An over-emphasis on Utilitarianism in Ethics, esp. in so-called «extraordinary situations»

«Utilitarianism must be balanced with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance & fairness ethics, natural rights theory, Rousseau/Hobbes’ Social Contract theory, Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, etc. No one theory works.»
Michael Shermer

Looking back at two years of Covid, and especially at the discussion in the German parliament about whether or not to make the so-called Covid vaccinations mandatory (for all adults or seniors), I wonder whether we do not place too much emphasis on Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, highly simplified the so-called «greatest good (or rather ‹pleasure›) for the greatest number of people» (Bentham) was — at least in my reading — the basis for the German Ethics’ Council statement on whether or not mandatory vaccinations were ethical. You also hear it in lots of arguments, esp. when it comes to ostensibly protecting others by getting vaccinated. If you think that the so-called vaccinations work, that they reduce pressure on the health systems, and that they save lives (not only those who are vaccinated, but also others by preventing transmission, incl. those who cannot be «vaccinated» due to health reasons) — yeah, then mandatory vaccinations seem like a good idea.

And I did see some examples of people who think this way losing their — for the lack of a better word — shit when the German parliament could not push through mandatory vaccinations. Not for adults (18+ years), not for seniors (60+ years). None of the proposals, including to remove mandatory vaccinations for health care workers — had a simple majority. Everything but the last proposal was a surprise to me (the last proposal came from a right-wing party, which in Germany equals far-right/extremist-right).

Personally, I think herd immunity is a thing, but using insufficiently tested leaky so-called vaccines to protect others might not be a good idea. But even if it would work, if we had safe and (nearly) 100% effective vaccines, Utilitarianism would still be a bad idea.

After all, at least in my reading, Utilitarianism is a collectivist ethic. Its unit are groups, here, the majority in any ethical situation. That is an ethic that is very much in line with the current emphasis on collectivism. Whether it’s affirmative action for certain groups, polarization (democrats vs republicans, vaccinated vs unvaccinated), or even so-called fighting for so-called vulnerable groups (e.g., minorities), many people seem to prefer thinking in groups, not in individuals.

As an aside, «fighting for so-called vulnerable groups», aka minorities, might sound a bit strange in this context. After all, it matters that the greatest number are happy, i.e., by default not the minority. But it makes sense in a certain way. After all, if you feel moral if you care for someone (cf. Haidt’s moral foundation theory), the majority can use «caring for the minority» to achieve that effect — and feel happy. Those minority groups are used by the majority (or parts of the majority) to feel moral — and they have to exist otherwise those who have nothing else to feel moral about would be very unhappy.

But anyway, as a relativist theory, there is the problem of the tyranny of the majority. After all, if we go by the «greatest good for the greatest number of people», the majority is morally obligated to exploit the minority for the greater good (as Dimmock & Fisher, 2017, put it in «Ethics for A-Level»). And that «greatest good for the greatest number of people» can suck for everyone else. Including for those who feel save in the majority at the moment, but won’t be in the future. After all, how was it, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated have one thing in common, neither will ever be fully vaccinated against Covid. But it goes even beyond Covid.

With mandatory vaccinations, the state has a carte blanche to decide over the body of its citizens. And the state is the elected politicians, which are usually high in need for power and can easily become an oligarchy. Sounds like a conspiracy theory? Give it a couple of months. But (semi-serious) joke aside, once that firewall between the state and the body of the citizen is torn down — even for the best reasons, and even for the «greatest good for the greatest number of people» — the state can easily further encroach in the future. After all, they can already decide that adults have to undergo a medical treatment. Because that’s what a vaccination is, and there’s a reason why it’s put as «only a jab» or «get the jab» (in Germany they use the term «Pieks», in the sense of «only a little prick»). (And why do I have to think about Sleeping Beauty here … ;-)).

It might not be used immediately, but it will be used in the same way the mandatory childhood vaccinations against measles are used today. We already have these vaccinations, so why not for Covid too? (Simple answer: Adults vs Children, DNA vs. RNA virus slow mutating vs. fast mutating, no animal hosts vs. animal hosts, etc. pp.). And no, it probably won’t be «Your body, States Choice» in the sense of making abortion illegal. Not in this country. But perhaps the other way around, after all, there are way too many people on this planet, aren’t they? And the greatest good for the greatest number (of currently living) people might be less people.

Yeah, conspiracy theory at the moment, but give it time. The next emergency will come, because fear seems to drive the world in recent years. Fear is very, very useful to keep populations under control. And it will likely be used in the future.

So, this being said, what would be a better approach?

I agree with Shermer (quote in the beginning) that you cannot only use one kind of ethics. Personally, that is my definition of evil — when you put *one thing* above everything else, without balance or different priorities in different circumstances.

When it comes to mandatory vaccinations, I think Kant’s deontological ethics would be very helpful. Especially the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative (quoted via Dimmock & Fisher, 2017):

CI-2: So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
Dimmock, M., & Fisher, A. (2017). Ethics for A-Level. OpenBook Publishers.

Dimmock & Fisher (2017) write in discussing that formulation: «… I was in a sense making choices on your behalf and thus did not treat you as a rational agent. So according to Kant I should always treat you as an end not a means. I should always treat you as a free rational agent. Kant’s theory then has a way of respecting the dignity of people. We should treat people with respect and with dignity purely on the basis that they are rational agents, and not because of their race, gender, education, upbringing etc.»

It reminds me of a beautiful quotation in Pratchett’s Discworld:

‘There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’
‘It’s a lot more complicated than that-‘
‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’
«Carpe Jugulum» by Terry Pratchett

I think this aspect is missing in a lot of discussions today. And I say this as an empirically minded scientists who loves evaluations — yeah, the practical outcome isn’t everything. And you see it specifically in the discussion about mandatory vaccinations. Which is strange, considering the dignity as human being is the first article in the German constitution. Even more so, the dignity of individuals is under attack. Just look at how many people — politicians and media alike — attack the rationality of those who think different. They claim those who think differently are stupid, uninformed, manipulated by fake news, etc. Today it’s the unvaccinated, tomorrow it’s some other group.

After all, the «extraordinary situations» (pandemic, climate change, etc.) will always be used to go for more so-called utilitarian solutions. Whether they actually bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people or only to the politicians in charge is another question. I think it’s more likely that those in power — not only because power corrupts but because it attracts the corruptible — will just use it to get what they want.

Principles like treating people as rational beings (aka not as things) can protect each and every individual against overreach. No matter how well the intentions, or even its effects for the greatest number.

So, we need to bring the dignity of the individual back in the public discussion.