The COVID-19 crisis and its moral dilemmas – Empirical research and outreach activities

During the past weeks, several research and outreach activities have been taking place within the BEHAVE-program, that focus on the COVID-19 crisis and the moral dilemmas it imposes on society. Here is a quick summary of recent efforts:

First, based on the blogpost on moral decision making in the context of COVID-19 (see previous news item), Studium Generale recorded two short movie clips (5-10 minutes each, in English) in which Caspar explains why pro-social behaviors such as social distancing are only weakly related to our moral values and discusses why societies find it so difficult to discuss the economic impacts of the lockdown. Both mini-lectures provide hands on advice for policy makers. The Financieel Dagblad (the leading Dutch business newspaper) interviewed Caspar on the latter topic, as input for an article on Dutch lockdown policies (note that the general message of the article does not necessarily align with Caspar’s personal views on this matter). An op-ed article arguing that the COVID-19 crisis is also a moral crisis, offering moral decision making insights from the BEHAVE-program, was also published in the Dutch professional magazine Binnenlands Bestuur.

Second, together with Niek Mouter and Erlend Dancke Sandorf, and co-sponsored by the TU Delft Covid-19 response fund, Caspar performed an empirical study into how Dutch society weighs various aspects of lockdown relaxation policies, with a particular focus on the morally salient trade-off between healthcare effects and economic effects of lockdown policies. This has resulted in a Dutch language publication, an article in the leading Dutch business newspaper and a (35 minute, in Dutch) interview. An English language academic working paper is currently being reviewed for publication.

The abstract of the academic article is as follows: We report and interpret preferences of a representative sample of the Dutch adult population for different strategies to end the so-called ‘intelligent lockdown’ which their government had put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a discrete choice experiment, we invited participants to make a series of choices between policy scenarios aimed at relaxing the lockdown, which were specified not in terms of their nature (e.g. whether or not to allow schools to re-open) but in terms of their effects along seven dimensions. These included health-related aspects, but also impacts on the economy, education, and personal income. From the observed choices, we were able to infer the implicit trade-offs made by the Dutch between these policy effects. For example, we find that the average citizen, in order to avoid one fatality directly or indirectly related to COVID-19, is willing to accept a lasting lag in the educational performance of 18 children, or a lasting (>3 years) and substantial (>15%) reduction in net income of 77 households. We explore heterogeneity across individuals in terms of these trade-offs by means of latent class analysis. Our results suggest that most citizens are willing to trade-off health-related and other effects of the lockdown, implying a consequentialist ethical perspective. We find that the elderly, known to be at relatively high risk of being affected by the virus, are relatively reluctant to sacrifice economic pain and educational disadvantages for the younger generation, to avoid fatalities. We also identify a so-called taboo trade-off aversion amongst a substantial share of our sample, being an aversion to accept morally problematic policies that simultaneously imply higher fatality numbers and lower taxes. We explain various ways in which our results can be of value to policy makers in the context of the COVID-19 and future pandemics.