When rules and consequences clash, we had better weigh up carefully what matters most
When a pandemic is wreaking havoc, and many hundreds of people are killed by a virus every day, it is important that the population as a whole takes sufficient precautions to slow down its exponential spread. Self-interest may not be sufficient to ensure the right behaviours are widely adopted. So, governments tend to impose rules that transcend people’s conventional decision-making approach in which they weigh up the costs and the benefits of a decision.
In essence, a rule removes the burden of having to work out the trade-off: Just Do (or Do Not Do) This (or That) Thing. Laws, religious prescriptions, and social conventions are full of them: we drive on the correct side of the road, do not covet our neighbour’s ass, and, unless we are a life guard, we don’t go to work in a swimsuit. And during a pandemic, when the government says “Stay at home” that is what we do.
However, such rules may come into conflict with other concerns at some point. When I wrote about this a few weeks ago, I discussed the potential for behavioural fatigue and alluded to the fate of the Scottish Chief Medical Officer who had had to resign for breaking the terms of the lockdown. I had no idea that in the weeks to come epidemiologist Neil Ferguson would be resigning as a member of SAGE, the group of senior scientists advising the UK government on COVID-19-related policy, also for breaking the lockdown rules. But I had even less expected that prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, would become embroiled in a similar controversy.
This latest affair offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on decision-making, at three levels, each of which merit our attention.
A worried father
In case you missed the story (though I understand it has received airtime well beyond the shores of the British Isles), a brief summary. A few days after the nationwide lockdown was instated, Mr Cummings’ wife reported feeling ill, and feared she might have COVID-19. Concerned they might not be able to look after their four-year-old son if he too would become ill, he drove his family 250 miles from their home in London to Durham, where his father and his sister live. This was clearly in breach of the government’s lockdown instructions. People with symptoms had to self-isolate at home, and were not expected to travel elsewhere.
Nevertheless, it is an understandable option to consider. As a fearful parent, we feel the most secure when we are close to our family. Moreover, Mr Cummings’ own account of the episode suggests his actions posed negligible risk to others – not least since, despite both his son and he falling ill while away, none of the family did actually tested positive for COVID-19 throughout.
But this is precisely why simple, unconditional rules, respected by all, are important. This rule was intended to manage the externality that Mr Cummings (and everyone else) – whether with symptoms or not, since also asymptomatic carriers can spread the virus – was imposing on others, by increasing the risk to them.
So, some take a dim view of this escapade. The case for having acted as a worried father seeking to do the best by his family is not really helped by a somewhat surreal twist to this tale. A few days before returning to London, he made a trip to Barnard Castle, a popular tourist attraction about 30 miles away, supposedly to verify his eyesight was good enough for the long drive home, and with wife and son in the car. (Meanwhile the Durham police have declared it “might have been a minor breach” of lockdown rules.)
The citizens are revolting
The fact that of one worried father had bent the rules would not remotely have made the headlines. This was not a random worried father, however, but a figure in a position of authority, and the news, on 22nd May, of Mr Cummings’ trip led to predictable indignation. Much of it came from the opposition, but there was plenty of outrage from within the government party too. Dozens of Tory MPs seem unwilling to “move on” from the row, with 44 of them (including several bona fide Brexiteers) calling for Mr Cummings to go. In a YouGov poll after Mr Cummings defended his actions at a press conference, 59% of respondents said he should resign or be sacked, and 71% believe he breached regulations. Several variations on the “One rule for them, another one for the rest of us” could be heard up and down the land.
Hypocrisy is hardly an unusual allegation to be levelled at politicians, so it should not be unexpected for chief advisers either. But while perceiving someone as a hypocrite is often enough to call for their resignation or for them to be sacked, being a hypocrite is not, in itself, unethical, and rarely grounds for actually having to resign, any more than being bald or wearing a terrible T-shirt.
In this case, however, the consequence of the controversy goes beyond the potential loss of reputation for the ruling party, or a shift of voting intentions towards the opposition. The government relies on the broad willingness of the citizens to respect the rules imposed for handling the pandemic. Such behaviour depends on social proof, visible evidence that others are following social norms and adopting that desired behaviour too.
The widespread perception that the prime minister’s chief adviser broke lockdown rules (this is violating the descriptive norm, “what people do”), and that it is actually OK to break the rules (this is violating the injunctive norm, “what people ought to do”) flips that social proof around. When we see evidence that others – especially figures in authority – are disregarding the rules, and leaders are condoning such transgressions, we will be inclined to do likewise, especially if the behaviour the rules aim to achieve is costly or inconvenient.
This makes the reaction from the prime minister, from Mr Cummings himself, and from the cabinet – ‘nobody did anything wrong’ – a little puzzling. Both the PM and his adviser have a reputation of being good communicators, at least with words. But communication is more than just rhetoric and slogans: what one does, or doesn’t do, also conveys a message. Here, the government seems to be spurning the scientific advice it is otherwise so keen to refer to, as this tweet from Stephen Reicher, a psychologist specializing in crowd psychology and one of the members of the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza on Behaviour (SPI-B) group suggests (supported by several of his colleagues):
It is hard to disagree both with both the advice, and with the conclusion that it has not been followed particularly diligently. The fact that, a week on, the controversy shows little sign of dying down, despite appeals by Boris Johnson to “move on”, indicates the government might have been wiser to do so. Mr Johnson’s defending his chief adviser is understandable: he relies heavily on his top aide, and would be loth to lose him. But he appears to have manoeuvred himself in the tricky position of now having to choose between his right-hand man, and the trust and support of a considerable proportion of the people.
It is the uncompromising loyalty of his ministerial team that is the most remarkable, however. One junior minister resigned over the matter, but most members of the cabinet have expressed their backing for the PM and his chief adviser, in uncannily similar tweets, almost as if they received instructions to do so.
These cabinet members appear not to be Benthamite consequentialists, aiming to achieve the best possible outcome, but Kantian deontologists, who doggedly stick to the rules of loyalty to the party and to each other. Being guided by such a principle may well help avoid making difficult trade-offs, but when a conflict arises with another rule, or when the consequences of the principle begin to, well, be consequential, then obstinacy can be poor counsel.
On 28th May the UK officially started its test-and-trace programme, which – in the words of the government – relies on “people doing their civic duty”, and obeying the instructions to quarantine for two weeks when that is demanded. A government that is perceived as condoning the breaching of its own rules by a senior adviser, and to be valuing tribal loyalty more highly than maintaining solidarity with its subjects may find this civic duty not to be as forthcoming as it would wish.
Even deontologists would be well advised to have an eye for the consequences of the rules they uphold.