The four levels of COVID-19

or: what we can know about the debate without having looked at one single graph

In this article, I’d like to offer a ‘map’ to navigate the often confusing debate around COVID-19.

But no, this is not about science or statistics. It is about broadly logical matters. Things you can find out about by merely thinking about them. Philosophers call these things ‘a priori’.

Something is a priori if you can find out its truth (or falsity) by merely thinking about it, without having to collect empirical data. For example, the conditional “If it is safer to drive with winter tires in winter, I should put on winter tires in winter” is a priori (true).

Now to the map. The COVID-19 situation has four levels, which are connected by a priori conditionals. A conditional is a sentence of the form “If…then…”.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Level 1: Epidemiology

This level is strictly scientific. The lead questions are “What does SARS-CoV-2 do to humans?” and “How does SARS-CoV-2 spread?”. The latter question can also be understood in terms of prediction.

Level 2: Pragmatic measures

It is to this level that the question “What should be done to fight the virus and protect people?” belongs.

Level 3: Laws and constitutional rights

At this level, the question “Are the level-2-measures lawful?” is central (laws should be understood as including constitutional articles).

Level 4: Conspiracy theories

The main questions here are “Why do governments do what they do?” and “Do governments and other powerful agents pursue a hidden agenda?”

Now, the levels are interconnected by normative a priori conditionals. A statement is normative if it contains (in some way) a “should” or “ought”. The above example about winter tires is a normative conditional. Normativity can include actions as well as beliefs and thinking processes (since it is reasonable to ask “Should I believe this?”). What are the normative conditionals that connect the four levels?

Level 2 depends on facts of level 1. The measures taken at level 2 are justifed by level-1-facts. For example, if the virus is dangerous and very contagious, the measures should be much stricter than if one faces a dangerous but only moderately contagious virus. This is straightforward and completely independent of whether one likes lockdowns.

Level 2 answers also depend on level-3 facts. Some level-2-measures might be unlawful, and so should be taken, or would require a democratic decision to alter the laws. Some measures may even conflict with constitutional rights, whose alteration must overcome significant parliamentarian obstacles or is even impossible. This is straightforward (for politicians) and completely independent of whether they like lockdowns (for whatever reason).

It is important to note that the level 1 -> level 2 and level 3 -> level 2 conditionals can be rational or irrational. Clearly it is rational to put on winter tires if it is winter (because they make driving much safer). It is, however, irrational to claim “If it is safer to drive on winter tires in winter, then one should stop driving in winter”. It is part of human freedom to make rational or irrational conclusions. But only rational normative conditionals justify actions.

As to level 4: it is from an interplay of ‘level 1 -> level 2’ and ‘level 3 -> level 2’ conditionals that rational statements can be made about it.

Let me explain. Level 4 is about human agency, and hence about motives. Necessarily, we can only know our own motives with certainty, not those of other people (because we have privileged epistemic access only to our own mental lives). If one wishes to make an informed judgment about someone else’s motives, one needs to invoke objective (third-person) evidence.

Here is where the other levels come in. If the conditionals between levels 1 and 2, and levels 2 and 3 are completely rational, then there is no reason to conjure up a conspiracy theory on level 4. However, if some implications are irrational, one may well ask what made the political agents act against reason.

This by itself is not sufficient evidence for a conspiracy, for a conspiracy is a secret (and often malicious) collusion among people to realize a certain agenda. Other factors such as fear or vainglory may make people act irrationally. Certainly, further evidence is required to make belief in a conspiracy rational.

But the minimal condition is to detect some irrationality in level 1–2/3–2 implications.

Let me now give you some examples for rational vs. irrational normative implications. I deliberately forgo empirical data. After all, this is about a priori interconnections. It’s up to you to fill in concrete data from newspapers and public statistics.

But now, faced with a widely ramified, confusing debate, where to begin?

Above considerations suggest that the natural starting point is level 1. Get the scientific facts right first.

Then (and only then) check if the measures (level 2) are appropriate or not, and if they are in harmony with law (level 3).

Finally, only in case your investigations yield clear irrationality in some area, you might start to search for an explanation for it.

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