What is the ultimate ethical question

Ethical questions in the corona crisis : Mr. Enste, does health always come first?

Dominik H. Enste studied economics. The 53-year-old is a business ethicist at the Institute of German Economy.

Mr Enste, during the corona crisis, politicians decided on a shutdown that would have massive economic consequences. Does health always come first?
At the moment, health is paramount. Mr. Söder and others say: It's a matter of life or death - we have to do everything, no matter what the cost. That is understandable as the first reaction. But in fact, business ethics has known the problem of balancing costs and benefits for a long time, even when it comes to human life.

With what result?
The answers are very different. In Germany we are strongly in the tradition of Immanuel Kant and the first article in the constitution: “Human dignity is inviolable.” From this, it is concluded that we must never weigh human lives against one another. But there is also a bit of a denial of reality in this. In Britain, with its utilitarian tradition of thought, the problem is approached very differently. The British have clearly stipulated the cost of a year to extend a life with a good quality of life: 30,000 pounds, in exceptional cases up to 70,000 or 80,000 pounds.

That sounds brutal. How do you justify such decisions?
The utilitarian says: The happiness of the greatest number exceeds that of the individual - or, if you will: solidarity has - financial - limits. The difference can be illustrated well with the trolley experiment. Suppose a train car is racing towards a switch. If you let it roll, it kills five people - if you turn the switch, it runs over a person. The utilitarian solution would be “throwing the switch”. The Kantian view says that no one should be treated and counted like a thing. But the dilemma is that people die even if I don't touch the switch.

Donald Trump warns that a severe economic downturn could cost more lives than the pandemic - just "Trumpism" or a legitimate concern?
The USA also comes from utilitarian utility theory. Trump's statement fits in with that. De facto, however, we too have to ask ourselves this question: How many human lives is a long stoppage at risk, for example through the increase in domestic violence? How serious are the economic consequences for the individual?

Does ethics know procedures or criteria for balancing evils?
Unfortunately there are no simple recipes. But to take it to the extreme: The question is ethically legitimate whether in situations like in Italy an elderly person with previous illnesses should definitely be brought to the intensive care unit, even if he is likely to die lonely there - or whether it would not be more humane to let him die at home. We avoid such questions in Germany because we trust in our good health system.

Is it ethically correct for companies in France to offer bonuses to get employees back to work?
I think that's wrong. That shouldn't be decided by individual companies. We need clear rules at the state regulatory level. An honest debate about the costs of combating corona would be necessary. The ifo Institute has calculated that a three-month shutdown would mean a loss of up to 700 billion euros. That cannot be made up for and it would also have consequences for the health system after the crisis, for example. I think a round table with experts from many disciplines would be appropriate. We need an open discussion. And we must not leave the answer to ethical questions to populists who are already trying to usurp the issue.

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