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A Brief Philosophical Analysis of How Trump Has Handled COVID-19

Has He Made Ethical Choices?

The ethical issues that surround Trump’s handling of COVID-19 are many. In this blog, I just touch upon the key points of two philosophical reasoning methods -- Kantian Rights Theory and Utilitarianism -- and leave it to the reader to learn more, if they so choose, and make up their own minds. The coronavirus pandemic will be discussed for a long time to come. It’s up to each of us to learn from history so that we will be better prepared in the future to handle similar outbreaks.

Kantian Rights Theory

One philosophical reasoning method is Kantian Rights Theory. According to Immanuel Kant, a decision is ethically justified if it is made in a way that respects the rights of others; treats them as members of humanity; and the decision that is made is one that others with a similar bent towards acting ethically would do if faced with a similar situation and for similar reasons. If so, the action taken conforms to the universality principle of Kantian Rights.

Has Trump been considering the rights of the public and others in his decision-making process? Of course, that depends on how you define those rights. A person has a right to receive truthful information that enables them to deal with ethical conflict. There are two sides to truthfulness, which I refer to as honesty and dishonesty here. The key point is for information to be honestly provided it must be objectively determined and provided without bias.

Was Trump truthful with the American people? If he was not – he lied to us -- then he committed a lie by commission. If he failed to disclose important information that the public has a right to know, then he committed a lie by omission. Both are equally bad and fail to focus on the core ethical values of trust, responsibility and integrity or principled behavior. Ethics of virus

It seems quite evident that Trump has misled the public to make it seem as though we had a better handle on the virus, especially at the beginning, than we really did. He kept suggesting miracle therapeutics or cures like Hydroxychloroquine, which the FDA has now cautioned is not reliable. Then there is UV light to help fight the virus. There’s no evidence to show that UV does anything to prevent infection or can destroy the virus in an already infected person, according to the University of Pennsylvania.

Even to this day Trump is treating the virus as an annoyance. It's gotten in the way of his reelection. He blames the higher number of cases on increased testing and suggests we should test less. Who does that? The bottom line is we can't rely on anything he says and his leadership skills (ignoring the truth) have hastened the public's clamor to return to "normal" rather than be safe and help our fellow neighbors through the pandemic.

Utilitarianism

Another philosophical theory is utilitarianism, sometimes called consequentialism. Specifically, this method evaluates the possible consequences of alternative actions and concludes that the method with the highest net benefit to society is the one to choose.

This cost-benefit analysis way of ethical thinking is a somewhat challenging approach to ethical reasoning because it is difficult to determine all the costs and benefits. It may, however, better reflect Trump’s logic during the pandemic than other philosophical-thought-method. For example, his often-touted decision to close our borders to the Chinese and parts of Europe was a good move. The consequences of not doing so could have been serious with respect to the number of deaths.

There were many benefits of that decision. However, the other side of the coin is he waited too long to do this. By most accounts, he knew about the virus weeks before closing our airports to China and the Europeans. It also took him a long time to react to the extent of the virus. Trump was slow in coming up with the equipment and supplies needed to deal with the virus (i.e., masks, other protective equipment, and ventilators). This is partly why there was so much chaos at the beginning in hospitals and other medical facilities. Certainly, there were costs involved here in terms of a higher rate of infection and deaths. Even now, we are worried about a shortage of hospital beds and protective equipment as a second wave of the virus sets in.

The costs and benefits are typically evaluated in accordance with a potential decision. We can use it to analyze whether Trump’s decision to promote the opening of the economy brought more benefits than costs. Time will tell but we can make some generalizations.

It seems clear that we opened too soon, at least in those states where COVID-19 cases spiked as the economy was freed to open up. We've witnessed many states pulling back on the opening of bars and beaches -- two places where millennials and generation Zers hang out. These folks are in the new hot spots such as in Houston, Miami-Dade, LA and so forth.  Trump is largely to blame here as he pushed for states to open to reverse the course of a declining economy and vast numbers of unemployed. What's worse is he has become disengaged from the whole process. These consequences have created huge costs for society.

Trump rationalized that the benefits of moving quickly towards economic recovery exceeded the costs of dealing with a large number of cases that might have otherwise not occurred. It’s difficult to put a monetary value on the costs and, especially, the benefits. For example, how can we put a value on the lives lost. 

Right vs. Wrong Right v wrong

For me, Trump did not act with a strong sense of right and wrong. The reason is it appears he determined (and does so in all his decisions) that what is right and what is wrong is based on a personal choice rather than by applying philosophical thought and considering the greater good. In other words, it should not about what he wants or thinks will promote his reelection. It's about saving lives and serving as a role model for all too follow. That's true ethical leadership.

My final thought is expressed as follows: Just because he (we) have a right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This statement  reflects Trump’s decisions not to wear a facial mask or practice social distancing himself thereby setting a bad example for the public. Yes, all of us have a right to go out in the public without a mask but it’s a selfish decision because it puts the health and safety of others at risk. Trump is at least partly to blame for the public not following these basic guidelines because he doesn't practice them his daily activities.

The American response to COVID-19 has been uniquely selfish starting with President Trump. It seems we don't consider our responsibilities to community and society. Wear a mask; don't wear a mask. Do what you want rather than the responsible thing.

Let’s hope we use what we have learned from the COVID-19 experience to guide us in the future because more pandemics will occur and we need to be better prepared to handle them. We need to be more ethically informed so our actions are not only in our best interests but those of the public as well.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 30, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.

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