Logic and Ethics


Logic is often dinged as being unmoved by the concerns of real human beings, such as how we can live moral lives and make ethical choices.


I suppose if you think of logic as nothing more than a computer algorithm, indifferent to whether its purpose is to control a life-saving medical device or launch a thermonuclear missile, accusations that logic is bloodless and potentially inhumane might make sense. But when human beings reason, we apply that reasoning to all aspects of life, including our ethical choices. In fact, it is through logic that we can identify the ethical conundrums we actually face.


To take a contemporary example, now that vaccines that seem to protect against coronavirus are available, there are all kinds of questions regarding who should be vaccinated when.


There is general societal consensus that front-line medical workers and those most at risk of death if they get infected should go to the head of the line. If we render those sentiments into logical arguments, they look like this:


ARGUMENT 1

Premise 1: Medical workers who take care of COVID patients are doing life-saving work while putting themselves at risk.

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Conclusion: Medical workers who take care of COVID patients should get vaccinated first.



ARGUMENT 2

Premise 1: People over 80 are most at risk of dying if they get infected by COVID.

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Conclusion: People over 80 should be vaccinated first or right after medical workers who take care of COVID patients.


Each of these arguments contains a hidden premise which we can add as follows:


Premise 1: Medical workers who take care of COVID patients are doing life-saving work while putting themselves at risk.

Premise 2 [hidden premise]: People who do lifesaving work while putting themselves at risk should be vaccinated first.

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Conclusion: Medical workers who take care of COVID patients should get vaccinated first.



Premise 1: People over 80 are most at risk of dying if they get infected by COVID.

Premise 2 [hidden premise]: People who stand the greatest chance of dying if they get infected by COVID should be vaccinated first or right after medical workers who take are of COVID patients.

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Conclusion: People over 80 should be vaccinated first or right after medical workers who take care of COVID patients.


Notice that these hidden premises lay bare the ethical conundrums bound up in each decision. For example, should medical personnel who do lifesaving work, but who do not treat COVID patients, get first access to vaccines? How about a healthy 80-year old versus someone a year younger who is not as healthy?


Establishing societal norms and priorities allows us to navigate these ambiguities by, for example, assuming any medical personnel who comes into contact with patients is at risk and thus deserves the vaccine or expanding the definition of “at-risk” to include people with specific illnesses (like asthma) who might not make the 80-year age cutoff.


But once you go outside those norms and priorities, the ethical thicket gets tougher to navigate. For example, we could perform a similar exercise like we did with the two arguments above over whether essential workers should be third in line after medical personnel and the aged/at risk.


ARGUMENT 3

Premise 1: Essential workers perform important work we could not do without.

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Conclusion: Essential workers should get vaccinated after medical personnel and the aged/at-risk.


Seems reasonable and straightforward, right? But once we tease out the hidden premise, our argument gets a bit more nuanced:


Premise 1: Essential workers perform important work we could not do without.

Premise 2 [hidden premise]: People who do important work we cannot do without should get vaccinated right after medical personnel and those at risk because of their age.

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Conclusion: Essential workers should get vaccinated after medical personnel and the aged/at-risk.


Notice that the new premise reveals a definition for “essential worker” that is extremely broad (“people who do important work we cannot do without”) which highlights that the real debate is over who gets to fall into this category.


Are teachers more essential than waiters? Is a pharmacist who interacts with people every day more essential than the maintenance person who works alone at night sanitizing her empty drug store? Should a refrigerator repairman who plies his craft far from the ill be considered essential? How about if his job involves maintaining equipment vital to transporting COVID vaccines?


Each of those questions hinges on different issues such as which professions should be considered more essential than others, whether we should vaccinate based on job importance or risk, or if we should be making utilitarian choices that prioritize hastening the safe distribution of vaccines. Those questions are worth arguing – in fact, they are at the core of the ethical dilemmas inherent in distributing a scarce resource – but none of them boil down to simply whether or not you care about “essential workers.”


You can perform this same exercise when dealing with disagreements over whether income or demographics should inform decisions over who gets vaccinated when. For example, an argument that says the poor should get priority would look like this:


ARGUMENT 4

Premise 1: Poor people have suffered more than the wealthy during the COVID crisis, even when they don’t get the disease.

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Conclusion: Poor people should get vaccinated before wealthier people.


At first, this seems like a perfectly reasonable and moral approach that gives priority to the most needy. But if you tease out that troublesome hidden premise, it forces you to clarify the ethical rule you are advocating:


Premise 1: Poor people have suffered more than the wealthy during the COVID crisis, even when they don’t get the disease.

Premise 2 [hidden premise]: Vaccine distribution should be based on level of human suffering overall, regardless of infection rates.

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Conclusion: Poor people should get vaccinated before wealthier people.


While this fuller argument doesn’t negate the power of the original (which taps into most people’s concern for the needy and suffering), it does so by proposing a new criterion that should be used to determine who gets vaccinated: human suffering, regardless of whether or not it is COVID-related. Perhaps that criterion is more important than the ones underlying arguments used to justify giving priority to healthcare workers, the aged, essential workers, or other categories of people. But if it is, those proposing it need to argue their real case which the tools of logic allow us to see more clearly.


Ethical dilemmas are all about making choices when there is no obvious answer, just trade-offs between competing goods or having to pick between nothing but bad options. Because those choices involve unknows and the future, logic cannot provide us the answers, even if it can give us ways to examine the strengths and weaknesses of arguments supporting different alternatives.


Before those debates begin, however, logic has already proven itself invaluable by showing us what the arguments we are having are really about.




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