The Risks of Friendship: A Socratic Dialogue
By Bryan Caplan
The scene: Ancient Athens. Glaucon is standing in the Parthenon, wearing a face mask. Socrates enters with his face fully visible.
Socrates: Greetings, Glaucon! How fare you during this awful plague?
Glaucon: [jumps 5 feet] What the hell are you doing? Are you trying to kill me?
Socrates: No, why would you think so?
Glaucon: We’re indoors and you’re not wearing your mask!
Socrates: I’m 20 feet away from you. And the Parthenon is cavernous.
Glaucon: You should be wearing a mask.
Socrates: Very well. [dons mask] Feel safe enough to talk now?
Glaucon: [unconvincingly] Sure.
Socrates: I suggest we go outside to continue the conversation with greater ease.
[One minute later, outside the Parthenon; Socrates and Glaucon are 25 feet apart.]
Socrates: I must admit, Glaucon, I’m very puzzled.
Glaucon: About what?
Socrates: About your level of fear.
Glaucon: [with trepidation] Oh, I’m not afraid.
Socrates: Well, what do you think are the odds that I’ve got the plague right now?
Glaucon: Uh, one in a thousand?
Socrates: Reasonable enough; I’m asymptomatic after all. Now, supposing I was sick, what are the odds that I would have infected you within the Parthenon while wearing a mask?
Glaucon: One in twenty?
Socrates: Plausibly. And what are the odds I would have infected you in the same scenario without wearing a mask?
Glaucon: One in five?
Socrates: Very well. Now as we both know, susceptibility to the plague depends heavily on age and underlying conditions. We’re both fifty. Do you have any underlying conditions?
Glaucon: Thankfully, no.
Socrates: Then according to a table Plato compiled for me, your odds of death if infected are about 1 in 2000.
Glaucon: It’s not just about the risk of death, Socrates!
Socrates: It never is. There is also the unpleasantness of the plague’s symptoms, and a small chance of long-run harm. Still, the same goes for almost all risks. Those who survive a fall from a horse usually suffer pain for a week or two – and a small fraction are maimed for life. So we can still fruitfully compare your risk of death from plague to other mortality risks, never losing sight of the fact that death is only one of many possible tragic outcomes.
Glaucon: [nervously] Fine.
Socrates: Very well, let us calculate the risk I imposed on you earlier by not wearing a mask. We multiply my risk of infection times the change in your infection risk times your mortality risk. That comes to 1/1000 * (.2-.05)* 1/2000, which rounds to about 1-in-13 million.
Glaucon: And that seems small to you.
Socrates: Wouldn’t it seem small to any sober man?
Glaucon: Well, is it really so awful to wear a mask?
Socrates: I wouldn’t mind if the numbers were more favorable. If I were endangering a thousand people like you, I’d happily wear the mask. As it stands, though, your fear seems paranoid and your outrage seems unjust.
Glaucon: Look, why should I have to endure any risk for your comfort?
Socrates: You’re enduring a risk right now. Surely you don’t imagine that your infection risk magically falls to zero as soon as you exit the Parthenon?
Glaucon: Well, why should I have to endure an unnecessary risk?
Socrates: It is “necessary” that we speak at all? Hardly. And we could slash our risk further by separating a hundred feet and shouting at each other.
Glaucon: Now you’re just being difficult.
Socrates: I only wish to understand you, Glaucon. Is that your horse over there?
Glaucon: Yes, Pegasus is his name.
Socrates: A noble moniker. Now do you know the annual risk of dying on horseback?
Glaucon: About one in ten thousand?
Socrates: Indeed. Yet you’ve never fretted over the risk of death by horse?
Glaucon: The daily risk is 1/365th the annual risk, or hadn’t you considered that?
Socrates: Quite right. The daily risk of death by horse is therefore about 1-in-4 million – more than three times the risk that terrified you inside the Parthenon.
Glaucon: As long as I’m alone, I’m not exposed to any risk of plague at all.
Socrates: And as long as you’re unhorsed, you’re not exposed to any risk of death on horseback. Yet during the minutes you’re on horseback, you’re a model of composure. Why then are you so fearful of plague?
Glaucon: Plague is contagious. Death on horseback is not.
Socrates: I’ve seen you riding with your son, slightly endangering his life as well as your own. That’s not precisely “contagion,” but you can hardly claim that you’re endangering no one but yourself when you ride Pegasus.
Glaucon: If I catch plague, though, I could be responsible for the deaths of thousands.
Socrates: Possible, I’ll grant. If you were returning home from a plague-infested land, I’d understand your scruples. You wouldn’t want to be the conduit for mass destruction.
Glaucon: Indeed not.
Socrates: By now, however, this plague is already well-advanced. You’re highly unlikely to make it noticeably worse. Indeed, by this point the average person infects less than one extra person.
Glaucon: I might not be average.
Socrates: You are right to say so. Still, shouldn’t our knowledge of averages guide our behavior? In any case, let us return to the key issue: Why are you so fearful of talking inside the Parthenon without masks when the risk of death is vanishingly low?
Glaucon: Perhaps we should sponsor a raging Bacchanalia, then?
Socrates: I think not. A drunken festival of a hundred people would probably have a thousand times the plague risk of a two-person conversation. We should avoid that until the plague subsides.
Glaucon: So you admit the danger?
Socrates: I always did. I’m not saying that plague is harmless. I’m saying that you’re reacting to risk qualitatively rather than quantitatively.
Socrates: You’re much more afraid of a tiny plague risk than a larger horseback risk. Why do you think that is?
Glaucon: Have you ever seen someone die of plague?
Socrates: Have you ever seen someone die on horseback? Both are terrible tragedies, with a long list of ugly secondary risks.
Glaucon: Look, you’re in denial. Everyone in Athens is scared of the plague. Your risk analysis is beside the point.
Socrates: How can risk analysis ever be “beside the point”?
Glaucon: We as a society have decided to fight the plague, and you’re going to have to do your part, like it or not.
Socrates: Glaucon, what is my profession?
Socrates: I said, “Glaucon, what is my profession?”
Glaucon: You’re a philosopher.
Socrates: Indeed. As as a philosopher, what is my mission?
Glaucon: To defy and aggravate others?
Socrates: Hardly. As a philosopher, my mission is to improve the thinking of my fellow Athenians, my fellow Greeks, my fellow human beings.
Glaucon: [sarcastically] Very noble.
Socrates: I take a certain pride in my efforts. How, though, am I supposed to improve their thinking?
Glaucon: I don’t know.
Socrates: The answer, seemingly, is: By asking questions.
Glaucon: [weary] Yes, yes.
Socrates: Now Glaucon, when you urge me to “do my part,” what do you have in mind?
Glaucon: Wear the mask, Socrates.
Socrates: I’m wearing one now, to put you at ease while we converse. In more crowded conditions, I’ve worn a mask out of prudence and decency. But as a philosopher, obediently wearing a mask is woefully inadequate.
Glaucon: Well, what more should we do?
Socrates: I don’t know about non-philosophers. For we philosophers to “do our part,” however, requires us to challenge popular fallacies and innumeracy.
Glaucon: Isn’t this just an elaborate rationalization for putting your own comfort above the lives of your fellow Athenians?
Socrates: Possibly. More likely, though, your agitation is an elaborate rationalization for putting conformity above reason.
Glaucon: Your numbers could be wrong, you know.
Socrates: Indeed, I suspect that all of my numbers are wrong. As we learn more, each of my numbers will be revised.
Glaucon: If you don’t really know the risks, why are you lecturing me?
Socrates: Because, Glaucon, you’re approaching the uncertainty emotionally rather than analytically. Uncertainty is a poor argument for panic.
Glaucon: I was never “panicked.”
Socrates: Very well, let us take off these masks, re-enter the Parthenon, and continue the conversation in comfort. The midday sun is too much for me.
Glaucon: Are you crazy, Socrates?
Socrates: And a corruptor of the youth, from what I hear. Do you think there will be a trial?
Glaucon: Look who’s panicking now!
Socrates: A fair point, my dear Glaucon. A fair point.
Glaucon: Look Socrates, it all comes down to this: There’s no reason not to just go along with society’s expectations here.
Socrates: No reason? What about friendship?
Glaucon: I don’t follow you, Socrates.
Socrates: Since this plague struck, I’ve barely seen you. Mask or no mask, you avoid me, as you avoid almost all human contact.
Glaucon: Well, what do you expect me to do?
Socrates: Weigh the tiny risks to health against the immense value of friendship.
Glaucon: You’re making too much of this, Socrates.
Socrates: Am I? The great Epicurus taught us that friendship is one of the highest of goods. Friendship is essential to human happiness, and a life well-lived.
Glaucon: You speak unjustly to me, Socrates. I am and ever have been your friend.
Socrates: I know, which is why your panic pains me so.
Glaucon: If you’re really my friend, you will share my concern for my own safety.
Socrates: I do, Glaucon. If you were in serious danger, and I could save you by shunning you, I would grieve. Yet shun you I would.
Glaucon: Very gracious of you.
Socrates: I know you would do the same for me.
Glaucon: Again, most gracious.
Socrates: The plain fact, however, is that you are not in serious danger. By the numbers, you are in the kind of minor danger that you’ve always accepted in the past.
Socrates: And so I say the time is long since past to resume our normal friendly relations. In troubled times, minor adjustments are often wise. But abandoning your friends out of fear of minor risks is folly, Glaucon.
Glaucon: [forced] Well, thank you for your candor, Socrates.
Socrates: [resigned] May we meet again in saner times, my friend.
Glaucon: Good day to you, Socrates. Good day.
[Glaucon and Socrates go their separate ways.]