Worth opening?

One large UK city has a remarkable coffee scene, and within that scene one coffee shop stands out for its decor, atmosphere and working buzz. It is popular and it’s easy to understand why. It has found just the right formula, in an industry of plenty of comings and goings all in search of a good formula.

There have been several weeks lately when trading has been allowed, with certain rules or for take-away only, but this coffee shop has opted to stay closed. We assume that businesses want to keep trading, that unless they are fitting around specific constraints in their owners’ personal lives (and more and more we are alert to this) they will be open unless they are shut down. This particular case feels a little odd.

Who are we to pry into another business’s finances? It does not feel right to demand that a private business open, or trade in a certain way, when the only people who properly can make those choices are the shareholders. Yet, what signal does a business send when it can open but chooses not to? By not opening, the business invites us into its finances by suggesting to us that it does not need the money; precisely that it does not need the cashflow. Alternatively a world in which all business open whenever they can, hides from us any one business’s situation.

I suppose that the calculation that governs any shop or cafe’s decision each day, will be whether that day’s gross profit will cover the staff plus heating and lighting. Rent is paid anyway. If you make £2 on a £2.50 cup of coffee, how many coffees do you need to sell to pay the staff and open the shop? I suspect that the answer is not very many.

Even if the answer is ‘too many’ and opening would lose more money than staying closed, we might want to open, and this is my interest here. I suspect that some firms overlook the longer-term and the social impacts of being closed.

What might these other impacts be? Of course there is the effect over time of simply being open, of serving a customer well and seeing that person return, of looking appealing and bright to passers by. The social impacts are more interesting. Being open shows to your regular customers that you are in it with them. Whatever their struggle during the lockdown, or perhaps none, you share it with them. You are working. You are a person to talk to. Even in normal times, someone’s first human interation of each day might be with their barista and in many cases that will be the only interaction. To close is to walk away from these interactions, at a time when they have become more important.

To open is to signal that your service and product is important to you, that you value it because of the happiness it gives to your customers and not simply because it makes money. You are proud of your coffee and you want people to experience it.

How much would all this be worth, if closing were to save money relative to opening? If opening would cost you £10 a day, £50 or £100? If you can sustain a daily loss then there will be some number that is still worth it.

A reliable life

Queens, New York City, and the E train to the Jamaica Center. We were heading to JFK airport. Everything seemed to be going to plan, but why did the screen not show Jamaica Center as the end of the line? What was “Jamaica – 179 St”? The driver announced that due to engineering our train was running to Jamaica – 179 St and that for JFK we should change at Kew Gardens for a bus. With two children, luggage and a plane to catch, please not a bus replacement service!

In the end we were fine and the streets of Queens have inspired some future travels on Long Island. Handy for future NYC trips, I now know a little of the Jamaica area and that it’s easier to take the train from Penn station. There is almost always an upside.

It is very hard to think of the upside of a months-long general shutdown.

What is the difference? The length of time is of a different order, months rather than days. The scale of something can change its category: because a short period of factor, say a delay, is fine does not mean that a long period of it is also fine. Secondly we think of lockdown as a general inability, in most countries or states, to do everything in life that we want to. It affects much of life rather than just one aspect. These two factors are enough, but there is something else.

When we set off on the Subway we know that something unexpected might happen. We can still plan, hope, embark, and then adjust as we go along. When a shutdown is advertised in advance and when we are told it will last some time, we cannot even plan. An intricate set-up of travel arrangements, people and shops and all the images and experiences that we hope will go along with them, fails somewhere between conception and planning.. and in many cases, and increasingly, won’t even be conceived. We cannot rely on being able to do things.

What are we to think, now that life has been shown to be unreliable?

In fact the situation is worse than unreliable. To be unreliable would mean that trains might break down from time to time. We know that. Now, however, we are told expressly not to rely on advertised dates for reopening. Politicians go out of their way to stop us from planning. It could hardly be less settling.

Life was straightforward, in the absence of pandemics and the lockdowns that we now realise are apt to accompany them. If we wanted something then we did it, subject to the normal constraints of money, time, health and the normal sensible rules that we all agreed upon. Now we know nothing.

The reliability is not only missing in the moment (or rather the month). We have lost a sense that life continues regardless, that there is an understanding of this constant forward pressure, of the basic freedoms of travel and of association. Now, do we dare to rely on these freedoms five or ten years into the future, or within the year ahead? We will live normally, of course, and get used to things again, some of us better than others, but the thought will always be there.

Virtue and ease

Suppose that it was agreed that masks do no good in preventing the spread of infection. We don’t have to consider whether they do harm in terms of health, but suppose further that masks perpetuate the fear of an illness and that that illness is not as harmful as generally thought. Then suppose that the lockdowns that are supported by that fear, as expressed by the public to the politicians, is generally agreed to be causing more harm than good to society as a whole: in wealth and therefore future health, in education and in happiness.

On the one hand is virtue, and people are encouraged to certain courses of action by the attraction of virtuousness. On the other hand is ease, and people will naturally follow the easiest way.

When virtue is the only game in town, then the easiest way jumps over to the other side. It becomes easier to do whatever is indistinguishable from the virtuous action. We could say that it becomes easier to do the virtuous action, but if we do it for the purpose of showing that we are virtuous or even just to avoid the disapproval of those who monitor virtue, then we are not being virtuous.

We could not go on to say that those who wear masks to avoid disapproval are simulating virtue; perhaps that they are simulating the actions of someone who is being virtuous. We cannot say either that they are mocking virtue, because in fact to wear a mask to avoid disapproval is to make no comment on virtue but instead on the value of ease. They seek an easy life. But virtue is nevertheless being mocked, undermined as an idea to live by, if some who wear masks are doing it for virtuous reasons and others for expediency.

Who then is doing the undermining? It could be those who wear masks in pursuit of virtue, knowing as we all do that many do not want to wear them. The result is a larger incidence of mask wearing but also that no-one knows the true proportions of the underlying motivations. No-one knows how much virtue is being practiced and how much ease. This result of greater mask wearing, despite its undermining of the idea of virtue, is the goal of government and so we conclude that government is happy for virtue to be used for expedience, even at the cost of the idea of virtue itself.

If we return to the switching of the easiest route, from ease itself to following those who are virtuous for fear of the cost of being admonished, then we can ask whether ease will ever trump virtue. It will not, in this case; it would take something collective in order to challenge the idea that the virtuous path is the right one (and remember we mean virtuousness in terms only of what the virtuous think). We are locked in, pending a complete revision.

Therefore if ease will not outdo virtue then the conception of virtue in this instance has to be changed, if we are following the analysis of our first paragraph above and we wish to discourage lockdowns. What is truly virtuous in this case, for starters? Let’s look, because if it happened to be the case that the virtuous was also the good (in terms of human happiness as measured in a way like numbers of lives saved) then we would be delighted and we would have our answer.

We come full circle: what is virtuous is to promote human life. If more people would die from cancer and other causes than will be saved from covid then the virtue is in throwing away our masks, being open to other people’s germs, making money with which to pay taxes, and generally advancing society. With this step the mask becomes selfish and the open approach to fellow humans becomes virtuous as well as easy.

Our default friends and family

What was that smell of toast? Each morning at 11am as classes turned over and I checked my email in the computer room, the warm smell would drift through the corridors of Bristol’s economics department. Later I put two and two together. The department’s cleaning staff were having a daily brunch party.

Once, a glimpse through an open door told the intricate tale. I imagine, but am fairly sure I’m right, that having broken the back of the morning’s work there would be a joyful rush to set up the food and drink. A good dozen workers gathered around the table, the rush of pleasure when it has come time for longed-for snacks, the prospect of the end of the working day. Maintenance staff would join in. An ever so slight feeling of beating a system in a building at once calm and aloof.

Each point in our lives is marked, among other ways, by that particular group of people with which we spend most time. We might not even realise who they are, but with a little reflection we could produce the list, our list, the story of the background socialising of our lives.

One highlight of my own list is the card school in third year of senior school, tables pushed together and fabourite games understood by all. Form groups and shared enthusiasms come and go, and later my normal, reliable, default, social situation is the group of friends whose travel plans see them arrive early for school, gathered under the verandah waiting for the gates to open. Later it is the graduate students in our basement flat, sometimes going into college to eat, otherwise sharing food in our kitchen. Then at work I got used to the small group of people, sharing as we did a carpet in a London mews building and spending more time with each other than with anyone at home. Almost all of us could produce a similar list, often unglamorous and unremarkable, always the actual tale of our lives. If we opted to meet up with other friends then we might feel that we did so through choice and that these chosen meetings were better, the real story of our interests and friendships, but our regular background work-and-school groups remain the backdrop to everything else.

Where in the world are we sure that we’ll discuss last night’s TV?

It is possible that much of the time we resent the compulsion of these associations, the intimacy of colleagues, the inability to escape except at lunchtime. We could say that these people are the friends and family that we can’t choose. They are still friends and family.

What then is the effect of an enforced and prolonged absence from our default friends and family? We might feel a thrill at not having to mix with the same people; perhaps we are solitary or introverted by nature. The fact is that we lose a substantial element of socialisation and humanity, for good or bad, in our days, weeks and months. Over time our ability to get along with others in situations in which we have to get along with them, will become dulled.

Most importantly of all, the story of our social lives will forever be altered and will forever have been blank for the duration.

Some people need adventure

Zurich, Switzerland, and an afternoon free between flying in and taking the train to St Anton in Austria. I remember the email that I wrote in the coffee shop that I found. It was one of the more memorable of my coffee explorations, where I would pinpoint a new independent coffee shop on the map and wander into a new district to find it.

This was a trip to look at the Zillertal area above Mayrhofen, Austria, scouting for a new route for Alpine Exploratory. After St Anton I continued by train to Innsbruck and took buses for a day’s walk above town, then moved on to Mayrhofen. A part of my visit was to find a good hotel and in the course of four nights and four different hotels I found three that were excellent and one that was exceptional. At the end of my trip I stayed in Kufstein, a small Tyrolean town, before two nights in Vienna.. again each in a new hotel. I walked all across town, as I have done on my other three visits to Vienna.

Work through the medium of email was carrying on in the background and this particular week was one of highs and lows. Two situations in particular were ongoing and it happened that both resolved themselves, to my immense satisfaction, on my Viennese day. I remember that evening in particular and the feeling of being emboldened to go for the strudel and custard.

I knew the shape of my trip in advance, as in the list of towns, even hotels, that I would stay in. I did not know which images would pass through my mind during the trip, the shape and colour of the hills, the viability of the trail I was investigating, the weather, the look and feel of those trains that were new to me, the qualities of the hotels all of which were new to me too, and those new streets and restaurants that I would choose. More often than not, my work trips result in at least one moment of total surprise – running for a bus in a remote valley, for example – that give me a jolt and a feeling of exhilaration as I take it all in.

What is it about this trip that I am enjoying so much? It’s the same element that is essential to all trips, to all years, months and ideally weeks of my life as lived when free to travel: the element of not knowing what comes next. Humans live on earth and find a mixture of, on one hand, security and comfort at home, and on the other hand adventure and enterprise at large. Some of us lean towards home and some of us need more adventure than others.

“Stay outside. Travel as much as possible.” This edict would cause great distress, and hasn’t the opposite had the same effect?

Life is fine-tuned

Eastcastle Street in Fitzrovia, London, that patch bounded by Oxford Street (East of Oxford Circus) and Tottenham Court Road. It is the central London bustle of people’s dreams. It could be Soho to the South East or it could be parts of Clerkenwell, Mayfair or Bloomsbury. A restaurant, a sandwich shop, a gallery, a pub, a workplace whose purpose is hard to fathom on first glance. There is always a purpose; it’s just that people and businesses are so inventive that there are so many purposes to them, and that the casual observer cannot re-invent everything that has been invented by so many people.

It’s lunchtime. On the street, workers in shirt sleeves – this is not a particularly formal part of central London, as it goes – rush for lunch. Who knows what they are all doing? Above the shops and offices at street level are brick buildings finished with stone, all different as is the London style, a fabulous creation borne not of one person’s vision but of the sum of a million people’s endeavours in entirely separate directions.

One office catches my eye, perhaps because it looks like a supercharged version of the office I worked in during my first real job. It would be the office chosen to show a perfect working life in a film: London or New York, busy, colourful, purposeful, cool. Certainly white desks, certainly phones alive with quick commerce.

To a substantial proportion of workers, this is the world of work. I suspect that most workers in that office that I saw, absolutely love it and regard it as a large and flattering part of their being.

Some Fridays, some workers here will plan ahead and bring to work what they need for the weekend, and at 5pm or 6pm they will take the train home – as many will be in their 20s – or to a destination to meet friends. During the day, on Friday, they will finish a report to a deadlines, meet someone for lunch, spend an allotted amount of time looking ahead in a more investigative style, take calls, make calls and keep up their share of the office’s administration. It will be an exacting day.

The pace of the day fits the work of the firm.

Then having rushed for the train, made it through one of the London stations – not calm places at rush hour – and found a seat or a place to stand that is nonetheless definitely on the train as opposed to off, the mind feels jubilation, satisfaction and then rest.

Where is the jubilation, satisfaction and rest if we are working at home? These human emotions are crucial to us, in the way that all human emotions are crucial to us because they balance each other out. We can work hard if there is the prospect of jubilation, satisfaction and rest.

Framing a pandemic to encourage utilitarian decision making

Newington high street in Edinburgh and I’m shopping for ground coffee. I have in mind a particular bag of coffee that’s a favourite. One of the two little supermarkets has this coffee for half price. I know that I want to buy some, the coffee is identical in every way, and it’s no more trouble to me to walk to one shop as opposed to the other. I buy it from the cheaper shop. Everyone would do the same.

One time in ten years on this high street, and hopefully never, a car will drive towards Edinburgh city centre and the car ahead of it will brake suddenly. The driver will have to swerve (imagine he has to swerve) and to the left is one pedestrian while to the right are two. The driver can see them all, they are all equally helpless and they would all die instantly. It is a terrible choice. In that last moment, the driver swerves into one person instead of two. Everyone would do the same.

“We have to swerve left or right. Would you like us to swerve left and kill two people or swerve right and kill one person?”

“We have committed a billion pounds to healthcare in an attempt to save lives. Would you like us to spend this billion on covid-19 and save 100,000 lives or on cancer and save 200,000 lives?”

Of course the question as it is framed in the public perception is, instead, “Would you like us to spend a sum of money to save lives lost to covid-19?”, to which people’s answer without further context is likely to be yes.

How do we get from one question to the other? How do we draw out the context? How do we encourage a utilitarian approach to morality and collective decision making, in order to increase lives saved?

In other words, what are the factors that distract us from a clear choice?

Let’s look at the differences in turn. Firstly we look at spending our energy on a pandemic as an optional excursion in our lives, in our nations’ histories, where really we will be taking a path whichever it is. That is to say that there is no default; certainly not the default that we dedicate resources to a new illness as a matter of course. We choose to spend money and therefore that money is not available for other uses. Assuming a need for a choice avoids inertia in decision-making and forces thought about each option.

We would estimate the cost of treating a pandemic and then offer the same amount of money to the alternative healthcare attempt.

Secondly we are bound as humans to place a premium on problems that we can see. Seeing a problem could mean saving a person in trouble in front of us. It could also mean treating a problem that is novel and in the news as opposed to one that is ongoing and less newsworthy. Pandemics are given names and they unfold in real time. To remove this factor of visibility we could mention the other illness, whether one illness repeatedly or a range of them in turn, in the same sentences that we use to mention the pandemic.

Just because a pandemic is costing lives does not mean that our limited healthcare spending will save most lives by treating the pandemic. We might save more lives by spending on another illness.

A third factor is time. Humans discount the future; we regard £100 in a month’s time as worth less than £100 today, perhaps £95 or some other amount less than £100. If we are told that in a month’s time 100 people will die, we don’t feel that it is as important as 100 people today. Cancer deaths will increase in five year’s time if we reduce screenings today because healthcare is directed towards pandemic concerns, but we don’t know exactly how many more will die from cancer. Something might come up. For a fair comparison we could talk about the total of covid-19 deaths in 5 years’ time versus extra cancer deaths in 5 years’ time.

The special factor in a pandemic is people’s individual assessment of their own mortal risk. Are people afraid? This is a factor outwith our model of a crashing car choosing left or right. We therefore add the consideration that steering right, while killing only one person as opposed to two, increases our personal fear of death. Perhaps that person is standing beside a cliff and the car would crash over it.

How do we remove this particularly personal fourth factor from our decisions? We could talk about the risk of dying from cancer and the possible manner of a cancer death, as we talk about these for the pandemic. An element of the fear of the pandemic is of catching it today and thus dying within a month, which is a different fear from the longer-term fear of an ongoing cancer story with its potential ups and downs. We could talk about the risk of dying from the pandemic this month as opposed to dying from cancer this month, with the month’s figures brought forward. If 10,000 people die from cancer in a typical month then we can compare this with pandemic deaths in a month.

The missing link here is the ability to affect our risk; we feel that many illnesses hit us at random and that we have little or no control over whether we get them, whereas we are apt to think that a coronavirus can be avoided. We turn back to the risk of death overall, from particular causes. Individuals are part of society and are subject to the same risks as everyone else.

Our finished sentence is then, having neutralised our four factors above, “We have committed a billion pounds to healthcare in an attempt to save lives. Would you like us to spend this billion on covid-19 and within 5 years have saved 100,000 lives or on cancer and within 5 years have saved 200,000 lives and also making it less likely that you will die?”

We say, “and also making it less likely that you will die” because we treat the individual as part of society and thus equally likely to benefit from those 200,000 lives saved from cancer.

Now considering utilitarian approaches to morality in general, how do we regard the human instinct to try to save a person who is dying in front of us? Should we override this instinct to save more than one person elsewhere?

Why do humans have this essential human behaviour, of trying to save someone in front of us and of not placing as much importance on distant or future suffering? One advantage of it is that is prevents us from reasoning our way to answers that could be cruel. We jump on every illness that we see, even if it means more illnesses popping up elsewhere, like an old fashioned button radio.

In effect we encourage a competition for visibility of illnesses in question, so that they can be subdued in their turn. We create a battle for attention instead of a battle for reasoning, debate, priorities and calculation.

If we don’t follow utilitarianism in a pandemic, it could be because we don’t follow it at any time.

We maintain and polish our human instinct that life is valuable by valuing lives that we see around us; we fear that if we sacrifice any life that it is in our power to save, by being nearby, then we will lose sight of the value of life everywhere.

Perhaps the way around this is to increase the visibility of life everywhere – every illness, every place, and every future time – and to increase our sense of being able to affect it.