Replies to Story, Bellazi and v. Boyneburgk

Update: A proposal for dealing with COVID-related negative externalities is written by Daniel Story, not Adam Patterson as originally stated. Further discussion on Twitter (click on embed found at bottom of post).

Every year there is always one article that one constantly refers back to. For me, I found myself often thinking about Francesca Bellazzi and Konrad v. Boyneburgk's paper COVID-19 Calls for Virtue Ethics, which uses virtue ethics to argue that compliance with COVID-19 government orders is compatible with freedom. I was reminded of this paper recently when I came across Daniel Story's proposal that people who increase the chance of others contracting COVID-19 by engaging in risky activities should compensate those people. I find myself questioning both accounts for various reasons. I will first reply to Story, followed by Bellazzi and v. Boyneburgk.

Story constructs his account by appealing to negative externalities. These are the costs of some action borne by people without their consent. Story gives the example of a factory that produces cheaply at the expense of the environment and that fails to pay pollution clean-up. The people living around the factory did not agree to be subjugated to the factory's pollution. Similarly, he says that:

"The indirect COVID-related risks of one’s activities can be thought of as negative externalities of one’s actions. A serious problem with externalities is that they are often unfair. It is unfair that the people who happen to live around the factory have to effectively subsidize the factory’s goods with their wellbeing. By analogy, it is arguably unfair that you have to bear the COVID-related costs of my haircut without a corresponding benefit."

I can see the appeal of such an argument. Yet there are some problems in this analogy, namely that COVID transmission is very different than industrial pollution. For example, people can sue a factory for creating negative externalities. Generally, entities creating negative environmental externalities are held accountable (however there are exceptions).

COVID tranmission is different. It is difficult to pinpoint where, when, and how someone was infected. This makes compensation difficult. I may very well have gone to the barbar and increased my chance of getting COVID and spreading it to my mother, but it could also be the case that my mother caught COVID by going to a crowded supermarket. Due to this, it is impracticle to hold people accountable for merely engaging in risky behavior – as Story notes, a factory that is unable to shut down or clean up its pollution should compensate the local populace. Note here the emphasis on a factory that created pollution, not merely engaged in behavior that could create such pollution. In short, Story shifts from the act of creating negative externalities to the possibility of creating negative externalities.

It is in this latter case that I compensation problematic. In effect, it places the burden upon the least well-off in society. Frontline workers, or essential workers", must continue working in conditions that have a high chance of contracting COVID-19. These are jobs such as grocery staff, restaurant servers, nurses, doctors, and others. Would it be fair to require understaffed restaurant employees to compensate others around them (perhaps others with remote jobs) every time they go to work? Or would it be fair to implement Story's alternative proposal, a tax on businesses that enable people to partake in risky behavior, such as restauants? This proposal, of course, ignores the fact that many businesses that are consumer facing would not only struggle to pay such a tax, but to do so is a burden that could lead to bankruptcy – meaning employees lose their jobs, employees who are likelier to be Black and Hispanic.

In considering the implications for those least advantaged (especially those in essential jobs), I now turn Bellazzi and v. Boyneburgk. I have to admit that I rather enjoyed this short paper, but like Story, it does not consider the practical implications of the least advantaged. In short, the ability to behave virtuously requires one to have a certain refinement. I cannot speak for the education system of other countries, but I can definitively say that a large number of Americans lack the ability to behave virtuously.

As the authors note, virtues must be trained by habit, and such virtues can become an object of will through reflection. Such skills requires an education aimed at developing such virtues, one that simply does not exist for many Americans. But more importantly, even if the population did possess such virtues, what would such behavior entail in an American context? If people were to stop frequenting restaurants, for example, food service staff would be negatively impacted. In other countries this may not be a problem, but unfortunately the US acts slowly. Businesses don't receive enough aid to survive, and the wait to receive it is too slow. Furthermore, consumers are resorting to shoplifting as their finances run dry. It becomes difficult to claim that government orders do not take away freedom when people are forcefully prevented from subsisting (i.e. they are prevented from being self-sufficient).

I'm not arguing that people should ignore government orders, but when the government's policies are negatively impacting people's livelihoods, sometimes the best thing to do is ignore the barber who is still operating or the legally creative outdoor dining spaces deemed as public property. (By the way, it's not lost on me that by doing so, this is can be construed as behaving virtuously albeit by going against government orders).

Cover Image: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash