"Everyone has their reasons"
By Scott Sumner
There’s an old French saying, “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner”, which means roughly “to understand all is to forgive all”. When someone does something that seems bad, you might hear a bystander say, “I know how that guy felt.” The observation is generally viewed as at least partially excusing the behavior, even though there is no logical correlation between understanding something and the morality of the underlying action.
To see this point, assume for the moment that there is an omniscient God. That God would, by definition, understand all. Does that mean that no immoral act is ever committed? Clearly not.
I worry that this misconception is being applied to the coronavirus pandemic. When we compare the response of various countries, say the US and Western Europe vs. Australasia, there’s a tendency to explain the differences in terms of all sorts of factors. These might include climate, culture, legal systems, previous exposure to SARS, state capacity, density, corruption, education levels, etc. Some of these (such as climate) are completely beyond our control. But not all.
An omniscient social scientist, that is, one with a God-like understanding of the world, might say it was “inevitable” that Italy would end up with 5000 times more deaths than Taiwan. But while that claim might be true, it has no moral implications. It would be no different that saying that given Hitler’s genetic make-up and environment it was inevitable that he’d end up being the worst human being ever. It is important not to mix up positive and normative claims. (Sorry for invoking Godwin’s Law so quickly.)
We don’t make normative claims to feel good. Well, we do to some extent, but the main purpose of moral claims is to do better in the future. Scolding has value. When I was scolded as a child, I was chastened and did better for at least a brief period of time.
I’m not saying that Italy should try to remake itself in the model of Taiwan. Overall, I’d rather live in Italy. Covid-19 is just one of many issues. But I’d also suggest that Italy (and the US) not simply assume that any differences in the severity of the coronavirus epidemic are not possibly due to correctable failings in their country.
Another great French line, translated as “everyone has their reasons”, occurred in the film Rules of the Game. (BTW, this Jean Renoir film is one of the all time greats—you might wish to watch it if you are bored at home. I saw it when young and it went right over my head, and then again 5 years ago and was blown away.)
Yes, everyone has their reasons, as does every country. But are they the right reasons? (From a utilitarian perspective)