October 1, 2020

It’s been quite a while since I taught ethics to the officers of the British army. Most of them were newly promoted majors about to take up command responsibility in Iraq or Afghanistan, acutely aware that moral decision-making was going to play a life or death role in their immediate future. They sat up straight in the lecture theatre at Shrivenham, all sharp as a pin in their uniforms; the most attentive students I’d ever had. They thought about ethics like it seriously mattered. But I think I learnt the most during those sessions. The challenges of doing the right thing on such a complex environment as the modern battlefield provided a very engrossing stress test for the sort of theoretical moral theories that I had had been teaching at university. The lessons I learnt have stayed with me, and have application, I believe, to our current predicament.

It is not just culture that is upstream of politics, so too are the basic moral/ethical theories that feed into our political decision making. Broadly speaking, there are three very different moral systems of thought — rule-based ethics, or deontological ethics; utilitarianism; and so-called Virtue ethics or character based ethics — and it struck me that they would lead to three very different approaches to a crisis like Covid. So how have these different systems fared when confronted with the complex moral questions that a pandemic presents?

Rule-based ethics is, on the surface at least, the easiest to understand. It is the “thou shalt not” approach: ethics that can be codified in law as a set of rules or instructions. This is what most people expect moral instruction to look like. But though apparently easy to understand, this approach finds it hard to keep up with a fast-moving situation. As Covid spreads, affecting different areas differently, expanding and contracting over weeks, the idea that such a complex environment can be covered by some very basic rules feels extremely naive. Hence Matt Lucas’s fabulous impersonation of Boris Johnson’s bumbling confusion.

“So we are saying don’t go to work, go to work. Don’t take public transport, go to work, don’t go to work. Stay indoors. If you can work from home, go to work. Don’t go to work. Go outside, don’t go outside. And then we will or wont .. er .. something or other.”

The fact that BJ has just had to apologise for not correctly remembering the rules is a stunning indictment of this whole approach. I have no idea what the rules are now, and I don’t suppose many of the rest of us have either. And that is because rule-based approaches are very clumsy moral instruments for such capricious circumstances.

On the battlefield, soldiers are asked to abide by a voluminous amount of legislation covering their behaviour. But the idea that they might look things up as they prepare to pull the trigger, as bullets are pinging about all over the place, and when they haven’t slept for a few days, is simply preposterous. Real-time moral decision making just doesn’t look like that. And it doesn’t look like that with Covid either because the rules necessarily multiply when faced with complexity. There are not 10 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, there are 613. And most of us can’t remember all of them either.

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The utilitarian approach is, one might say, the ethic of the technocrat: it’s ethics in one and zeroes, where situational risk is quantified and calculated. It was designed in the 19th century as an alternative to the religious-feeling of rules being handed down from on high. Consequentialist in nature, it calculates the right course of action based on whether it leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number (though there are various versions of this formula.) In a sense, it’s the ethics of the Test and Trace app and much more responsive to the particularity of the situation one is presented with.

But despite its apparent dexterity, it too has its limitations – not least because many of the moral challenges we face involve qualitative judgments that are not easily quantifiable. Utilitarianism is a data friendly approach to moral decision making, but because it seeks to convert very different moral considerations onto a single scale (so that a course of action can be calculated), it can easily misplace or misshape some of the things that are most important to us.

It’s easy enough — in theory, at least — to decide a course of action based on which might lead to less Covid deaths. Each death can count as one and the rest is simple mathematics. But how do you set the number of deaths against less quantitative moral goods like the impact on personal relationships, or the consequences for personal freedom, or on our sense of well-being? Notwithstanding the impossibility to actually calculate the full consequences of any individual action on anything other than the most short-term of time frames (see the butterfly effect), data driven ethics is a clumsy way of measuring what are often incommensurable moral values. I suspect this is why the moral case against lockdown restrictions has been so weak: because it involves things that do not readily admit of enumeration. The things we value in life are not just apples and oranges. They are apples and bicycles, impossible to plot on a single scale.

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Which leaves us with virtue ethics. This has experienced a surge in popularity since the moral philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe started writing about it in the late 1950’s. Returning to the kind of ethical thinking first explored by Aristotle, it refocuses consideration not upon the morality of the deed, but upon the moral formation of our characters. The kind of thing a virtue ethicist would say is: “Behave as a virtuous person would behave in your situation.”

To those schooled in the first two theories, this approach can feel like it’s not really doing what ethics is supposed to do: it’s not about duty to obey rules or acting to bring about desirable consequences. But the advantage of refocusing on moral character as the crucible of moral decision-making is that it recognises we are always making intuitive responses to constantly changing situations. On the battlefield, it is ethical instincts that do most of the work. Situations that call for an immediate response require us to act out of those deep moral intuitions that have been laid down within us over years of formation.

The old school name for this is character. And what the army has long been good at recognising is that, important though it is to have the right rules governing battlefield behaviour, they are no substitute for moral character.

There is, I suppose, something of the small state conservative view of the world that looks to character as the basis of moral decision making. This is the sort of take that distrusts the top-down approach of deontology as much as the nerdy calculations of the scientists, preferring to rely upon the informed instincts of ordinary people to do what is right, as well as to balance the various competing moral goods as they present themselves. Of course, for those who can’t do their thinking unless there is a number attached to it, all this is unfathomable. These are the kind of people who express mock outrage when Boris says that we should “trust the common sense of the British people”, pretending — and, of course it’s a pretence — that unless an idea has the same sort of definable clarity as a mathematical formula it is effectively meaningless.

Both rules-based and data-driven approaches to morality haven’t had such a good Covid crisis. They have both been exposed as insufficiently flexible. Moral character – shorthand, common sense – is the sort of wisdom that has grown with experience and over time. And the Prime Minister is correct that moral character is our best defence against the way Covid is hollowing out our society – even though, of course, moral character may not be something he is known for having very much of himself.

Join the discussion

  • October 5, 2020
    If you bought the product because you needed it then you've probably done so with a good conscience, or at least one allowed in your own 'moral system' if you like. You cannot be responsible for the consequence of buying it, or concern yourself with the deontology of the decision, (as Giles would... Read more

  • October 5, 2020
    Thanks James, but I understood that question was one of morality. As practical as my answer was, I think it is also the morally correct answer. The morality is what is simple to me. The reasoning is that by doing as I ordinarily would I avoid the immoral act of being an opportunist and hording up... Read more

  • October 3, 2020
    I think you are making a mistake, there's a difference between 'common sense' and 'character' for a start, moral courage can often appear far from sensible, eg, a spy like Violette Szabo refusing to give information to the gestapo under torture during WW11. Common sense needs to be allied with... Read more

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