Do boundary lines have a conscience

The inevitable tragedy of moral compromise. Why we cannot get out of the current situation with a clear conscience.

May 11, 2020 - Véronique Zanetti

Are compromises in morality taboo?

The voices from politics and business are getting louder and louder, warning against sacrificing any other consideration in the fight against the corona virus. There is a threat of a collapse of the economy and a periodization of the pandemic waves, behind which other necessary medical interventions will be neglected, yes, because of the social isolation, an increase in social tensions that will ultimately cost even more lives than the virus itself On the other hand, we know that a relaxation of the measures would lead to a rapid increase in Covid-19 diseases and would cover the health care system in Germany with horror scenarios like in Italy within a short time, where older and previously ill patients are left behind by increasingly scarce ventilators .

Dilemmatic situations arise both within medicine and between the various forces in society. These are those in which conflicts between moral principles become insoluble: no matter what you do, you end up doing something wrong.

Without underestimating the tragedy of the hour, we shouldn't be too quick to deal with this term, but take a moment to reflect fundamentally. Moral dilemmas arise from insoluble conflicts (such as the one above). Not all serious or even tragic conflicts are unsolvable, even if there is no 'good' solution for them. You can turn to compromise solutions. The compromise shares the cause with the dilemma: There is a conflict between claims and obligations that cannot be resolved by weighing up. If there was a solution that satisfied all parties, there would be no need for a compromise. While dilemmatic situations leave us no way out, compromises offer a second-best solution. She's not who you think is right. But a better one is not in sight.

Making compromises in morality is generally frowned upon: as a betrayal of values ​​or principles. Moral persons are expected to stand up for their beliefs when they are well founded. The heroic characters from literature or history are the ones who cannot be bent no matter what. Persons of integrity are those who stick to the goals they have set themselves or promises they have made to others, even under conditions that have become unfavorable for them.

At the same time, compromises in politics, in legal decisions and in everyday practice are often inevitable, and even a sign of constructive readiness to solve social problems peacefully. In morality, on the other hand, one does not compromise without regretting it. That is part of the tragedy of the situation.

It is a common belief that compromise solutions are good or fair when the parties meet “in the middle”. Each party has to forego something that they consider essential. Compromises can therefore hurt, and the more so the closer they get to the core of moral convictions, that is, to what one considers to be completely non-negotiable.

A prime example is humanitarian intervention in war. People in need must be helped. However, where it is given by military means, this aid is inevitably bought with the killing of civilians. And so arises what at first glance can be described as a collision of duties: the duty to help people in need who cannot help themselves, and the duty not to harm the innocent. The theory of just war provides ethics with the principle of proportionality. This should help to find out whether the cancellation of a cardinal duty (prohibition of the targeted killing of civilians in war) can be justified by the target. The Just War doctrine seeks to defuse the tension by 1) differentiating between the deliberate and unintended consequences of an action (the so-called doctrine of double action) and 2) drawing a line by balancing costs and profits: Are those Costs disproportionately high - z. B. likely to sacrifice too many innocents - the act is not justified. However, this dual strategy not only runs the risk of allowing far too high "collateral damage". Your approach is also theoretically questionable. Because he wants to take seriously the principle of immunity, which protects the innocent, but at the same time questions it through quantitative considerations. It is therefore not unjustifiably to denounce the cynicism and immorality of a calculation that exploits the killing of some to save others. From the point of view of an ethics of principles, this instrumental justification for killing is morally unacceptable.

A similar fundamental tension arises when it comes to the question of how far the health measures in the current pandemic may restrict individual freedoms on the one hand and the economic interests of a country on the other. When asked how many "sacrifices" society should make for the rescue of corona patients, there seems to be only one answer - at least from the strict perspective of an ethics of duty or principle: the saving of human life probably trumps as a higher commandment of medicine economic considerations. The accusation that elderly patients with fragile health are being sacrificed to social and economic interests sounds outrageous.

Many moral philosophical authorities speak of balancing. The term goes back to a metaphor that makes you believe you are dealing with a pair of scales, the two bowls of which carry different objects, but which can nevertheless be compared by their weight, weighed against each other. If the pointer announces an imbalance because the 'costs' are higher than the 'profit', one should refrain from trading. To jump back from the picture to our example: If, on the other hand, one reckons with a balanced balance, the balance opens the way to action.

Now one must not gloss over the matter at hand: the lives of people cannot be measured in terms of economic benefit, even if economists would like us to believe that. At least not from the perspective of a duty ethic. If there is not, as on the scales, a common measure for the goods to be weighed against each other, if they are incomparable, the metaphor of weighing or meeting oneself in the middle leaves us in the lurch.

The constitutional lawyers have a means at hand for this emergency: far-reaching restrictions must be proportionate. The principle of proportionality is a well-known instrument of legal arbitration. It is used when rights, especially fundamental rights, are restricted in favor of other conflicting rights or public goods. It is used to find out whether the restriction is justified.

Now tragic decisions intervene in situations in which the “gains” in relation to the public good being pursued are unlikely to outweigh the losses caused by the restriction of the law: that makes them tragic. In various articles, the lawyer Reinhard Merkel has analyzed the problem at hand very carefully using the examples of the Aviation Security Act, war and research on human embryonic stem cells. What all these cases have in common is that the law needs a justification for the radical restriction of fundamental rights, which cannot be given, since the restriction of the right means the uncompensated death of the person concerned, because no compensation can be made to the person who has been killed. And this is exactly where the principle of proportionality reaches its limits: in front of the AffectedThe principle cannot be justified for those who are subjected to the highest level of sacrifice; for whatever may turn out to be an advantage only comes in favor of the survivors.

Does that mean that no morally justifiable decision can be made? Let me remind you that we assumed that we were confronted with a tragic decision, that is, with a situation in which a balance between general usefulness and rights ('costs') cannot be practiced without relativising fundamental principles of morality . For those who deny that there are such principles or that they are in irresolvable conflict with one another, the problem does not arise. If one insists that some principles or basic rights have a top priority and do not let themselves be shaken by the logic of the economy, one will probably speak of balancing and recommend that it should be proportionate. However, this solution is second best: it actually represents a compromise between two ethical principles that are inherently incompatible. The compromise combines on the one hand the (ethical) perspective that some rights, such as the right to life and integrity, are inviolable, with the (utilitarian) perspective that their weight is in some cases exceeded by the consequences of the relevant action.

At the theoretical level, the right to life must not be legitimately restricted by economic or utility considerations. However, with the current crisis paying for the desired medical goals of speedy pandemic control at devastating costs to the economy and society as a whole, we may get to a point where a tradeoff is inevitable. In order to limit the damage where it is unavoidable, the search for a justification according to the principle of proportionality offers a second-best, i.e. a compromise, solution. The harm done to the victims must not be sold with a clear conscience as "acceptable" or "reasonable". If the over eighty-year-old patient has to be extubated in order to save the life of a younger person whose chances of recovery are better, ie if a “triage” has to take place between people, this can only be excused. It is not good. I call this solution a compromise solution because it is not what you think is right. The restriction of the rights of the data subject is even considered to be wrong, but in the given circumstances it is inevitable and appropriate.

Compromises always mean renunciation, and they hurt when making existential decisions. Some compromises are lazy. It is those who are trusted to the backs of the weaker or minorities who raise or strengthen an injustice regime. Systematic discrimination against people on the basis of their gender, their social merits or solely on the basis of age would amount to a lazy compromise. In detail, it depends on the details, writes Gertrude Lübbe-Wolf (FAZ of March 27, 2020). However, when a super-rich president of this world publicly points out that respiratory masks are too expensive, he sacrifices principles of medical ethics on the altar of the economy. Investing less money in essential medical equipment to keep the economy harmless is clearly a bad compromise in the dramatic situation we are going through.

Véronique Zanetti, since 2004 professor for ethics and political philosophy at Bielefeld University. Research focus: philosophy of international relations, the theory of just war, global justice, legal philosophy and Kantian philosophy. From 2004 to 2015, member of the Federal Ethics Commission for Biotechnology in the Extra-Human Sector (EKAH). 2015, Opus Magnum grant from the VW Foundation for the draft of a monograph on moral and political compromises with the title: Varieties of compromise. The book is due to appear in 2020. Véronique Zanetti has been a member of the board of directors of the ZiF (Center for Interdisciplinary Studies) since 2015 and its executive director since 2017.

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