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24.11.05

Thanksgiving Day Cynicism About Bird Flu

Over at Obsidian Wings, hilzoy has a somewhat naive post about the pros and cons of using a quarrantine to control bird flu:

... If there is a good chance that a quarantine would contain the spread of avian flu in the US, then I think there would be a serious case for imposing one.

But this is ONLY true if there is a good chance that a quarantine would, in fact, work. If it wouldn't, then you incur all the considerable costs of imposing a quarantine without getting any of its benefits at all. And that would just be stupid: exactly like trying to stop an influenza pandemic by walking around saying "go away, you silly virus!", only with much, much greater costs.


Her eventual conclusion is that the nature of flu means that the benefits of a quarrantine are quite small, and hence not worth the costs. As a utilitarian, I think cost-benefit analysis of the type hilzoy proposes is certainly the way policy problems ought to be analyzed. However, as a pragmatist, I recognize that weighing the costs and benefits to society of a policy is somewhat tangential to the way policy is actually made.

In real policymaking -- particularly when dealing with a Big Problem like bird flu or terrorism, the goal is not to reduce the costs and increase the benefits until the latter exceeds the former. Rather, it's to raise the cost until it's commensurate with the importance and scaryness of the problem (provided, of course, that somebody else is paying that cost). A cheap but effective solution is no good because its cheapness fails to do justice to the seriousness of the problem. We need to feel like we're making big sacrifices in order to preserve some important value and meet some pressing need. Quarrantining strangers is thus going to have great appeal as a response to an epidemic of bird flu.

Consider, as another example, Obsidian Wings' favorite issue: torture. Various cost-benefit arguments have been made about torture -- pro-torture people raising "ticking time bomb" scenarios and anti-torture people presenting evidence that torture is a hugely ineffective way of getting reliable information. Unfortunately, both types of argument are usually beside the point. For the vast majority of torture supporters, what weighs in torture's favor is not the benefits it's likely to bring in terms of combatting terrorism. It's the costs that torture imposes. Torture is seen as good because it shows that we're willing to go to really great lengths* to do something about terrorism.

The anti-torture side is a bit more complex. It's not that anti-torture people don't see terrorism as a big problem that we should demonstrate our resolve against. Rather, they don't see torture as something eligible to be counted as a cost, treated as causing a finite level of harm that can be weighed against other pros and cons in some sort of moral calculus. They take a deontological attitude that torture is wrong, period. This is why the ineffectiveness of torture is only brought up as an uncomfortable afterthought. To even think of torture as a cost, rather than as a sin, is for most anti-torture people a sin of improper moral reasoning.

*Pun intended

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