Our Moral Fragility

Since we've been in the midst of a long series I haven't elected to break in to share thoughts about things I've been thinking during COVID-19. But now that the series has ended, I did want to share something I've been thinking about.

In moral psychology there is a phenomenon called a taboo trade-off. Many of the hard decisions we make in life involve trade-offs. But some trade-offs shouldn't even be contemplated, our minds shouldn't even go there. This is called the "mere contemplation effect."

You might recall the movie Indecent Proposal. The premise of the movie involved a billionaire propositioning a couple, offering them a million dollars if he could have one night to sleep with the wife. That offer--a million dollars to sleep with the wife--is the "indecent proposal."

The movie allows us to illustrate a taboo trade-off and the mere contemplation effect. Imagine the following scenario: A billionaire approaches a husband offering to pay him a million dollars to sleep with his wife. The husband responds, "Let me think about that." He thinks for a few minutes. And then he says, "No."

Now, what is your opinion of the husband, morally speaking?

Even though the husband gave the "correct" moral answer, if you are like most people your opinion of the husband is not very good. Why? Well, to use a phrase from the moral psychology literature, the husband had "one thought too many." The husband entertained a taboo trade-off. To merely contemplate the trade-off, to entertain it, marks the husband as morally suspect.

The point here is that morality involves monitoring some clear, bright lines. Some lines just can't be crossed, and that means mentally as well. You just can't go there. Consequently, if you contemplate crossing that bright line this marks you as morally suspect. The fact that you'd entertain the possibility means that the clear, bright line isn't so clear or bright. What was now unthinkable and impossible has now become calculable and possible. Merely thinking has signaled the start of moral decay. There is now nothing between us and the abyss. If you can think it, you can do it.

Which brings me to my thought.

We've crossed the line. At the start of this pandemic our nation entertained a taboo trade-off. We placed the lives of millions of people on one side of the scale and money on the other. We literally put a price on the lives of our parents and grandparents.

This outraged many of us. We rightly called this calculation abominable and beyond the pale. And it was.

But the darker, lingering reality is that when the calculation was entertained we were changed. We're different now. We are a nation that thought the thought. We placed a price-tag on the elderly and the vulnerable. And I've been haunted ever since.

We often look at the great evils of human history with a vague sense of puzzlement and detachment. How could those people have done such horrible, wicked things? Well, I think we now know how it happens. It starts with something small. Often in the form of a question. A thought once considered taboo is floated and entertained. That's how it begins.

COVID-19 is more lethal than the flu, but it's not catastrophically more lethal. The numbers are still changing, but the mortality rate for the flu is .1% and for COVID-19 perhaps 3-4%. And this could be lower as we get more data about asymptomatic cases. By contrast, the mortality rate for smallpox was 30%. For the black plague upwards of 60%.

That uptick from .1 to 3-4% has hit us hard, and placed us under great strain. That's all it took, a few percentage points, nothing cataclysmic, to cause us to step over a clear, bright line. A few percentage points to collectively float the idea that it might be better to let millions of people die so we could keep going out to the movies.

A few percentage points. That's all it took. I keep thinking about that.

I then imagine what we'd be willing to do, morally speaking, if the morality rate of a virus was 10% or 20% or 30% like smallpox.

We're skating on some pretty thin ice, morally speaking. We like to think we're moral, loving people. We are not. Our affluence had masked our depravity.

But then came COVID-19, which caused us to think the thought. A small thing, a thought. But such thoughts are the lines between us and the void.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply