Friday, November 4, 2022

Blanket Amnesty for Moral Eunuchs

Brown University professor Emily Oster caused something of a mini-hubub for writing, in The Atlantic, that we should declare a general amnesty for all of those who were in charge of covid responses these past two years. Presumably, that includes the bureaucracy, the executive leadership at government agencies, the teachers’ union bosses and the talking heads who were threatening anyone who dared step outside without being double and triple masked.

Much of what they proposed was simply wrong. Some of it was also damaging. A lot of it was unnecessary and did not work.

So, Oster thinks that we should forgive and forget. Those making the decisions, and, in fact, imposing the decisions on us all, did not know the consequences of their actions and therefore must be forgiven. Blanket amnesty.

Her moral calculus is surely off kilter. In the first place, how many of these leaders, like Dr. Fauci and Randy Weingarten, have come forth to admit to their errors? I trust that precious few have done so. Second, what is the meaning of responsibility? When you are in charge, and especially when you insist on being in charge, and when you impose your will on everyone else, you are responsible for the outcome-- regardless of whether it was predictable, likely, or unlikely. There is no such thing as a guaranteed outcome. The commander who leads his troops into an ambush is responsible for the carnage, even if he had no way of knowing what was awaiting them.

There is no such thing as future certainty, even in the matter of next year’s climate. To think otherwise is to distance oneself from science. Keep in mind, as Wittgenstein said, there is no such thing as a scientific fact about tomorrow. Your idea that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow is an hypothesis, not a fact-- at least, not yet.

Oster does not mention it, but the bureaucrats who took charge of the covid response were consistent in their insistence on shutting down debate and discussion. They brooked no discontent. They were right; if you disagreed, you were not only wrong, but were promoting homicide. Surely, their despotism deserves universal condemnation, not blanket amnesty.

Besides, the outcomes of their policy proposals were often predictable. Take the example of the school shutdowns that have damaged so many children:

Some of these choices turned out better than others. To take an example close to my own work, there is an emerging (if not universal) consensus that schools in the U.S. were closed for too long: The health risks of in-school spread were relatively low, whereas the costs to students’ well-being and educational progress were high. The latest figures on learning loss are alarming.  But in spring and summer 2020, we had only glimmers of information. Reasonable people—people who cared about children and teachers—advocated on both sides of the reopening debate.

Fair enough, we did not and could not predict precisely what would happen when we shut down schools, but we surely had a pretty good idea about how bad it would become. I reported extensively on it for this blog.

So, Oster continues, different people took different sides of each argument. That is not the problem. The problem is that the people who took charge insisted that there was only one right side to every argument-- their side.

Given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic. And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong. In some instances, the right people were right for the wrong reasons. In other instances, they had a prescient understanding of the available information

These discussions are heated, unpleasant and, ultimately, unproductive. In the face of so much uncertainty, getting something right had a hefty element of luck. And, similarly, getting something wrong wasn’t a moral failing. Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.

The question is not whether you were right or wrong. Life is not a pop quiz or a final. The question is, who is responsible? In truth, those who made the decisions and who shut down debate are responsible for the outcomes, regardless of whether these outcomes were predictable. 

As I said above, not one of the people who were imposing their bureaucratic will on the nation has yet to step forth and take responsibility for their actions. That means, we are in no way obliged to offer blanket amnesty to moral eunuchs, even if they had the best of intentions.


370H55V I/me/mine said...

Reminds me of her grandmother, for whom she was named:

Anonymous said...

If there is no accountability, then there can be no learning - i.e. for the next pandemic

Anonymous said...

Amnesty? No #@$%ing way!!!


Callmelennie said...

Who says they want to learn? The good doctor is being kind to them. They intentionally torpedoed any inquiries into therapeutics that proved themselves beyond doubt in other parts of the world, even censored news about it. The only amnesty they deserve is ye olde lampost ambesty