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Both Sides Are Right: A System Error Has Occurred

February 6th, 2015 by dk

Let’s not talk about vaccinating children for a moment, even though Lane County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. Let’s talk about how we talk about vaccinating children.

I know a few anti-vaxxers and I can tell you this. They are smart and good-hearted people who want to do what’s right. I also know some public health professionals who believe vaccinations may not be perfect, but they provide our best protection against epidemics. They also are smart and caring people, dedicated to what’s in the public’s best interest.

So, who’s right? They’re both right, and that’s what’s wrong.

Each side believes in doing the right thing, but they evaluate the rectitude of the choices offered differently. Here’s where language has us bollixed up, to use the technical term.

Let’s suppose the words “moral” and “ethical” should not be used interchangeably, but separated to denote different systems of thought.

Morality is our oldest system of evaluating ourselves — “pertaining to character or temperament,” according to the word’s 14th century roots. Religions are rooted in morality. So are wars. In a world that pits good versus evil, what must you do to protect and provide for your own — your body, your family, your tribe?

Ethics came later, building upon what came before. Its earliest definition refers to a “science of morals” or a systemization of morality. When humans began cohering into larger groups, that systemization became essential. Rulers needed to maintain order across languages, locations, religions and tribes. Laws were published and criminals were punished so that empires could be built.

The first system defined individual character (good or evil) and the later system evaluated actions (right or wrong).

These systems usually fit together just fine, but not always. Social scientists have even coined a term for the various thought experiments where they diverge. Imagine a trolley careening down a steep street. Dozens of passengers are headed for death, but you have an opportunity to save them. All you have to do is push a certain fat man into the path of the trolley. (Sorry, but your own body mass will not suffice to slow the car.) It will kill the man, but save dozens of others.

In other words, do you inflict personal harm to one (a morally repugnant act) to save dozens of others (an ethically defensible motive)? These dilemmas are called “trolleyisms.” The trolley story is handy because it’s scalable. What if your action would save not dozens, but hundreds? What if the man would be maimed but not killed?

Using the current parlance, ethical behavior is utilitarian in its nature. What’s best for everyone, granting that trade-offs are inevitable? The ethical system spins outward — what will do the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time?

The moral system is simpler, if only because it asks you to consider fewer people. Morality spins inward. The harder you think about that sort of “right thing to do,” the smaller (and stronger) your circle of protection becomes.

There are plenty of exceptions, but conservatives look to morals and liberals consider ethics. Televangelist Jerry Falwell couldn’t have led the Ethical Majority. The New York Times would be pilloried by its liberal readers if its Sunday magazine advice column was titled “The Moralist.”

Now apply this keener distinction to the vaccination dilemma. A parent feels morally obligated to protect her child from any risks related to vaccination. It doesn’t matter how likely or how severe those risks are. The parent’s view is “zoomed in.”

The public health official has a wide-angled lens, surveying steps to protect the public from an epidemic. Taking a public stand against vaccinations would be considered unethical. Once vaccination rates fall below what’s necessary for herd immunity, the trolleyism appears.

An awful (and I do mean awful) lot of our modern conundrums can be better understood after we delineate which system we’re using to determine whether we’re doing the right thing. You can find the trolleyisms clouding our discussions about guns, drugs, prisons, abortion, health care, climate change, and jihad. I suggest you start with Oregon’s “gay wedding cake” controversy.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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