Critical Thinking & COVID-19 XIII: Death Analogies

Critical Thinking & COVID-19 XIII: Death Analogies
by Professor

One stock argument against social distancing and other restricted responses to the pandemic is to conclude that these measures should not be taken because we do not take similar approaches to comparable causes of death. Put a bit more formally, the general argument is:

Premise 1: Another cause of death kills as many (or more) people than COVID-19.
Premise 2: We do not impose social distancing and other such restrictive measures to address this cause of death.
Conclusion: We should not impose social distancing and other such restrictive measures to address COVID-19.

Those making the argument often use the flu as an analogous cause of death, but people have also made comparisons to automobile accidents, suicides, heart disease, drowning in pools and so on. While the specific arguments are presented in various ways, they are all what philosophers call an argument from analogy.

Informally speaking, an argument by analogy is an argument in which it is concluded that because two things are alike in certain ways, they are alike in some other way. More formally, the argument looks like this:

Premise 1: X and Y have properties P, Q, R.
Premise 2: X has property Z.
Conclusion: Y has property Z.

X and Y are variables that stand for whatever is being compared, such as causes of death. P, Q, R, and are also variables, but they stand for properties or features that X and Y are known to possess, such as killing people. Z is also a variable and it stands for the property or feature that X is known to possess, such as not being addressed with social distancing. The use of P, Q, and R is just for the sake of the illustration—the things being compared might have many more properties in common.

An argument by analogy is an inductive argument. This means that it is supposed to be such that if all the premises are true, then the conclusion is probably true. Like other inductive arguments, the argument by analogy is assessed by applying standards to determine the quality of the logic. Like all arguments, there is also the question of whether the premises are true.

The strength of an analogical argument depends on three factors. To the degree that an analogical argument meets these standards, it is a strong argument.

First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. This standard is based on the commonsense notion that the more two things are alike in other ways, the more likely it is that they will be alike in some other way. It should be noted that even if the two things are very much alike in many respects, there is still the possibility that they are not alike regarding Z. This is one reason why analogical arguments are inductive.

Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the stronger the argument. A specific property, for example, P, is relevant to property Z if the presence or absence of P affects the likelihood that Z will be present. It should be kept in mind that it is possible for X and Y to share relevant properties while Y does not actually have property Z. Again, this is part of the reason why analogical arguments are inductive.

Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument.

These can be simplified to a basic standard: the more alike the two things are in relevant ways, the stronger the argument. And the more the two things are different in relevant ways, the weaker the argument. So, using these standards let us consider the cause of death analogy.

One thing that all causes of death do have in common is that they are causes of death—this is true of everything from swimming pools to the flu to COVID-19. Obviously, different causes of death will be more or less similar to COVID-19 deaths and a full consideration would require grinding through each argument to see if it holds up. In the interest of time, I will consider two main categories of causes of death that should encompass most (if not all) causes.

One category of causes of death consists of those that cannot be addressed by social distancing and the other science-based approaches to COVID-19. These include such things as suicide, traffic fatalities and swimming pool deaths.  We obviously do not use such methods to address these causes because they would not work. As such, arguing that because we do not use social distancing to combat traffic deaths so we should not use it to combat COVID-19 would be a terrible analogy. To use an analogy, this would be like arguing that since we do not use airbags and seat belts to address COVID-19, we should not use them to reduce traffic fatalities. This would be bad reasoning.

To be fair, a person could argue that what matters is not the specific responses but the degree of the response—that is, since we do not have a massive and restrictive response to traffic fatalities we should not have a massive response to COVID-19. While it is rational to proportion the response to the threat, the obvious reply to this argument is to point out that we do have a massive and restrictive response to traffic fatalities. Vehicles must meet safety standards, drivers must be licensed, there are volumes of traffic laws, traffic is strictly regulated with signs, lights and road markings, and the police patrol the roads regularly. Even swimming pools are heavily regulated in the United States—for example, fences and self-locking gates are mandatory in most places. Somewhat ironically, drawing an analogy to things like traffic fatalities supports massive and restrictive means of addressing COVID-19.

Horribly, the best way to argue against a strong response to COVID would be to find a cause of death on the scale of COVID-19 that we as a nation do little about and then argue that the same neglect should be applied to COVID-19. Poverty and lack of health care would certainly be two good examples—but the risk of such a tactic is that it might lead people to conclude not that we should be negligent about COVID-19 prevention but that we should have a massive response to these other causes of death.

The second category of deaths consists of causes that could be addressed using the same methods used to address COVID-19. The common flu serves as an excellent example here—the same methods that work against COVID-19 would also work against the flu. As many argued, even in a bad flu year life remains normal—no social distancing, no closing of businesses, no mandatory masks. While this analogy does seem appealing, it falls apart quickly because of the relevant differences between COVID-19 and the common flu.

While the death rate for COVID-19 is not yet known, the best available estimate is that it kills 3-4% of those who are infected—though there is considerable variation based on such factors as age, access to health care, and underlying health conditions.  In contrast, the flu has a mortality rate well below .1%. It still kills too many people, but it is vastly less dangerous than COVID-19. So, it makes sense to have a more restrictive and extensive response to something that is far more dangerous. We also do have measures in place against the flu: people are urged to take precautions and flu shots are recommended. If COVID-19’s threat drops down to the level of the seasonal flu, then it would make sense to apply similar levels of response. Likewise, if a dangerous strain of flu emerges again, then it would make sense to step up our restrictions.

In closing, this discussion does lead to a matter of ethics and public policy. As those who make the death analogies note, we collectively tolerate a certain number of preventable deaths. We must seriously address the issue of determining the acceptable number of deaths from COVID-19 and match our response to that judgment. And we should not forget that we might be among those tolerated deaths.

Stay safe and I will see you in the future.

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