This is no time for utilitarianism!

An interesting feature of the current crisis is the number of times we hear our leaders proclaiming that there are not weighing costs against benefits: ‘We will do whatever it takes!’. ‘We will give the hospitals whatever they need!’. And even, memorably, from the UK Chancellor, ‘We will set no limit on what we spend on this!’. No limit. I mean when did the UK Treasury ever say that? Maybe only during the war, which is a clue.

Such statements seem timely and reassuring just at the moment. When people are timorous enough to question whether some of this largesse might actually be sensible – for example, whether the long-term costs of some decisions might be greater than the benefits – it seems in incredibly poor taste. But people are dying! Those commentators are roundly excoriated on social media for letting the side down.

All of this is something of a puzzle. The whole essence of evidence-based policy, of policy modelling, is that you always calculate benefits and costs; of course this is difficult, and is never a politically neutral exercise, given that there are so many weightings and ways one might do so. Nonetheless, the weighing of costs and benefits is something of a staple of policy analysis, and also a hallmark of rationality. So why, in this time of crisis, would our politicians of all stripes be so keen to signal that they are not going to do the thing which policymakers usually do, which is calculate the costs and benefits and make the trade-offs?

Calculating costs and benefits comes from the moral tradition of utilitarianism: weighing which course provides the greatest good for the greatest number. What our politicians are saying at the moment comes from the deontological moral tradition, namely the tradition of saying that some things are just intrinsically right or wrong. ‘Everyone should have a ventilator!’; ‘Everyone should have a test!’; ‘No-one should be left behind!’. Deontological judgements are more intuitive than utilitarian ones. So the question is: in this crisis in particular, should our leaders be so keen to show themselves deontologists?

‘We will fight until the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit!’, said no war leader ever.

Some clue to this comes from recent research showing that people rate those who make utilitarian decisions as less trustworthy and less attractive to collaborate with than those who make deontological decisions. The decisions come from the infamous trolley problem: would you kill one person to save the lives of five? Across multiple studies, participants preferred and trusted decision-makers who would not; decision-makers who just thought you should never kill anyone, period.

The authors of this research speculate on the reasons we might spontaneously prefer deontologists. If you are to be my partner-in-arms, I would like to know that you will never trade me off as collateral damage, never treat me as a mere means to some larger end. I want to know that you will value me intrinsically. Thus, if you want to gain my trust, you need to show not just that you weight my outcomes highly, but that you will not even calculate the costs and benefits of coming to my aid. You will just do whatever it takes. Hence, we prefer deontologists and trust them more.

I am not sure this account quite works, though it feels like there is something to it. If I were one of the parties in the unfortunate trolley dilemma, then under a veil of Rawlsian ignorance I ought to want a utilitarian in charge, since I have a five-fold greater chance of being in the set who would benefit from a utilitarian decision than being the unfortunate one. If my collaboration partners are rationally utilitarian, I am per definition a bit more likely to benefit from this than lose, in the long run. But maybe there is a slightly different account that does work. For example, mentally simulating the behaviour of deontologists is easier; you know what they will and won’t do. Utilitarians: well, you have no idea what set of costs and benefits they might currently be appraising, so you are slightly in the dark about what they will do next. So perhaps we prefer deontologists as collaboration partners because at least we can work out what they are likely to when the chips are down.

In a time of crisis, like this one, what our leaders really need is to be trusted, to bring the populace along with them. That, it seems to me, is why we are suddenly hearing all this deontological rhetoric. They are saying: trust us, come with us, we are not even thinking about the costs, not even in private. And there is a related phemonenon. Apparently, deontological thinking is contagious. When we see others following moral rules irrespective of cost, it makes us more prone to do so too. I suspect this is because of the public-good nature of morality:- there is no benefit to my abiding by a moral rule unless everyone else is going to do so. We are quite pessimistic about the moral behaviour of others, especially in times of crisis, and so we need the visible exemplar, the reassurance, that others are being deontological, to ressure ourselves into doing so. In the current crisis, society needs people to incur costs for public-good benefits they cannot directly perceive, which is why, again and again, our leaders rightly proclaim not just the rules, but the unconditional moral force of those rules. Don’t calculate the infection risk for your particular journey; just don’t make it! (This is also why leaders who proclaim the rules but do not follow them themselves, as in the case of Scotland’s chief medical officer, are particular subjects of negative attention.)

I am not saying this outbreak of deontology is a bad thing; even in the long run it will be hard to write the definitive book on that. Indeed, perhaps it would be nice to have a bit more of this deontological spirit the rest of the time. The UK government recently decided that every homeless person should have the offer of a place to stay by the end of the week. Whatever the cost. To which I respond: why could that not have been true in any week in the last thirty years? Why only now? In normal life, governments are utilitarian about such matters, not weighing homelessness reduction as highly as other policy goals, and not prepared to do the relatively little it actually takes because they believe the costs are too high. Evidently, the populace’s intuitive preference for deontologists extends only to certain moral decisions, and certain times (such as times when we are all facing the same external threat). At other times, governments can get away with meanness and inaction: the populace does not notice, does not care, or can be convinced that solving the problem is too hard. Many people in progressive policy circles are no doubt asking: if we can achieve so much so fast in this time of crisis, how can we hang on to some of that spirit for solving social problems when the crisis is over?