Were governments justified in imposing lockdowns to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic? We argue that a convincing answer to this question is to date wanting, by critically analyzing the factual basis of a recent paper, “How Government Leaders Violated Their Epistemic Duties During the SARS-CoV-2 Crisis” (Winsberg et al. 2020). In their paper, Winsberg et al. argue that government leaders did not, at the beginning of the pandemic, meet the epistemic requirements necessitated to impose lockdowns. We focus on (...) Winsberg et al.’s contentions that knowledge about COVID-19 resultant projections were inadequate; that epidemiologists were biased in their estimates of relevant figures; that there was insufficient evidence supporting the efficacy of lockdowns; and that lockdowns cause more harm than good. We argue that none of these claims are sufficiently supported by evidence, thus impairing their case against lockdowns, and leaving open the question of whether lockdowns were justified. (shrink)
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, high hopes were placed on digital contact tracing. Digital contact tracing apps can now be downloaded in many countries, but as further waves of COVID-19 tear through much of the northern hemisphere, these apps are playing a less important role in interrupting chains of infection than anticipated. We argue that one of the reasons for this is that most countries have opted for decentralised apps, which cannot provide a means of rapidly informing users (...) of likely infections while avoiding too many false positive reports. Centralised apps, in contrast, have the potential to do this. But policy making was influenced by public debates about the right app configuration, which have tended to focus heavily on privacy, and are driven by the assumption that decentralised apps are “privacy preserving by design”. We show that both types of apps are in fact vulnerable to privacy breaches, and, drawing on principles from safety engineering and risk analysis, compare the risks of centralised and decentralised systems along two dimensions, namely the probability of possible breaches and their severity. We conclude that a centralised app may in fact minimise overall ethical risk, and contend that we must reassess our approach to digital contact tracing, and should, more generally, be cautious about a myopic focus on privacy when conducting ethical assessments of data technologies. (shrink)
Models not only represent but may also influence their targets in important ways. While models’ abilities to influence outcomes has been studied in the context of economic models, often under the label ‘performativity’, we argue that this phenomenon also pertains to epidemiological models, such as those used for forecasting the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic. After identifying three ways in which a model by the Covid-19 Response Team at Imperial College London may have influenced scientific advice, policy, and individual responses, (...) we consider the implications of epidemiological models’ performative capacities. We argue, first, that performativity may impair models’ ability to successfully predict the course of an epidemic; but second, that it may provide an additional sense in which these models can be successful, namely by changing the course of an epidemic. (shrink)
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, high hopes were put on digital contact tracing, using mobile phone apps to record and immediately notify contacts when a user reports as infected. Such apps can now be downloaded in many countries, but as second waves of COVID-19 are raging, these apps are playing a less important role than anticipated. We argue that this is because most countries have opted for app configurations that cannot provide a means of rapidly informing users of (...) likely infections while avoiding too many false positive reports. Mathematical modelling suggests that differently configured apps have the potential to do this. These require, however, that some pseudonymised data be stored on a central server, which privacy advocates have cautioned against. We contend that their influential arguments are subject to two fallacies. First, they have tended to one-sidedly focus on the risks that centralised data storage entails for privacy, while paying insufficient attention to the fact that inefficient contact tracing involves ethical risks too. Second, while the envisioned system does entail risks of breaches, such risks are also present in decentralised systems, which have been falsely presented as ‘privacy preserving by design’. When these points are understood, it becomes clear that we must rethink our approach to digital contact tracing in our fight against COVID-19. There are no data in this work. (shrink)
How could the initial, drastic decisions to implement “lockdowns” to control the spread of COVID-19 infections be justifiable, when they were made on the basis of such uncertain evidence? We defend the imposition of lockdowns in some countries by first, and focusing on the UK, looking at the evidence that undergirded the decision, second, arguing that this provided us with sufficient grounds to restrict liberty given the circumstances, and third, defending the use of poorly-empirically-constrained epidemiological models as tools that can (...) legitimately guide public policy. (shrink)
At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, two policy aims are imperative: avoiding the need for a general lockdown of the population, with all its economic, social and health costs, and preventing the healthcare system from being overwhelmed by the unchecked spread of infection. Achieving these two aims requires the consideration of unpalatable measures. Julian Savulescu and James Cameron argue that mandatory isolation of the elderly is justified under these circumstances, as they are at increased risk of becoming severely ill (...) from COVID-19, and are thus likely to put disproportionate strain on limited healthcare resources. However, their arguments for this strategy are contingent on the lack of viable alternatives. We suggest that there is a possible alternative: a mandatory, centralised contact-tracing app. We argue that this strategy is ethically preferable to the selective isolation of the elderly, because it does not target members of a certain group, relying instead on the movements of each individual, and because it avoids the extended isolation of certain members of the society. Although this type of contact-tracing app has its drawbacks, we contend that this measure warrants serious consideration. (shrink)
Zu Beginn der Pandemie im Frühjahr 2020, und nach einem weitreichenden Lockdown, ruhten große Erwartungen auf Corona-Warn-Apps, um einen erneuten Lockdown zu verhindern. Diese Erwartungen haben sich nicht erfüllt; stattdessen wurden in Deutschland als Reaktion auf erneute Wellen von COVID-19 weitere Kontaktbeschränkungen verordnet. Wie hätte die digitale Kontaktverfolgung wirksamer gestaltet werden können? Wir argumentieren, dass es ein Spannungsfeld zwischen der Datensparsamkeit und einer wirksamen Bekämpfung der Pandemie besteht. Im Gegensatz zur deutschen Corona-Warn-App wäre eine Variante der App, in der pseudonymisierte (...) Kennungen zentral gespeichert werden, in der Lage gewesen, die Effektivität der Kontaktverfolgung entscheidend zu erhöhen. Schließlich argumentieren wir, dass das Spannungsfeld zwischen Datensparsamkeit und einer wirksamen Pandemiebekämpfung sich jedoch nicht in einen Wertekonflikt übersetzt, weil zentrale Systeme uns trotz ihrer erhöhten Wirksamkeit nicht vor deutlich gravierendere Probleme beim Datenschutz stellen als dezentrale Systeme. Zentrale Möglichkeiten der digitalen Kontaktverfolgung wären daher ethisch gerechtfertigt, um auf weitere Wellen von COVID-19 oder auf zukünftige Epidemien effektiv zu reagieren. (shrink)
Against the orthodox view of the Nash equilibrium as “the embodiment of the idea that economic agents are rational” (Aumann, 1985, p 43), some theorists have proposed ‘non-classical’ concepts of rationality in games, arguing that rational agents should be capable of improving upon inefficient equilibrium outcomes. This paper considers some implications of these proposals for economic theory, by focusing on institutional design. I argue that revisionist concepts of rationality conflict with the constraint that institutions should be designed to be incentive-compatible, (...) that is, that they should implement social goals in equilibrium. To resolve this conflict, proponents of revisionist concepts face a choice between three options: (1) reject incentive compatibility as a general constraint, (2) deny that individuals interacting through the designed institutions are rational, or (3) accept that their concepts do not cover institutional design. I critically discuss these options and I argue that a more inclusive concept of rationality, e.g. the one provided by Robert Sugden’s version of team reasoning, holds the most promise for the non-classical project, yielding a novel argument for incentive compatibility as a general constraint. (shrink)
Wynes and Nicholas (2017) argue that the most effective action to reduce individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is to have one fewer child. We raise methodological concerns about the way in which the authors attribute responsibility for emissions: they rely on multiple counting when calculating the emissions of future generations, and they exclude scenarios in which global emission trajectories become net-zero or negative. This may distort recommendations from policy makers and educators who rely on their study. We propose an alternative (...) way of attributing responsibility that avoids multiple counting. Investigating the implications of having children under this proposal with regards to the full range of different scenarios, including likelihood analyses, calls for further studies. (shrink)
The best treatment for end-stage renal disease is the transplantation of a live donor kidney, but many people cannot donate to their loved ones because they are incompatible. Kidney exchange promises relief. Kidney exchange programmes use centralised procedures to match donors with recipients in a way that maximises the quantity and quality of transplants. However, the transplant laws in many countries render kidney exchange programmes impossible because of ethical concerns against these programmes or against kinds of kidney donations on which (...) these programmes rely. I give two novel arguments for the implementation of kidney exchange programmes. The first is that they are instrumental in meeting a moral obligation, namely to donate effectively. The second is that they may increase the motivation for altruistic donations, because the donation of one kidney may trigger >1 life savings. Moreover, ethical concerns are considered that are embodied in transplant laws preventing the implementation of kidney exchange, and it is argued that they can be overcome. (shrink)
We were slightly concerned, upon having read Eric Winsberg, Jason Brennan and Chris Surprenant’s reply to our paper “Were Lockdowns Justified? A Return to the Facts and Evidence”, that they may have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of our argument, so we issue the following clarification, along with a comment on our motivations for writing such a piece, for the interested reader.
As many Western countries emerged from initial periods of lockdown in spring 2020, they had brought COVID-19 infection rates down significantly. This was followed, however, with more drastic second and third waves of viral spread, which many of these same countries are struggling to bring under control, even with the implementation of further periods of lockdown. Could this have been prevented by policymakers? We revisit two strategies that were focus of much discussion during the early stages of the pandemic, and (...) which were implemented in several Western countries, albeit in a weakened form. These strategies both proceed by targeting certain segments of the population, while allowing others to go about their lives unhindered. The first suggests selectively isolating those that would most likely suffer severe adverse effects if infected – in particular the elderly. The second involves identifying and quarantining those who are likely to be infected through a contact tracing app that would centrally store users’ information. We suggest that both strategies showed promise in preventing the need for further lockdowns, albeit in a significantly more stringent form than anything that was implemented in Western countries. We then proceed to an ethical evaluation of these more stringent policies. We contend that selective isolation strategies face severe ethical problems due to its discriminatory nature, while the ethical issues with a more aggressive contact tracing regime can be mitigated. This analysis has implications for how to respond effectively and ethically to future pandemics, and perhaps contains lessons on how to successfully emerge from our current predicament. (shrink)
It can be argued (cf. Dizadji‑Bahmani et al. 2010) that an increase in coherence is one goal that drives reductionist enterprises. Consequently, the question if or how well this goal is achieved can serve as an epistemic criterion for evaluating both a concrete case of a purported reduction and our model of reduction : what conditions on the model allow for an increase in coherence ? In order to answer this question, I provide an analysis of the relation between the (...) reduction and the coherence of two theories. The underlying model of reduction is a (generalised) Nagelian model (cf. Nagel 1970, Schaffner 1974, Dizadji‑Bahmani et al. 2010). For coherence, different measures have been put forward (e.g. Shogenji 1999, Olsson 2002, Fitelson 2003, Bovens & Hartmann 2003). However, since there are counterexamples to each proposed coherence measure, we should be careful that the analysis be sufficiently stable (in a sense to be specified). It will turn out that this can be done. (shrink)
Where economists previously viewed the market as arising from a ‘spontaneous order’, antithetical to design, they now design markets to achieve specific purposes. This paper reconstructs how this change in what markets are and can do came about and considers some consequences. Two decisive developments in economic theory are identified: first, Hurwicz’s view of institutions as mechanisms, which should be designed to align incentives with social goals; and second, the notion of marketplaces – consisting of infrastructure and algorithms – which (...) should be designed to exhibit stable properties. These developments have empowered economists to create marketplaces for specific purposes, by designing appropriate algorithms. I argue that this power to create marketplaces requires a shift in ethical reasoning, from whether markets should reach into certain spheres of life, to how market algorithms should be designed. I exemplify this shift, focusing on bias, and arguing that transparency should become a goal of market design. (shrink)
In a recent paper, Dawid, Hartmann and Sprenger claim to prove the possibility of non-empirical theory confirmation via the No Alternatives Argument. In this note, I argue that from an empiricist point of view, their "proof" begs the question in the sense that it cannot convince someone who has not already been convinced of non-empirical theory confirmation before.
This thesis studies some philosophical and ethical issues that economic design raises. Chapter 1 gives an overview of economic design and argues that a crossfertilisation between philosophy and economic design is possible and insightful for both sides. Chapter 2 examines the implications of mechanism design for theories of rationality. I show that non-classical theories, such as constrained maximization and team reasoning, are at odds with the constraint of incentive compatibility. This poses a problem for non-classical theories, which proponents of these (...) theories have not addressed to date. Chapter 3 proposes a general epistemology of economic engineering, which is motivated by a novel case study, viz. the reform of a matching market for medical practitioners. My account makes use of causal graphs to explain how models allow encoding counterfactual information about how market outcomes change if the design of the market changes. The second part of the thesis examines ethical issues. In Chapter 4, I apply tools from matching theory to gain insights into the distribution of refugees, such as among countries of the European Union. There is an ethical trade-off between the fairness of matchings and their efficiency, and I argue that in this context, fairness is the morally weightier criterion. Chapter 5 deals with the ethics of kidney exchange. Against critics, I give two arguments for the implementation of kidney exchange programmes. The first argument is that they are instrumental in meeting a moral obligation, namely to donate effectively. The second is that kidney exchange may increase the motivation for altruistic donations, because the donation of one kidney may trigger > 1 life savings. The final chapter identifies questions for future research and it closes with some thoughts about the future trajectory of economic design. (shrink)
With the current refugee crisis showing no sign of abating, a fair and efficient method for distributing people to different countries is urgently needed. In this post, Philippe van Basshuysen looks at matching systems.
How is it possible that models from game theory, which are typically highly idealised, can be harnessed for designing institutions through which we interact? I argue that game theory assumes that social interactions have a specific structure, which is uncovered with the help of directed graphs. The graphs make explicit how game theory encodes counterfactual information in natural collections of its models and can therefore be used to track how model-interventions change model-outcomes. For model-interventions to inform real-world design requires the (...) truth of a causal hypothesis, namely that structural relations specified in a model approximate causal relations in the target interaction; or in other words, that the directed graph can be interpreted causally. In order to increase their confidence in this hypothesis, market designers complement their models with natural and laboratory experiments, and computational methods. Throughout the paper, the reform of a matching market for medical residents provides a case study for my proposed view, which hasn't been previously considered in the philosophy of science. (shrink)