The Problem of Perfection

One of the essays I ask my Ethics students to write is on Moral Expertise. They write on whether there is such a thing as Moral Expertise and, if there is, what it looks like and how it can be acquired.

The most common response has been a rejection of the possibility of Moral Expertise. The reasoning goes like this:

No one is morally perfect

One must be morally perfect to be a moral expert

Therefore, there are no moral experts

I reject the second premise. There are experts in diverse fields like cooking and golf – who do not display perfect performance in either domain yet are counted as experts. Why should perfection be a requirement of expertise?

What about safety? Wearing a seat belt does not guarantee 100% that I will be ok after a car wreck. It does significantly decrease the chances of significant injury, however. You know, all that “an object in motion tends to stay in motion” bit – when your body is the object in question. If my body goes from 60mph to 0mph in a matter of seconds, that’s going to be difficult no matter what.

We have a virus loose on the earth. Over a million have died from it, thousands of others have had their health adversely affected, millions are suffering economically.

What if we could do something about the virus? What if there was something akin to a “seat belt” that while not guaranteeing protection, could improve our chances?

It appears that there are a few things out there. Many kinds of masks offer some protection. If and when we get a vaccine, the vaccine will offer some protection.

Even the best masks worn and used properly don’t guarantee perfect protection. They have side effects – the least of which they are uncomfortable and bothersome.

Even a vaccine tested, approved, distributed, and properly administered won’t guarantee perfect protection. Vaccines can have side effects – serious ones. Some people don’t like them because they fear needles.

For me, accepting imperfect forms of mitigation is worth my while. With population effects, decreasing my chances of getting the virus offer benefits not just to myself, but to the people around me. If I am part of a population that is also doing things that lessen the chances of transmission, that’s good for the population as a whole.

As with other viruses out there, it appears there is no way to eliminate the chances of getting the virus (other than continuing total isolation – maybe – but most of us don’t consider that a live option). Risk management requires making trade offs. The assumption that risk mitigation must be perfect is unrealistic.

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