Month: December 2020
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People die. Of old age, of illness, of accidents, of violence.
In some cases it’s good that the person died, but more often not.
On the whole though, people are OK with the idea that death happens, particularly to old people. At the margin, they’d prefer it happened less, and we do a lot of stuff to try and reduce deaths, but we don’t do everything we could.
There is a school of thought that this is a terrible scandal. The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant is the classic text. There is a chance we might be able to prevent aging and death — a slim chance, perhaps, but real — and it scores very low on the priorities used for resource allocation.
I instinctively shy away from that point of view. As a materialist, I don’t really have any sensible way of choosing ultimate priorities, but I still kind of feel like there might be some. And if there are, maximising human life seems almost as stupid as minimising pain and suffering.
In the same irrational, hand-wavy way, preserving the human race and human civilisation seems like a more plausible aim. The nice thing from a practical point of view about adopting a long-term goal like that, is that I don’t have to worry too much about the fine details of the goal. You achieve a long-term goal by enhancing the power of those who would advance the goal, whatever the goal is. I wrote about that ages ago, it’s called Instrumental Convergence. The reason that matters is that pursuing the abolition of death in the medium term, and the flourishing of civilisation in the long term, are at least arguably in conflict — there is plenty of mid-twentieth-century speculative fiction concerning the pitfalls of premature immortality.
The fact that the nutter who wants us to try to abolish old age, and the thinker who exquisitely defined and described Instrumental Convergence, are the same person is… I’ve no idea what it is, frankly. But it is so. I can’t just not notice it.
Anyway, my point in bringing up the “abolish death” position is not to refute it. These guys make their case, and they do it pretty well. That’s fine. I just observe that it is not mainstream. Nobody with power is adopting it, nobody with a large platform is calling for it. Most of us share the alternative position — the “Deathist” ideology — that people get old and die, and that’s something we have to accept. Pushing at the margin, living longer and healthier, is desirable, but even that not at the expense of everything else.
Also, we accept that accidents happen, that diseases happen. We do quite a lot to reduce them, but not everything we could, and if we did do everything we could, we might do worse in the long run, since we could be sacrificing future capability.
And taking this out of the realm of the precise, we are making all these decisions under great uncertainty. We don’t have all the information, and we are drawing conclusions from the information we do have. We don’t know the best way of extending life, we don’t know the best way of preventing accidents, we don’t have very much idea at all of the best way of increasing our future capability so as to be able to do a better job in the long run. These arguments are the normal stuff of theoretical politics.
Most importantly they are not just theoretical politics, they are practical politics. And in practical politics, you are not just working with incomplete information, you are working with adversarial information. Much of the information you are trying to make decisions from is crafted by your adversaries in order to push you towards the decisions they want.
This is just politics. That is what it is — trying to advance your goals, by cooperation and conflict, with very incomplete information, and in the face of adversarial disinformation. The mechanisms we use to make decisions are supposed to function in the face of this incomplete information and adversarial input.
This, incidentally, is why all moral thought experiments are worthless. Take your prisoners’ dilemmas, your trolley problems, and burn them. They have no applicability in a world where you don’t trust what you are told, and the more you rely on anything today, the less you can trust it tomorrow. Every “cognitive bias”, I strongly suspect, bottoms out as the experimental subject, consciously or unconsciously, going “but what if you’re lying?” We are built to fight for power and resources in an endless war of deception, not to play pretty mathematical games with rules.
In some fictional future where we’ve eliminated conflict, we can use all that logic. Fixing aging will happen first.
So my starting position, when looking at the pandemic and the response, is that this is still politics as usual. Yes, it’s a matter of life and death, but politics is always a matter of life and death.
(insert: Sailer claiming 2400 extra murders in the US in 2020. He has a theory as to the policy causes. It makes sense to me, but who knows? This is a normal political question)
To make policy for the pandemic, we have to weigh those deaths. We have to give them a value, and a finite value. We have to estimate the costs of the measures we take, in terms of other things we value besides saving lives. We can say half a million deaths is bad, and quarter of a million is less bad. We can say that quarter of a million in a year is bad, but it’s worse if all of them would otherwise have lived healthily for years, than if half of them would have died in the next three or four anyway.
Now if somebody else thinks the long-run impact of lockdowns and economic disruption are likely to be smaller than I do, or that the value of saving the lives of thousands of young people and tens of thousands of old people is higher than I do, that’s fine. I don’t have very firm positions anyway, and since I’m not a policy maker, don’t want to be, and would prefer not to even be a citizen of a democracy, it doesn’t matter at all. But I am disturbed by people I respect ranting about the inhumanity of doing this weighing.
(Of course, I’m also disturbed by people cherry-picking random tiny factoids and using them as if they decide the issue one way or the other. But that’s debate as usual.)
When I wrote today that Covid-19 was “a false alarm”, what I mean is we didn’t have to do anything this severe about it. Probably we have saved tens of thousands of lives1, and possibly it was worth it, but as a society and a civilisation we would have coped anyway. My baseline back in March of “this could be really bad” is death rates doubling. The estimates in the existing UK government “Pandemic Preparedness” plan were along those lines. We’ve seen maybe a sixth of that, and if we had followed the plan we might easily have seen half or two thirds. That still, to an ordinary person, would not change their life. The hospitals would have been full. If in a normal year one elderly relative dies, maybe two or three this year. If a person you know died of shocking disease of accident a couple of times a decade, it’s quite likely there would be one this year. Lots of extra deaths — many more even than Sailer attributes to changes in policing — but not an impact on normal life.
Again, I’m not saying that saving those lives wasn’t worth it, or even that saving more might not have been worth it. I’m actually very happy that that wasn’t my call to make. I do think a person could justifiably feel that it wasn’t. This is normal politics.
I kept no diary. The arguments online were so stupid I just got sick of them and checked out. The social history — well, I’m one of the lucky ones who just did my work from home instead of commuting to an office, and so the main impact on me was to become even more divorced from what the rest of the country is experiencing.
It’s slightly premature to be summarizing, but on the other hand I’d like to start committing to a few things before a standard narrative is established.
The big picture summary is that this was a false alarm. I wrote back in March that lockdowns were justified by the tail risks of the pandemic being really bad, but it’s clear with the hindsight we didn’t have then that they weren’t needed. In terms of spread and lethality, this is well within the parameters of the pandemic preparedness plans that had been worked out in advance and were ditched in March.
Again, we couldn’t have known that at the time. What we could and did know was that the “flatten the curve” slogan was bollocks. That was obvious as soon as you tried to put scales on the axes. If we needed to flatten we would still have a decade to go.
That’s moot of course because of the vaccines. It seems obvious that, having endured the reduction measures this far, we should continue them a couple more months to minimise the damage this winter, since by next winter it will be all over. (The extreme seasonality seems like a huge deal. Like, the virus doesn’t work in summer but we don’t know why not. Wouldn’t it be spectacularly useful to know? UV light? Vitamin D? Central heating turned off? How hard can it be?)
It seems obvious, but it might not be. I think to the global catastrophe I was closest to, the 2007 crash, where most of the damage was caused by the last few months of the fake boom. But I have no handle on the economic impact, I only mention the possibility.
As to the social impact — I can’t help thinking that it’s been a huge dose of realism. Disrupting a year’s schooling for a generation of children surely can’t be anything but positive: one of the biggest problems of our education system is that it trains its victims to believe that everything is under control and their job is just to fit in. A huge dose of chaos is exactly what I would have prescribed. The same goes for society at large. We can’t go on without asking big questions about what is essential or important, and what we can give up in an emergency. The pandemic should give us a much broader perspective on what is thinkable or possible. It might also shake a lot of people, like the schoolchildren, out of their general complacency. People (in Britain at least) who lived through World War II tend to be nostalgic about it. The economic damage aside, an injection of chaos and the unexpected into people’s lives might stimulate them and benefit them.
Even though this was a false alarm, anyone can see it might not have been. There are all sorts of possibilities. If we didn’t get natural immunity to the virus, for instance, it would have to fundamentally and permanently change our whole society. If it had been ten times more lethal, anyone bitching about their freedoms would have been blatantly insane. We would have had to weld doors shut China-style, or die. If it killed children the way it killed the elderly, we would have had to be much more effective, or we would lose a generation. The signs do not suggest that we would have coped with any of these worst-case scenarios very well. Possibly next time we will be more realistic.
We also need to think a bit better about death. But I doubt we will, and that’s worth another post anyway.