A duty to be informed

Philosophers are discovering a host of new arguments for the value of their discipline these days. COVID-19 has pushed to the front a variety of topics that philosophers think about frequently, though often in bloodless, abstract terms. Ethics of triage and scarcity, for example, has moved from models of trolleys and organ donors to real-life questions about who should get limited medical resources.

Epistemology and philosophy of science are also getting their day in the sun. Much of the anxiety about COVID-19 arises because we just don’t know much about it, so the range of reasonable beliefs about the outcome of this all is very wide. People are discovering that science involves more than crude applications of a technique, and that real scientific expertise includes practiced judgment about hard-to-quantify uncertainties.

I suggest that this crisis illustrates an interesting combination of ethics and epistemology: a duty to be informed. For some, this duty is quite extensive, but I think there is a case to be made that anyone making or influencing decisions right now has some degree of a duty to be informed about what is going on. A duty to be informed is not a duty to be right, for that would be impossible. Instead, it is a duty to sincerely and virtuously seek to acquire more knowledge—to be a good knower; to apportion belief according to evidence; to reason well; to avoid bias and remain open to correction.

I’ll start with the obvious cases: those in positions of authority. Our public officials are making huge, life-changing, society-altering decisions every day. They already have extensive public duties; that’s what the job requires. (Actually, one might say that they have public obligations, since they "volunteered" for their positions.) I think it is obvious that public officials should seek to be informed about the facts of the situation.

But we can say a little more about what being informed requires. First, it requires that they take into account the facts. Whatever we know about COVID-19 should be included in their deliberations. Facts are true or false. If two public officials disagree about some fact, then at least one of them is wrong.

Second, they should be actively seeking better information. Jason Brennan has been arguing that a lot of our public officials are making huge decisions without trying to improve their knowledge, and just falling back on facile "trust the experts" platitudes. The initial response to COVID-19 has been very strict, in order to account for uncertainty, and let us grant that strict rules were at least initially justified. (They almost certainly have been.) Yet severe measures may lose their justification as we learn more. So much is uncertain or unknown, but knowable, and public officials are uniquely poised to accelerate our learning. It seems as if there are daily updates to the best estimate of COVID-19 infection rates, fatality rates, treatment capacities and strategies, etc. Some of this information can’t be updated overnight, but the process can at least be underway, and it isn’t obvious that we’re actually making a lot of progress on this front (or that our public officials are leading and coordinating it).

Third, public officials should be reasoning well. The duty to be informed includes not just acquiring lots of true facts, but thinking about them effectively. They need to reason correctly about scientific and mathematical facts, such as sampling error, uncertainty, Bayesian conditionals, endogenous and exogenous variables, lagging indicators, and even basic arithmetic. (From the beginning, politicians, media personalities, and—sadly—some scientists have been making elementary errors even in multiplication and division.) They also need to have some basic awareness of how to evaluate scientific research, or at least have trustworthy advisers who can do so. Here we can include economists among the scientists, for many decisions are not merely medical decisions.

Public officials also need to think well about ethics. Some seem to think that preventing any loss of life from COVID-19 justifies any amount of public restrictions. Others seem to think that having 1-2% of a country’s population die from this disease is an acceptable tradeoff, even though for most countries that would make this disease the deadliest event in the last few centuries. Or they think that it’s OK to let older and sicker people die, because…? It is usually a mistake to put a dollar value on a life, but when making public policy we have to do this all the time. Refusing to acknowledge the tension is just bad reasoning, and thinking simplistically about what makes a life good won’t help either. Perhaps more common are public officials who are officious, where they appear to think that crises permit them to be "punitive and capricious". A crisis does not change what the government can legitimately do, and if anything, a crisis is a good opportunity for showing patience and forbearance.

Other public figures bear some of these same obligations, though perhaps to a lesser degree. I suggest that our media figures are nearly as responsible as our public officials. Because media types don’t actually have to decide, they are uniquely positioned to be critical. Yet being merely critical shirks responsibility, for it is easy to get attention just by being contrary. At the same time, many of our public officials desperately need their decisions challenged, if only to force them to improve their communications. The media can both inform the public, and also criticize the decision-makers. But to do so, they have to be as well-informed as anyone.

We can move on down the tree of responsibilities. Employers obviously have some duties toward their employees. Their capacities are much more limited, but so is their scope of concern. Pastors owe it to their congregations to be informed so that they can make good decisions (which might, at some point, involve disobeying poorly-informed public officials). Heads of households should know what will affect their own families.

Even a single individual has at least a mild duty to be informed. As this crisis has revealed in great detail, our actions affect others whether we intend them to or not. Complying with public policies, heeding medical advice, and caring for others around us requires us to understand to some degree the implications of our own decisions. We have to know enough to exercise good judgment, and at least for that we each have a duty to be informed.

One final word about duties: I don’t think duties are absolute. We all have many duties, and being informed is just one of them, and one that may compete with others. If someone starts forgetting to feed their kids because they’re trying to keep up with the latest research, that’s not good (definitely my temptation). But I think a duty to be informed is one of our duties, and so we ought to take account of it when deciding what would be the best use of our resources.

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