How should we count now?

The situation is messy. The cases of COVID rise. Accordingly, the governmental structures try to adapt, and there is a great debate how we ought to act best. This reminds me of a thought experiment by Derek Parfit with the morbid name of “the harmless torturers”.

Imagine the following scenario first: in the bad old days, a 1000 torturers turned a switch on some machine a 1000 times, giving an electric shock (or something similar) to their own victim each time, thereby affecting 1000 people badly. Each turning of the switch leads to an imperceptible pain, but the sum of all turnings over time leads to really severe pain. These torturers obviously act wrong.
Now consider that “The harmless torturers” is a slight modification. One by one, all torturers push a button which switches all thousand machines at once. All victims receive the ‘mild’ shock simultaneously by the same torturer. However, after all 1000 torturers have pushed the button, the result for the victims is the same. Yet, none of the torturers imposed any severe pain on any of the victims on his own. It was the collective action that caused the harm, not the individual person.

Derek Parfit used this example to illustrate that classical ethics fail to judge the harmless torturers, as we all agree that they act clearly wrong in both cases. This has always been a good example to me about sustainability, as it illustrates the shortcoming of utilitarianism, to give one example. Even acts that seem imperceptible can have consequences, for better or worse. I think this comes in handy when considering the Corona crisis. We tend to search for rules on how the virus is transmitted, and patterns clearly exist. There are high chances to get infected under certain risky behaviour, and low chances under other behaviour. However, the chances are certainly not zero under many of these behaviour rules. Take meeting outside. Chances based on current evidence to get infected by someone who is contagious are nineteen times lower than in a closed room. However, chances are not zero. Even if the negative effects of our individual actions are only negative on an almost imperceptible scale, they can still have consequences, and may even matter more in the long run.
At this point it should be noted that this is a very one-sided view of the world, since obviously and alarmingly, many people are mentally affected by the crisis though loneliness, anxiety and other effects. All this may matter even more, at least to some. The reason why I raise Derek‘s example here is not because I do not perceive the problems of others. Their challenges of others matter a lot to me. But I also have to highlight that although I would love to meet other people, I do not perceive a problem in not meeting others. This makes me in no way better or worse than anyone, or if so I ignore this here. Yet it enables me to make a simple contribution, and that is to create less – even imperceptibly less risks – as a contribution to society. Other people may need to meet other people for all sorts of reasons. Some people are essential workers. Others may need to meet people because they would feel bad being alone. In order to support these groups of people, I decide to minimise my risk for others, even if imperceptibly so. Derek clearly points out that every contribution may count, even if we cannot count or measure the contribution.
Do not misunderstand me, I would love nothing more but to met other people in person. But the fact that I am not doing this does not make me feel bad. I miss learning from others, I can clearly state that. I meet people once or twice a week outside, at least for now. I am however glad to have learned from Derek how to count right, because this may count right now, even if my contribution is imperceptible.

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