been pacified by the Huguenots. Because of his good relations with Henri of Navarra it was safe for Montaigne to go home, although he was a Roman Catholic. However, his castle was in bad condition and his lands had been neglected, with the grapes still hanging on the vines. Not many people there had survived the plague, but Montaigne and his caravan had overcome the misery. And one year later Montaigne published a new edition of his Essays, with a new book added.

“We have abandoned Nature, and will teach her what to do; teach her who so happily and so securely conducted us.” (Essays, III, 12)

- Bardyn, Christophe, Montaigne. La splendeur de la liberté. Paris: Flammarion, 2015; pp. 381-2, 398-403.
- Desan, Philippe, Montaigne. Une biographie politique. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2014

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Tragedy of the Commons and the coronavirus pandemic

Generally, I avoid to discuss old blog themes again. However, this can happen because I had forgotten that I had discussed the subject before or because I have a reason to do so. Therefore, last week I wrote again about the trolley problem, since it is relevant for the coronavirus crisis, and now I’ll discuss another old problem for the same reason: The Tragedy of the Commons, a theme that I treated in my blog dated 29 October 2018. Why is it relevant?
I’ll start with an observation. As yet, there is no medicine or vaccine against the coronavirus, so it’s effect can only be limited by following certain rules of conduct. The most important rules people have to follow are keeping distance from each other and avoiding groups and big masses of people. The authorities explicitly ask to follow these rules. The coronavirus is dangerous but not extremely dangerous like the ebolavirus, or as the plague was in the past; I mean in the sense that complete populations can be decimated. In the end most people will survive. The victims will be mainly older, already weak people. However, many people do not realize that this is a statistical connection. It is quite well possible (and it really happens) that young healthy people die as well. Moreover, the coronavirus disease is a nasty illness, by far more serious than a flu. You can better try not to get it. Nevertheless, many people think: It’s not that bad and I am not in the age group of the victims, and they ignore the rules, through carelessness or even wilfully. Especially younger people do.
What does this have to do with the Tragedy of the Commons? In order to make this clear, let me first repeat, what it is about (see also my blog just mentioned).
The Tragedy of the Commons, first presented by Garrett Hardin in 1968, runs as follows: In many parts of the world, it happens that herdsmen pasture their herds on the common grounds of the community. If every herdsman increases his herd, sooner or later the commons will reach the maximum capacity for grazing. However, “as a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, ‘What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?’ ... The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another….” (Hardin, p. 169). Now it is so that the effect of adding one animal on the quality of the pasture lands will be so small, that nobody will notice it. Moreover, the costs of the damage of each animal added is shared by all herdsmen, while the gains go to the owner of the added animal. Usually these gains are higher than the additional costs (for the owner!). Therefore, it is rational for each herdsman to add livestock to his herd beyond the capacity that the commons can bear. This will go on till the system crashes and each herdsman earns less than he got before the commons had reached their maximum capacity.
Let’s suppose now that you are a young man of 25 years old. You like to go out, to hang out with your friends in the park, and to do there what you like. If you stay at home, you become bored and maybe even depressive. So you think: I must go out and meet friends. And so you do. Or, another case, it’s a nice sunny day, a bit cold yet, but it makes that you want to go to the beach for a stroll. Staying at home on that beautiful day will make you unhappy. I think you can add lots of such examples: Going outdoors is personally (individually) better for you than staying at home. Going out has a positive utility for you, as philosophers call it. However, once you are there where you wanted to go, you see that so many people got the same idea and that the rules to get the coronavirus under control cannot be kept. You think: “Should I go home? No, I’ll stay here. My contribution to the spread of the coronavirus is so little that its impact cannot be measured. Moreover, the chance that I’ll become ill can be neglected. If I go home, I’ll miss my fun. The best for me is to stay here.” And that’s what we saw last weekend a week ago: Many people went out and broke the rules of conduct against the coronavirus. We saw it here in the Netherlands, in Germany, in Belgium, in Australia, and so on. I will call this I-don’t-give-a-damn behaviour, or “No-Damn”, for short.
Back to the Tragedy of the Commons (or “Tragedy” for short). I think that you see the analogy between the Tragedy and No-Damn. Both in Tragedy and in No-Damn it is advantageous for individuals to ignore what is useful for all. For just as in Tragedy the commons are damaged by individually advantageous behaviour, in No-Damn the coronavirus will be increasingly spread by individually profitable actions, with the consequence of more ill and dead people: Individual rationality leads to collective irrationality. That’s what we see when too many people ignore the rules to get the coronavirus under control.
However, both in Tragedy and in No-Damn I have supposed that individuals are isolated entities that don’t communicate with each other and take their decisions independently. Of course, the practice is different, and this brings me to three ways to prevent No-Damn (partly following Maclean p. 227):
- Privatizing the problem. In the case of Tragedy this means subdividing the commons, so that each herdsman has to pay the costs of overgrazing. However, I don’t see how this solution can be applied to the No-Damn case.
- Social pressure in order to change the behaviour of those who ignore the rules to restrict the coronavirus and to make that they (or most of them) behave like responsible citizens. That was the reaction of the Dutch media a week ago when too many people broke the rules.
- Leviathan, as Maclean calls it: The state takes absolute power to set rules and to enforce them. That’s what we see in China, Italy and Spain etc. If that happens, the no-damners are worse off than they thought, when they didn’t give a damn about the rules.

- Bovens, Luc, “The Tragedy of the Commons as a Voting Game”, in The Prisoner’s Dilemma (see below); pp. 156-176.
- Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) in Ekistics, Vol. 27, No. 160, ECOSYSTEMS: man and nature (MARCH 1969), pp. 168-170.
- Maclean, Douglas, “Prisoner’s Dilemmas, intergenerational asymmetry, and climate chance ethics”, in Martin Peterson (ed.), The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015; pp. 219-242.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The trolley problem and the corona virus

A columnist in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, Ionica Smeets, drew my attention to the relevance of the trolley problem for the present corona crisis. Since I have discussed the trolley problem already several times in my blogs, I think that it’s good to devote a few words to this theme in my blogs as well. Without a doubt, most of my regular readers will certainly remember what the trolley problem involves, but for those who have forgotten it or simply don’t know what it is about, here it is in short:
Case 1. A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. As a bystander, you can save their lives by turning a switch and redirecting the trolley to another track. However, there is a man walking on that other track that would be killed instead of the five. Would you kill one person in order to save five?
There is also another version of the trolley problem (actually there are more versions, but that’s not important here):
Case 2. The same situation but now you, the bystander, are standing on a footbridge above the track. You are slim and short but a large man is just crossing the bridge. If you jump on the track, you will be run over by the trolley, which will kill you and the five people as well. If you push the large man on the track, he will be killed but the trolley will stop and the five will be saved. Would you push the man?
Most people say “yes” in Case 1 and “no” in Case 2. Apparently, it makes a difference, whether you actively (intentionally) kill a person or passively (let it happen that it happens). To put it differently, in Case 1, you might reason, “Well, by turning the switch one person is killed instead of five, so four lives are saved.” Also in Case 2 four lives will be saved, but the first part of your reasoning will run now: “Well, by turning the switch I kill one person, etc.”.
Put yourself now the position of the governments, local authorities and others who must decide whether or not to close theatres; forbid sports matches; close schools; to place persons in quarantine, even if they are not or not yet ill; to forbid healthy people to go out for the simple reason that they are 70 years of age or older, even if they are top fit; or the same for handicapped persons, even if they are healthy and, say, running a big enterprise; and so on. This is a real moral problem. On the face of it, you might say, that many lives will be saved by the measures, since they help prevent that people are killed by the corona virus. On the other hand, there are many questions that may cast doubts on the  ̶  moral  ̶   rightness of the decisions or at least may show that all these measures to “lock down” the economy don’t simply lead to saving lives and that is it. For these measures will also lead to an economic downturn and it’s a known that in times of economic decline more people die because of the bad economic situation. So, this is the trolley case of five persons killed against one on a social level.
In addition, measures like closing restaurants, theatres, schools etc., forbidding events, stopping “non-essential” economic activities will ruin many people, especially those who work freelance, have a small business, are self-employed or have an independent profession. A part of them will be ruined and go bankrupt and some will never recover and will lead a miserable life for the rest of their lives (which may lead to an early death, by the way). Others will have to give up their present ambitions (like sportsmen who thought to take part in the Olympic Games but cannot prepare themselves well) and their lives can be turned into another unwished-for direction (which, in the long run, might also work positively, however). Or just a very different problem, say you are a doctor. The intensive care of your hospital is occupied till the last bed, and so are the intensive care units of the hospitals in your region. Now another patient for the intensive care arrives. What must you do? Let the patient die? Exchange a person who has more chance to survive without intensive care for this new patient? Or what if the new patient is a young man or woman who had an accident and who will certainly survive on condition that s/he is treated on the intensive care? Must the doctor exchange this patient for an old man or woman who will have only a few extra years to live if s/he survives? Probably, the doctor will not take the decision alone but together with his/her team, but this doesn’t change the moral problem as such. This case is clearly a case 2 type, but it is to be wondered whether case 1 types of decisions are really easier to take. And if you take a closer look at case 1 type decisions, it may turn out that they are not really different from case 2 type decisions and that in practice the difference between both types of cases is gradual. But what kind of decisions are taken, it is to be wondered whether in such trolley cases correct decisions do exist.

- Ionica Smeets, “Vijf doden”, in: De Volkskrant, 14 March 2020, Boeken&Wetenschap, p. 21
- Old blogs on the trolley proble. Go to “Search This Blog” at the top of the right column of this blog page and search for “trolley problem”.