The pandemic imperative

Immanuel Kant: The pandemic imperative

Germany’s top virolgist and government adviser Christian Drosten recently gave two interesting and also problematic statements [source, video speech in German] one called the pandemic imperative. Today I want to look at his nod to Kantian ethics and the categorical imperative.

Handle in einer Pandemie stets so, als seist Du selbst positiv getestet, und Dein Gegenüber gehört einer Risikogruppe an.

Act in a pandemic always as if you have been tested positive and your fellow being is part of the risk group. (translation by this author)

Christian Drosten, Schillerrede 2020

That is a little nod to Immanuel Kants categorical imperative:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

Kant, Immanuel (1993) [1785]. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Hackett. p. 30. ISBN 0-87220-166-X

The two statements sound kind of similar but are very different on further inspection. How so?

The categorical imperative (Kant)

Kantian ethics is based on the idea that a person can recognize oneself as a rational and free being by pure reason alone. That is of course very simplified but the point is in a Kantian world people see themselves as rational and independent beings. Even Robinson Crusoe alone on his island is still a rational human being.

With that in mind Kant argued that ethics has to recognize this fact and ethical behavior is based on an understanding that we need to treat each other as such. If you accept that you are a rational being capable of making decisions and acting accordingly, then you also need accept that other people are in this regard similar to you. Therefore we all need to respect each others autonomy to make choices as rational human beings.

So in this sense human beings who use their rationality should only want to make those rules into universal maximes that they want to have imposed on everyone including themselves. This is the crucial point. Of course I personally would like to have a maxime whereby I can take everything I want from others. But once this rule is applied to me as well I surely feel different about it.

On the other hand a rule that would put someone who harms a fellow human in jail is a rule I might rationally want to subject myself too. Not because I need such a rule to deter me from harming others but because I reason that this rule will deter others from potentially harming me. A lot of of our laws are based on this principle.

The pandemic imperative (Drosten)

Now how does this relate to a pandemic situation and the above mentioned quote? Several problems come to mind.

Universal vs specific circumstances

Kant’s categorical imperative applies universally. That is what philosophers do, they look for universal rules. Drosten’s rule applies to a specific set of circumstances: A pandemic. This begs the question what is a pandemic, when does it exist and who decides this.

Kant’s imperative is based on each human being’s rational understanding of oneself and therefore is universal. This pandemic imperative is based on someone deciding that it is now valid. History tells us that even expert knowledge is flawed and imperfect especially in the short term. That is why modern societies allow a multitude of viewpoints and encourage fruitful (and sometimes pretty heated) discussions on different topics. I think that making such a sweeping maxime out of still disputed knowledge is problematic at least.

That brings us to the second question of what a pandemic is. Every year we have a large pandemic of influenza if you are technical with the WHO’s definition. Have we ever used this maxime for influenza? So how do we decide? Number of deaths or infected people? Speed and spread of the pathogen? Hospital capacity? The point here is that this maxime can never be universal but always is and has to be tied to particular circumstances. Therefore as a specific maxime it still needs to fit under Kant’s categorical imperative (at least if you use Kant to bolster your argument that is).

From being a rational human being to having no agency at all

Kant assumes for his imperative that people respect each other in their self-recognized rationality. We see each other as independent beings that are an end in themselves and are capable of making decisions and acting accordingly. That means in today’s language that we each acknowledge our respective agency. The capability of deciding and acting in our own interest (mostly).

Drosten’s first premise (act like you have been tested positive) assumes we are a potential threat to each other due to the hypothesis that many infections are spread asymptomatically. No matter if any particular person is in fact infectious at all they have to assume for themselves to be so. This takes away their personal agency in determining their threat to others. One is assumed to be potentially dangerous based not on fact but on statistical inference. It even gets worse when one considers that a positive SARS-COV2 PCR test does not necessarily imply infectiousness (and neither does a negative one for example in the early stage of infection).

His second premise assumes everyone else is at an especially high risk of dying (or at least suffering a severe case) of COVID19 even though we now pretty much know who the high risk groups are. Again this takes away agency from the people who could determine their own risk and decide and act accordingly.

Contrary to what is often repeated that we mostly have ti endure restrictions to protect others, people have various opportunities to protect themselves according to their own risk without imposing a huge cost on society. At least in developed countries most of our material needs can be met by delivery, social interaction can be reduced or replaced by electronic communication, medical grade protective equipment is available to the public.

Of course by protecting ourselves individually we are incurring monetary and other costs individually. But if someone is a high risk individual they are also benefiting the most from protective measures. Many would lament that it is unfair that the old and sick now need to pay for their own protection. But that is like lamenting that the virus kills the old and sick. And at least in developed countries governments could reimburse or subsidies high risk groups or outright provide protective equipment and supporting services.

But by acting like we are either threats or high risks our agency is taken away from us. We are forced to incur costs no matter the actual threat or risk we pose or face. And were are not even getting into individual risk preferences.


So where does this leave us? The pandemic imperative can not be an imperative at all because it is not universal and dependent on someone declaring the specific circumstances it applies to. Therefore if you base your argument on Kantian ethics your “imperative” merely becomes a maxime that needs to be subsumed under the categorical imperative.

Kant’s ethics is broadly speaking based on human agency. The ability to make rational decisions and to act accordingly. A maxime that takes away your agency by declaring you a threat or a high risk individual can therefore not be a valid maxime under the categorical imperative. Drosten’s imperative would fit much better under crude utilitarianism than Kantian ethics.

How could we formulate a pandemic maxime alternatively? Maybe we can even formulate one that is valid independent of a pandemic, one that is valid for any kind of infectious disease? It would certainly involve human beings making a rational decision for themselves on how likely it is that they are infectious and the ones they come in contact with at a high risk of a severe outcome. It would of course also involve people making a rational decision on what and how many protective measures they deem appropriate to their individual risk. I am bad at writing aphorism and golden rules so I will keep at that.

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