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Science alone can’t tell us whether to open up our states

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The debate over when to open up our states as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic — a decision which rests largely in the hands of governors, mayors and county executives — is cast broadly as one between champions of science and proponents of the need to re-start our economies to help businesses and citizens alike.

The Democrats and many members of the scientific community, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have a tendency to argue that “science” proves that we should not rush to open our states too fast. Dr. Fauci recently emphasized that his point of view is based on science: “As I mentioned many times, I give advice and opinion based on evidence-based scientific information.”

The Democrats, and even sometimes Dr. Fauci, suggest that aggressive state and local leaders — and President Trump who is strongly encouraging our states to open for business — are being irresponsible, even reckless.

The debate often sounds like one between those who have the “facts” on their side versus those who do not.

Although the Democrats and the scientific community have a strong argument not to rush opening up, their arguments are not factual arguments. Factual arguments can only tell you how things are, how things were, or how things — based on your prediction — will be.

Factual arguments — especially physical science like physics, biology and chemistry, but also social science like economics and political science — do not tell you how things should have been in the past or how things should be in the future.

Arguments about what should be, what ought to be, are moral arguments. There are different kinds of moral arguments and different views of what moral arguments are, but most moral philosophers will tell you that if you want to make a moral argument you need some “moral norms” or “moral principles” or “moral concepts” to make the argument.

Science and facts can be a part of the moral argument; indeed, scientific facts may be critical to the moral argument. But science in itself is not sufficient to make the moral argument.

When Dr. Fauci and others offer “predictions” about how the number of deaths might be increased as a result of opening our states too soon, this is a scientific, empirical prediction. It is not a moral claim.

The claim that we should not open our states too soon because the number of deaths might be increased is a moral claim, and it is a claim that needs support. Those who wield the science to call for a more cautious approach to opening our states must be relying on some moral theory or moral concepts to make their argument.

Perhaps they are thinking like utilitarians who say that the right action is the one that maximizes utility (or “produces the greatest good for the greatest number.”) Thus Fauci and others might be reasoning that increasing the total number of deaths will lower the total utility for our society; if so, they must also be factoring in the loss of utility for states which can’t open, including lost wages and salaries from unemployed citizens and deaths that might come about from anxiety, drug overdoses, and suicides.

Dr. Fauci and others have not explained their full moral reasoning, but presumably they have some underlying moral principles that justifies their thinking. If it is not utilitarian, it could come from the rights tradition. Perhaps they are arguing that people have a right not to die from a virus that could be controlled by responsible government decisions. Or perhaps they have a hybrid theory of some sort.

In any case, the point is plain: Empirical claims, which include predictions about the future, can be very important to moral decisions, especially moral decisions in the political realm. But the facts alone are inert: They need moral concepts to motor arguments about how we should act now.

The reality is that neither the proponents of opening soon nor those of opening more slowly make careful arguments that explain what values are driving their arguments and how factual considerations are being used in the overall arguments.

A good next step in the national argument would be for both sides to make it clear to the public how they unite values and facts to make their arguments.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of “Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of “The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Contact him at

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus coronavirus lockdowns COVID-19 Donald Trump economic reopening Ethical theories Ethics Facts Morality Reason Science

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