Free To ≠ Morally Neutral

“It’s a free country,” the bully declared when his classmates pushed back against him harassing one of them. Some adults, it seems, are stuck at the same level of moral development. If they are free to do something, that makes it morally neutral.

The second highest ranking member of the US Senate said President Trump was free to aggressively disperse peaceful protestors in front of the White House so he could show how tough he was and clear the way to get himself a photo op in front of someone else’s church and then hold up a Bible to the cameras. He was free to do that. The Senator said that as if to declare that Trump’s actions were morally neutral and beyond question. This, while the bishop of that church was outraged by the sacrilege of the President’s actions.

We all to often hear the same reasoning about following best practices for dealing with the pandemic. People say store employees are free to wear masks or not; it is their choice. And if you don’t like it, you are free to shop elsewhere. When these people go out in public, it is there choice whether they do social distancing or not. That is as far as their moral reasoning goes.

The idea that what is legal is morally neutral has led to the breakdown of community trust. When neighbors are unwilling to take others’ safety into account, neighbor has no meaning. We must address this position wherever it occurs, or it will only get worse.

What I say when faced with this attitude is where you see right, I see obligations that we have to others. Someone tweeted to me that I needed to start thinking for myself instead of just blindly following the experts. But I’m not trying to think for myself, I’m trying to think like Jesus.

Could NASCAR Help Save Us From the Pandemic?

Perhaps I’m wrong. I doubt that NASCAR fans are very PC.  What does PC have to do with it, you wonder? While it shouldn’t have anything to do with it, it has been made to.

NASCAR will be starting their season of live racing May 17. They will be trying to enforce strict COVID-19 safety protocols for the racing teams. Will this be too PC for some people?

President Trump complained that it was too PC when the Air Force Academy sat their graduates 10 feet apart at their graduation instead of the 6 minimum. He pushes us to open things up before they are ready to meet safety standards.

While President Trump has been unwilling to model safe practices or allow his staff to, if NASCAR does, as they say they will, it could take some steam out of the movement of disdain some people have for safe practices. Will they turn their wrath on NASCAR, that NASCAR officials have fallen for the liberal media lie that there is a pandemic? NASCAR is a pretty macho sport, so I doubt that would get any traction. NASCAR, though, has a pretty high degree of professionalism. They have relied on engineers to make the sport safe when it used to be deadly dangerous. Now they are relying on other science-based experts to create safe pandemic health practices. If NASCAR follows safe practice protocols as they say they will, and we all are able to see it, this will be helpful modeling. Just what we need.

Other sports will be watching. The self-discipline it will take in sports like baseball will be greater than in NASCAR. Get this – baseball will become easier to watch. Yes. Baseball players, coaches and managers have well-established habits to reduce tension that involve spitting.  I will not list them. No more. Can’t spit anymore. What a relief! They will need to learn new methods for reducing tension. Hopefully, the new ones will be easier for the rest of us to watch.

Evaluating Governors’ Reopening Decisions

Was it a good decision, or was he just lucky? Shaun couldn’t decide which used car to buy. It was all too confusing. The lot had 17 in his price range. He just picked a number and counted down the list till he got to that number and bought it. It turned out to be a great car for him. Good decision? or just lucky?

Bad decision, or just unlucky? Mia consulted with a consumer rating service for brand and model reliability. She found a highly rated car and had it looked over by a mechanic. She got a green light and bought it. In the first 6 months, the car had one problem after another. Bad decision? or just unlucky?

We tend to evaluate decisions based on their outcomes; a process that does not actually help us learn to make better decisions. This is such a problem, it even has a name, outcome bias, and has been studied. This is important now because our nation’s governors are making decisions about reopening activities. They vary somewhat in the decisions they have already made to deal with the pandemic. What is the best way to evaluate those decisions?

People who are experts in decision making stress the importance of the process of making a decision more than the outcome. Outcomes are not totally within our control, but process is.

On the face of it, some governors seem to have decided by wishful thinking. “I would like to think we are the kind of people who don’t need government to tell us what to do,” for example.

Or, “I decide by my gut. I don’t need a matrix.” Unfortunately, the research on gut decisions only shows it to have value in people with a lot of experience in what the decision is about, true experts. They have a lot of data and experience they draw from unconsciously. For the rest of us, the gut just tends to serve biases, likes and dislikes and self-interest. But gut feelings can carry a strong sense of certainty. “I just have a good feeling about this.” Certainty, it turns out, is not an indicator of being right. Certainty is just a feeling. The relationship between certainty and being right is no more than chance. I wish it weren’t so.

Other governors consult experts, research and data and do so every day. They say things like “the virus will tell us when it is safe.” They mean the data on the virus. They are systematic. They have decision trees. They set criteria in advance for what the numbers need to look like for a certain step to be taken. They also realize that there are too many variables to be certain of an outcome to their decisions. They expect to open, close, open, make adjustments – who knows how many times in the process of adjusting to what is happening with the virus. But also, what is happening with our behavior that helps or hinders the spread of the virus.

While we will feel compelled to judge the decisions governors are making, the only fair way to do so requires knowing the soundness of the decision-making process they used. Some may be lucky, while others may not. That said, we must remember that much of the success or failure rests with our behavior, not just theirs.

Whose Risk Assessment?

Bad joke from the old “famous last words” series: “Hey guys! Watch this!” It is said that in normal circumstance, half of emergency room visits happen this way.

I remember when a family member injured her knee skiing. She said to my brother, a physician, that she was okay, she just needed to sit a bit. His follow-up to her, “How good are you at knowing when you need help?”

Some of us are not very good at assessing risks in general and risks associated with the pandemic in particular. Various distortions can happen. We might think things are safer than they are. Some people smell gas when others don’t. Then whose judgment do we go with? Some people think the risk of COVID-19 to themselves is low. They may be right. Then they get sick and suffer from an overwhelmed medical system. Famous last words.

In the other extreme, “The sky is falling!” when it is simply sprinkling. This tends to be the case for people who are anxious in general. They frequently think things are worse than they are and hopefully learn that about themselves.

A great divide is occurring in our society over what the COVID-19 risks now and going forward. Many people who are following best practices consistently either assess the risk to be great or they are willing to comply with what the experts and authorities are asking or requiring of them. Some of these people are in fact at greatest risk of death or severe illness should they contract the disease.

An important question in risk assessment is risk to whom or what? It can’t just be the risk to me when the consequences affect others. With the pandemic, a first consideration has been the risk of overwhelming emergency services and hospitals. That is the point of flattening the curve and getting the number of new severe cases per day down to a manageable level. Then we can resume treatments that have been put on hold, like non-emergency surgeries and standard medical appointments. The people who should be best at assessing risk are those with the greatest amount of information. And they need to be people not just concerned with self-interest.

The second question is what information is needed to adequately assess risk. The average citizen does not have access to all of the data. Nor do they know what they don’t know but need to know. The experts do and they inform the civil authorities whose responsibility to stay informed is far greater than the rest of us.

So, the situation calls for us to evaluate how much weight to give to our own and other people’s assessments. How objective am I, are they? How much access to data do I, they, have? The civic mindedness, love your neighbor question is our willingness to accommodate those who assess risk to be greater than we do. We might be willing to accommodate out of concern for our neighbors. We want them to feel safe, not just be safe, now and when things open up more.