In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there is a scene where Spock tells Kirk, who is struggling with an ethical dilemma, that “Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”.
For many years this never sat well with me, for reasons that I could not quite articulate. I was unsettled. I had a suspicion that the claim was not logical at all. I mean, I suppose it was logical mathematically, but still something seemed off.
Years later I realized the specific problem. Spock is confusing ethical consistency with mathematical logic. Ethics are not mathematics, and the logic which governs the premises and conclusions of the two isn’t necessarily interchangeable. Philosophical logic, or what is better termed “rational consistency”, or “reason”, does not assert mathematical logic as axiomatic. This is because mathematics is wholly abstract, where philosophy is meta, incorporating both the abstract and the concrete. Philosophy, of which ethics is a major category, concerns the nature of existence, itself, not merely the abstract measurement and categorization of it.
Since the dilemma facing Kirk is an ethical one, and ethics are not mathematics, Spock’s claim that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one” is entirely meaningless with respect to the problem at hand. It was a pointless and decidedly ILLOGICAL waste of time and breath. Ethically, the needs of the many DO NOT outweigh the needs of the few or the one. This is because there is no rational ethical comparison between “many” and “one” when considering individual human beings. Each person is an utterly singular observer. There is no such thing as deriving an objective “us” or “we” or “many” from an absolutely singular conscious agent. There is SELF, and there is OTHER, where both are singular agents, fundamentally, but the combination of SElf and OTHER into “we” or “us” or “many” is an entirely abstract notion. “We” does not exist, fundamentally, at all. “We” is an abstract concept which combines individuals for purely practical, mutable purposes, never for root ETHICAL ones. Therefore, it is a failure of reason to claim that it is somehow better for, say, one to die than one million. The individual, at the level of SELF, is absolute…he or she IS THE OBSERVER, and he or she is CONSTANT. This is why the individual is so ineluctably necessary to existence and reality. Axiomatically, absent the frame of reference of one’s singular and constant absolute SELF, no claim can be made about anything…nothing known, nothing claimed, nothing verified, and thus nothing can exist, because an existence which cannot be known and thus cannot be valued and thus serve no purpose is a categorically IRRELEVANT existence. And irrelevant existence cannot actually exist, because it can never meaningfully DO anything, including EXIST.
So, that in mind, Spock is really attempting to assert that the needs of the many ABSOLUTES outweigh the needs of a few or one ABSOLUTE. Do you see the paucity of logic here? Spock implies that the death of one person is better than the death of a million, but there is no such thing as a comparison between a single Absolute, and a million Absolutes. “A million absolutes” is no more a quantity of absolutes than a single absolute. There is no AMOUNT of absolute SELF. There is ONLY SELF. Any quantification of individuals then is purely abstract. It is of practical use, but NOT of ethical use. When God says “thou shalt not kill” he doesn’t qualify that command by quantifying it. One death is as equally tragic as a million.
Moving on to the cornonvirus. Today I saw a Vox headline from April 1 which read “The Coronavirus is NOT the FLu. It’s Worse.” I didn’t read the article, because I didn’t have to. The title alone told me that reading the article would be a waste of time, because as far as I was concerned, this isn’t and never has been the issue. Comparisons between the coronavirus and the flu are not the fundamental point anyone should be making.
First of all, the title itself is massively subjective, as “worse” can be defined in multiple ways, and easily manipulated to bolster one’s own personal opinion, no matter what that opinion is. And even if we go with the ostensible meaning of the word—that by “worse” we mean “more dangerous, and with a higher mortality rate”—a month later from when the article was written, incidence testing around the world has proved that the coronavirus is NOT worse than the flu, and may in fact be LESS dangerous.
But who cares about this…this is incidental to anything involving the coronavirus insofar as society and public health is concerned. It’s not about how dangerous the coronavirus is or is not relative to the flu, or any other virus. We live in a context where, under the auspices of State Authority, we exist first and foremost as members of a collective. This makes any crisis, even a pandemic, not an ethical problem, but an examination of probability, and this implies the enumeration of the people. The people become numbers, and these numbers are then plugged into a much larger and more fundamental equation, which is this: What course of action best promotes and preserves the position and power of the State? And this is why government can react so differently to similar crises (eg swine flu vs coronavirus), and why its methods and actions are often so incongruent with emprical data (eg the ongoing lockdown despite evidence that the coronavirus is not a significant threat to the nation). The crises are similar, but the policies which best promote State power can widely vary from situation to situation.
And it is here were we get to the root of it all.
The biggest mistake we who are suspicious and critical of government interference make with respect to interpreting government response to crisis is that we confuse government, which is an institution of object violence, with an ethical entity…and more precisely, a MORALLY ethical entity. It is not. Its only purpose is to compel the collective masses into a particular abstract ideological standard that it alone legitimizes, no matter what appeals are made to individual rights or freedom, etc. Government, itself, not you or me or our neighbors, our businesses, our money, our health, our jobs…nothing matters besides that which affirms the State, and promotes the collective Ideal which legitimizes it (in the case of the US, where I am, this Ideal is the very nebulous “the People”). The government IS the nation…to save the government IS to save YOU and ME, so the “logic” goes. We are the State, the State is us. There is no individual to consider in the equation, and THIS is why the coronavirus is not a true ethical dilemma.
Those who are decrying the government’s draconian measures to control the virus are citing the numbers in an attempt to win the ethical debate. They are claiming that many, many more people will die in the long run from the severe economic catastrophe that the unconstitutional lockdown orders are inflicting. I, myself, have asserted this, and will continue to do so. After all the truth is the truth—if you look at the data gathered by highly competent and established epidemiologists and virologists there is simply no way a rational person can conclude that this virus is paticularly dangerous for the VAST majority of human beings, And if you look at the economic data, there is no way a rational person can deny that the measures taken to control the pandemic will kill many more people than the virus ever will. However, as this is not a specifically ethical argument, it will fail thus when employed as one. ETHICALLY, those who would rather doom a billion people via the government’s orders to lockdown society in order to save a few thousand people who might otherwise die from the virus are NOT wrong. It is NOT ETHICALLY (specifically, it is not not morally) wrong to suggest that the smaller number of lives saved by government are EQUALLY and possibly MORE important than the billions who will be destroyed by the ongoing lockdown. Why? Because, as I said, this is NOT an ethical dillema. You cannot make an ethical comparison of the importance of one life over another, so to persist in the fallacious idea that you can possess moral and rational superiority by simply appealing to the math is ludicrous. IF the government wants to kill a billion in order to save a few thousand, an ethical argument about the value of this many lives versus that many is NOT an effective argument because the situational context has nothing to do with the value of individual life.
But, you might say, why not then simply appeal to the mathematical logic? You might say that it doesn’t make sense, numerically, for the governemnt to doom a billion to save a few thousand. Surely it is in the best interest of the State to rule over many than a few, right?
The answer, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is: not necessarily. It might, but it might not. The bottom line is that IF the State feels that it is in its best interest to destroy the many in order to save the few then this is the course of action it WILL pursue. If you think that the power and position of those in goverment are not the supreme consideration in dealing with any and all issues related to a nation, be it a pandemic or any other thing, then you simply do not understand the true and root nature of the State and the nature of your position under its authority. And there is no ethical argument you can bring to bear which will alter the course of government action. You can quote numbers all day long, and conflate mathematics with ethics all day long, but it will do you no good. It is an exercise in futility and will only serve to exasperate, frustrate, and disappoint you. The only way you will ever get the State to change its course is to somehow convince it, or hope that it will at some point be convinced, that it is in ITS, not YOUR, best interest to choose a different direction.
And here we DO actually get a glimps of the ethics of government. What is “good” for the State is technically an ethical question. Yet we must make a distinction between MORAL ethics and LEGAL ethics. In this article, for semantic’s sake, I used “ethical” as a synonym for “moral”, which I’m sure you understood. After all, any discussion of ethics as it involves human beings may typically be seen as a discussion of morality. But moral ethics are not the same as legal ethics, and I have several articles on this blog where I deal specifically with the difference, so I will not do that here. The point I want to make is that in order to convince the government to change its course, one must convince it that such a change is first and foremost GOOD for the STATE. What is good for the person, for you and me, for the individual, for the human being, is entirely irrelevant, and will never prove efficacious in persuading the government to do anything.