Human Values and Ethics in Times of Pandemic
OPINION | by Michael Schroeder
A recent interview with Winfried Kretschmann, the prime minister of Baden Württemberg, Germany has raised many eyebrows on German social media. Facing widespread criticism over the slow vaccine rollout in Germany, Kretschmann justified the government’s strategy as a Kantian approach, while other nations, like the US, are following what’s called a Utilitarian approach.
What exactly is the ‘Kantian approach’ to vaccination?
According to the Kantian view, people possess inherent and unique dignity, which is the very reason they take actions with a reason (Vernunft). This means people should be treated as ends in themselves, and cannot be used as bargaining chips or weighed against another. Therefore, action needs to be based on logical and ethically-sound principles even if it takes longer.
In this case, as Kretschmann argues, priority in vaccine allocation needs to categorically go to those who are most in need, i.e., the most vulnerable to the virus. This is arguably the cause of delay compared to other nations, as it takes longer to organize older people for vaccination, whose main communication tools are often fax and telephone.
To make the process even slower, there is a rule that 50% of the available vaccines need to be saved up, to ensure everybody gets their second shot. Due to this process, most people who are not in the high priority group get their vaccines at a later point, even though there are exposed to the virus as well.
Does the Utilitarian view accelerate the rollout?
Kretschmann’s argument on Germany’s slower approach being Kantian seems to stand in contrast to Utilitarianism, which is supposedly guiding American vaccination programs which outpaced that of Germany.
Utilitarianism preaches to choose the action that creates the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. What Kretschmann seems to argue is that countries following this approach would prioritize vaccinating those who have the most people-to-people contact, to minimize the spread of the virus overall. This would not only shorten the length of the pandemic but also make a return to normal social life possible. In this scenario, people in high priority groups would not get preferential access to vaccines.
So, Germany Kan’t do it quickly? German Twitter users were hardly impressed with Kretschmann’s high-flying reasoning.
While some were disgruntled, judging the philosophical argumentation as an attempt to justify the government failure in procuring the vaccine, others, however, pointed out mistakes in Kretschmann’s reading of Kant.
“Kant should be the reason for more vaccination –rescue everyone”
“To denigrate quick governance as utilitarianism goes against the categorical imperative. Kretschmann did not understand Kant.”
Philosophical theory recourses to isolated, stylized extreme situations to reveal the interaction of certain considerations that motivate action and derive ethical theories from them in a bottom-up manner. Those are typically life-or-death ethical dilemmas, like whether to shoot down a hijacked plane.
The COVID-19 pandemic might, at first glance, look like an extreme situation from a philosophy textbook, but the reality is more complex. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is an extreme situation, however, it is not an isolated case as most stylized ethical dilemma situations. In an isolated theoretical laboratory environment of the mind, we can clearly distinguish the ethical recommendations that Kantianism or Utilitarianism make. In a dynamic real-world scenario where numerous factors are simultaneously cofounding, the picture is not as clear-cut.
From a Kantian perspective, it does not seem convincing that vaccines should be withheld from medical personnel or those at the highest risk of infection. Because this would mean using a certain population as means to an end. Even beyond that, a prioritization of a certain social group at all could potentially mean using the rest as means to an end.
On the other side, it remains questionable to argue that vaccinating a wider range of populations would generate the highest good for the highest amount of people, from a utilitarian point of view. In such a strategy, the “good” would be the possibility to avoid large-scale lockdowns with possibly fewer infections. However, a degree of intensity, or the quality of the good it generates, needs to be taken into consideration as well. Although a month-or-more-long lockdown is nothing more than a trouble, it weighs much heavier on many if they would lose a grandmother or a friend with a disease because they have not been prioritized by the vaccination strategy. vaccine has unfound side-effects.
What vaccination debate reveals
This is exactly what we can observe today; people with good health conditions are social-distancing for securing the more exposed. At the same time, remote working opportunities, click-and-collect online shopping as well as delivery services are accelerated to limit the extent to which the pandemic is weighing on the majority of public life.
What we can see is that, applied to the real-life situation of the pandemic, seemingly-opposed schools of thinking lead to rather similar results. This seems very much like what is in practice already. The mixture of caring for the most vulnerable to the virus and the attempt to keep public life going as much as possible can be witnessed not only in Germany or the US, but around the world, including Asian countries. While there are local nuances and complexities, no matter where it is — Tokyo, Seoul, or Jakarta, people do their best to balance the two poles.
In times of adversity, it is striking to see humans around the globe innately follow similar strategies. Now, this does not mean that we do not need principles along which the pandemic management is designed. Of course, we do. However, we do not necessarily need to design them based on 300-year-old books.
Indeed, what we have found echoes the works of the recently diseased Philosopher and Theologian Hans Küng, who was striving to find common themes in all world religions to establish a World Ethos for an interconnected global society. What we have found might not be just such a grand theory yet, but what the COVID-19 pandemic and the series of debates on Twitter reveals is a broader human consensus about inherent values we hold. Our minds around the globe connect more than we might be willing to let on.
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