homeaboutarchivepodcastnewslettermembership!
aboutarchivepodcastmembership!
aboutarchivemembers!

Moral Choices in an Overwhelming Emergency

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2020

This is from a few days ago, but because the United States is a couple of weeks behind Italy in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, what was happening there then might still be in our future if we don’t take (seemingly unreasonable but actually entirely reasonable) precautions. From Yascha Mounk’s The Extraordinary Decisions Facing Italian Doctors:

The authors, who are medical doctors, then deduce a set of concrete recommendations for how to manage these impossible choices, including this: “It may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care.”

Those who are too old to have a high likelihood of recovery, or who have too low a number of “life-years” left even if they should survive, would be left to die. This sounds cruel, but the alternative, the document argues, is no better. “In case of a total saturation of resources, maintaining the criterion of ‘first come, first served’ would amount to a decision to exclude late-arriving patients from access to intensive care.”

In addition to age, doctors and nurses are also advised to take a patient’s overall state of health into account: “The presence of comorbidities needs to be carefully evaluated.” This is in part because early studies of the virus seem to suggest that patients with serious preexisting health conditions are significantly more likely to die. But it is also because patients in a worse state of overall health could require a greater share of scarce resources to survive: “What might be a relatively short treatment course in healthier people could be longer and more resource-consuming in the case of older or more fragile patients.”

Mounk continues:

My academic training is in political and moral philosophy. I have spent countless hours in fancy seminar rooms discussing abstract moral dilemmas like the so-called trolley problem. If a train is barreling toward five innocent people who are tied to the tracks, and I could divert it by pulling the lever, but at the cost of killing an innocent bystander, should I do it?

Part of the point of all those discussions was, supposedly, to help professionals make difficult moral choices in real-world circumstances. If you are an overworked nurse battling a novel disease under the most desperate circumstances, and you simply cannot treat everyone, however hard you try, whose life should you save?

Despite those years of theory, I must admit that I have no moral judgment to make about the extraordinary document published by those brave Italian doctors. I have not the first clue whether they are recommending the right or the wrong thing.

I have been rewatching The Good Place with my kids (they love it), and all of the moral philosophy stuff underpinning the show has taken on a greater meaning over the last week or two.