By Lethbridge Herald on May 22, 2020.
The Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs weekly YouTube livestream talk on Thursday dared to ask the question: Should people breaking COVID-19 social distancing rules be punished?
The answer to this question may reveal more about the one answering it rather than the actual ethical and more arguments at play, said co-presenters and political scientists Melanee Thomas and Lisa Lambert.
Thomas and Lambert said they have identified four different types of personality responses to public health orders during this COVID-19 pandemic: Willing participants, who make up about 65 per cent of people, and a minority of people who are Egoists, (those who refuse to comply with public health orders), and Punishers, (those who are vindictive in their pursuit of the non-willing mainly made up of the Egoists). And an extreme minority of people who are Altruists, or those who would selflessly help others in any way they could even to their own detriment at times.
Thomas said each distinct personality type, especially the first three categories, needs a specific policy response from the government.
“One of the arguments we make is if you want to have a complete public policy response, you have to take all these motivations into account, and that includes things like the Punishers,” she explained. “Willing participants need crystal clear information, and they need that regularly, and they need that to follow the rules. And if they have got it, they will follow. But this isn’t everyone. Egoists need the presence of sanctions, or things that are more selfishly motivated, to actually follow the rules. But with Punishers, you need to think carefully how to integrate them. Punishers might be satisfied if they see sanctions being applied, but what I worry about is where we initially said snitch lines are not such a bad thing because otherwise Punishers might go vigilante … So if you see someone breaking the rules, you could understand why someone who has that kind of motivation would be open and receptive to (things like snitch lines).”
Thomas, who admitted to taking a lot of heat for this argument, said she was not necessarily in favour of using a snitch line herself, but rather it was just a potential means for policy makers to channel the Punisher’s need to punish in a more controllable direction.
“I think this is where we need to have a little more of an empirical approach where we step back a bit,” she said. “The whole point is to minimize authoritarianism and minimize coercion.”
Lambert added they were seeking a co-operative policy model based on the ideas of Nobel Prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom, where all personality types could buy into public health orders, when they published their notorious opinion piece “A COVID-19 Smackdown: Why rule breakers need to be punished” back in April.
“In the old style of economic theory, and political approaches to these things, everyone was seen as only driven by rational self-interest,” she explained. “So therefore you must be financially punished or financially rewarded for doing something, or otherwise you wouldn’t do it.
“But because we rejected that idea that this is how everyone behaves, we have to see there are public policy responses that can incorporate the Willing participants, (the Egoists), the Punishers, and in some ways the Altruists.”
Lambert also said things like social distancing, mask wearing or amenities closures required to keep people safe in a pandemic should not be subjected to “political performance,” but rather be accepted for the general good no matter your political affiliation. She used the example of masks to explain her point.
“As the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Canada noted (Wednesday), we should all be wearing masks,” Lambert stated. “This is another of the topics we need to consider beyond social distancing. Will people do this for the collective good? It’s really not about yourself when wearing a mask, it’s really about protecting other people. It’s very much a test of our willingness to perform for the collective.”
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter