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The Moral Pitfalls of Color-Coded Coronavirus Warning Systems

Color-coded chart showing the risk of covid-19 in UK

As states around the country ease lockdown restrictions, some are putting into place systems advising people about threat levels. In some states, these are color-coded systems that strongly resemble the Homeland Security Advisory system, put into place by George W. Bush to inform people about the risk of threats from terrorism after the September 11th terrorist attacks. 

Utah, for example, has a four-tiered system: a red designation indicates high risk, an orange designation indicates moderate risk, a yellow designation indicates low risk, and a green designation indicates “new normal.” The color-coded systems of other states and some other countries largely follow this same model.

It’s important to remember that there were lots of serious problems with the Homeland Security Advisory System, and it was eventually abandoned and replaced. Many of the problems had to do with the fact that color-coded systems are vague by their very nature. People have a sense that red means “stop” and green means “go.” Very few people will investigate the situation further. As a result, these systems are easily manipulated for political purposes. Color-coded systems don’t encourage careful, responsible thinking about risk. They encourage behavior motivated by sentiment rather than reason, and sentiment is easily coerced. Politicians tend to be excellent at cultivating certain kinds of common sentiments that drive political behavior and the Homeland Security Advisory System roused both fear and xenophobia. These are powerful forces and invoking them caused people to make voting decisions that they might not otherwise have made, to support wars they might otherwise have found unjustified, and to accept unprecedented privacy violations on the understanding that they were being protected from imminent harm.

Color-coded responses to coronavirus operate according to similar principles. If people want to know the current level of danger posed by coronavirus, they should be paying attention to the relevant data. How many new cases is a state discovering each day? What are the hospitalization rates? How many people are dying? These color-coded systems are not responsive to these important considerations. For example, there was recently a major outbreak of coronavirus at the JBS meatpacking plant in Hyrum, a city in Northern Utah. The outbreak was the biggest hotspot yet discovered in the state. At this point, 287 workers at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19. This meat packing plant refuses to shut down or to give employees meaningful time off to heal. 

Hyrum is in Cache County, and despite the unknown extent of the spread, Cache County remains in the yellow “low risk” zone. In fact, even in light of the outbreak, the Cache County Council voted to request that the county be moved to the green designation. As one councilperson put it, “I’m in the age group that’s most likely to die, but I’ve had a good life and I say let’s get on with it. That may sound like I’m being pretty casual about it, but that’s the way I feel.” If an area like Cache County requests a green designation on the basis of these kinds of considerations, the system is not responsive enough to actual data.

The Cache County example also illustrates the point that these vague, color-coded systems track not a set of facts, but a set of values. Many states have decided that thriving economies are more important than the lives of the vulnerable, but they haven’t exactly made this value judgment explicit so that people can evaluate it and respond accordingly. Instead, the values are obscured by color designations that look for all the world like they are based on public health considerations.

Instead of motivating people with fear, coronavirus color-coding systems encourage a different form of cognitive bias—wishful thinking. People across the country are sick of lockdown. They are exhibiting quarantine fatigue. They are sick of travel restrictions and of being prevented from engaging in their favorite consumer activities, especially during the summer. The fact that coronavirus cases have reduced dramatically in places like New York is causing the national curve to flatten. This doesn’t tell us anything encouraging about what is happening across the rest of the country. People have self-interested reasons to interpret the numbers favorably, even though there is no evidence-based justification for doing so. These warning systems also undercut good critical thinking practices in another way—they encourage people to disregard the advice of experts on infectious disease. The best available evidence we have now suggests that people should wash their hands regularly, maintain social distance from others, and wear a mask in areas where social distancing is difficult. It’s hard to get people to engage in these practices regularly anyway, and it is even more difficult to convince them that they should be doing so when their county is in a yellow or even a green risk designation.

At least in Utah, these systems do track some data, but not the data people might be inclined to believe. They are not tracking information relevant to whether people are actually safe to participate in social and consumer activities again. Instead, decisions are being made on the basis of how many hospital beds are available in a given area. The concern is not about whether people will contract the disease, but about whether health care systems will be overwhelmed if and when they do. This isn’t a metric we would stand for in other cases. Consider the following analogy. City officials are aware that the water at the local beach is infested with dangerous man-eating sharks. They are tasked with making recommendations about the safety of getting in the water. Tourism to the beach generates a lot of revenue every year, so it is in the state’s interest for the water not to be infested with man-eating sharks. Officials determine that the health care system is well equipped enough to treat people for shark bites, so they advise people that it is safe to swim in the water. Presumably, residents would think that this was an unconscionable decision and there would rightly be a degrading of trust in the public officials that were so callous with people’s lives.

The Homeland Security Advisory System was eventually replaced with the National Terror Advisory System, which was designed to “more effectively communicate information about terrorist threats by providing timely, detailed information to the American public.” Both terrorism and public health are high information issues about which it is difficult for the public to be fully informed.  Nevertheless, we should encourage people to be engaging with actual data rather than with colors that lull them into a false sense of security. 

Which Voices Matter? Ballot Initiatives, Marijuana, and Legislative Paternalism in Utah

Photograph of a sign for a medical marijuana dispensary

Drivers headed toward Salt Lake City on I-15 are sure to notice two things—the breathtaking Wasatch mountain range (when the thickness of inversion doesn’t obscure it) and a striking number of billboard ads warning citizens of the dangers of the misuse of opioids. This is not without good reason—Utah ranks 9th on the CDC’s list of states hit the hardest by opioid overdose. Misuse of opioids is responsible for 23 deaths every month, according to the Utah Department of Health. Empathy is called for when it comes to addiction in general, and addiction to opioids in particular. After all, many people become addicted to opioids in an attempt to deal with serious pain. If opioids pose such a threat, it makes good sense to think carefully about other approaches to dealing with pain.

In the November election, Utah voters were asked to vote on Proposition 2—an initiated state statute that would legalize medicinal marijuana. Utah is one of twenty-one states that permits citizens to propose ballot measures for vote by citizens at large. In order for an issue to make its way onto the ballot, citizens must demonstrate that the issue is one that a substantial portion of the population wants to take up, and they do so by collecting signatures on a petition.

Ballot initiatives have a long history in American politics.  They have existed in some form since the earliest days of our government. In the late 1800s, the country witnessed a surge in ballot initiatives. Citizens were increasingly concerned that wealthy interest groups had too much power over legislators and that legislation could, essentially be purchased. The ballot initiative came to be viewed as an important check on lawmakers. A system of government that allows for ballot initiatives demonstrates respect for the will of the people when it comes to the construction of crucial social policies.

On November 6, 2018, the notoriously conservative state of Utah surprised the country by passing their marijuana ballot initiative by a margin of 53 to 48. It made the use of cannabis legal for individuals with qualifying medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, cachexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, HIV, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder or ulcerative colitis. Chronic pain and autoimmune disease are also included in the list of conditions covered by Prop 2. A qualifying patient may, every two weeks, obtain up to 2 ounces by weight of unprocessed marijuana, or a processed product containing no more than 10 grams of THC or TBD.  The initiative allowed for private sale of marijuana, in accordance with the guidelines, at a number of dispensaries determined by the population of a given county, with at least one dispensary in each county. The population of counties in Utah results in the possibility of up to forty dispensaries.  The initiative also included a provision for patients suffering from chronic pain who live in remote areas. If a patient lives more than 100 miles away from a dispensary, they are permitted to cultivate up to six marijuana plants.

In conflict with the idea that ballot measures should allow for the voice of the people to serve as a check of legislators is the legal fact that legislators aren’t required to listen to the voice of the people. They can reject or revise initiated state statutes if the proposed rejection or revision has the support of a simple majority in The Utah State Legislature. Indeed, that body had been long at work on a bill, The Utah Medical Marijuana Act, to replace Prop 2. They began their work before voters even had a chance to weigh in. They seemingly never intended to let the voters settle the matter.

The new bill makes a number of significant changes to the policy. First, it reduces the number of dispensaries from 40 to 8 and they will be largely be run by the state.  Second, it reduces the number of illnesses that qualify to be treated with marijuana, getting rid of provisions for most autoimmune disorders and sources of chronic pain that are difficult to diagnose. The new bill also abandons the provision for patients living in rural areas—such patients must either travel to one of the eight dispensaries or deal with their chronic pain in some other way.

Some of the moves being made by Utah legislators are familiar to many—these kinds of strategies are frequently employed in an attempt to prevent easy access to abortion. Legislators may have their hands tied when it comes to making abortion illegal, but they can seriously restrict access, forcing women to either drive great distances, go through with their pregnancies, or abort their babies in ways that pose a threat to their lives and health. Arguably, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act does the same thing. It seriously restricts the locations at which it is possible to get medical marijuana. Legislators know full well that many citizens, especially those in severe pain, won’t have the resources to travel great distances. As a result, medical marijuana remains as good as banned to these segments of the population.  

The similarities between abortion legislation and the Utah Medical Cannabis Act don’t end there. Abortion laws around the country require doctors to read scripts, constructed by the legislators themselves, to patients seeking abortions. They are required to do so even if the script is inconsistent with the expert advice they would choose to give their patients were they allowed to advise freely. In these cases, legislators are behaving as if they know more about the health of patients than trained medical professionals do. Arguably, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act is making the same mistake.  Doctors are the best judges of the kinds of illnesses that cause pain, and they are in the best position to make recommendations on how that pain would best be tackled. If a doctor, in his or her expert opinion, thinks pain would better be treated with marijuana than with opioids, for example, many would argue that the doctor’s judgment should be respected.

The bill was passed as a result of coordination between a number of interested parties. One of these parties is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In advance of the election, the church sent out an e-mail to its members, urging them to vote no on Prop 2. They advised their members that “Its proponents assert that it will make medical marijuana available to those suffering with debilitating pain and other infirmities. However, in truth it goes much further, creating a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls.” It seems as if the church strongly influenced the election results with their actions and then continued to push their particular agenda in the form of the bill passed by the legislature. Many find this level of influence by a religious organization to be morally objectionable. Religions wield tremendous coercive influence over their members.  Reason may motivate a voter to vote one way in an election, and their perception of what God wants them to do might motivate them to vote in a different way. Between these two alternatives, many devout religious people will do the thing they have reason to believe God wants them to do.

This case has many moving parts, morally speaking, and it motivates a cluster of questions. When should the voice of the people be taken seriously and when is it appropriate for the legislature to behave paternalistically? When the voice of the people expresses that they want a ban to be lifted, is it morally fair to replace a ban with restrictions that are, as a practical matter, not much different from a ban? Should legislators be in the business of telling doctors how best to treat their patients? How involved is it morally appropriate for churches to be in elections and the construction of laws?


Alcohol Legislation in Utah: Drunk with Power?

The United States has long struggled with a set of deeply divided attitudes toward alcohol.  To be sure, alcohol can be quite dangerous, so it is certainly reasonable to be cautious and concerned about its use in certain contexts.  On the other hand, one of the clear lessons taught by our experiment with Prohibition is that individuals feel that restrictive alcohol policies constitute unwarranted violations of their autonomy.

Continue reading “Alcohol Legislation in Utah: Drunk with Power?”

Homeless in Utah, Desperately Seeking a Backyard

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

For more than 60 years, the sprawling Utah State Prison sat nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountain range in Draper, Utah.  The prison was home to such notorious inmates as serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Gilmore, and serial pedophile and cult leader Warren Jeffs.  Utah was the first state to reinstitute the death penalty after the Supreme Court’s moratorium ended in 1973, and the state has since executed 51 people.  In 2015, the Utah legislature made the decision to relocate the prison to West Salt Lake City.  In its place, Draper Mayor Troy Walker proposed to house something that, as it turns out, struck Draper citizens as far more distasteful than even the prison—a shelter for the homeless.

The proposal was part of a plan to disperse the burgeoning 1,100-resident caseload of the The Road Homea homeless shelter located in Salt Lake City.  Walker’s specific proposal was for Draper to take on the responsibility of a subsection of that population—a group of women actively looking for work, and their dependent children.  Explaining his decision to throw Draper’s name into the ring for the site of the new shelter, Walker said, “It’s the right thing to do; it’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the thing that will set us apart and make us the kind of people we are.”

Dutiful to his constituency, Walker held a town hall meeting on the topic at a local middle school.  Nearly 1,000 people attended.  Some of them packed the halls outside of the auditorium to avoid fire code violations.  Video of the meeting that ensued quickly went viral on the Internet.  Attendees of the meeting were overwhelmingly opposed to the relocation of the homeless shelter in their town.  At one, point, a homeless man stood up to testify to his experience with how homeless shelters benefit their charges.  He was booed into silence.

Many watching the situation closely are concerned by the gentrification that they are seeing.  The Salt Lake bedroom community of Draper is becoming more and more upscale. Property on the base of the mountain is prime real estate.   The new site of the prison is near the Salt Lake International Airport and Rose Park, one of the least affluent communities in the area.  Already home to a number of halfway houses, rehab centers, and a parole violator center, Rose Park can expect a new prison instead of the remodeled fairgrounds that they were promised.  The refusal of the homeless shelter seems to be motivated by similar considerations. The “not in my backyard!” mentality seems to entail either a desire for institutions like prisons and homeless shelters to not exist at all, or for their location to be in other, poorer, backyards.

Many moral theories emphasize the value of universalizability.  The idea is that, if you want to ensure that your decision is a moral one, it has to be a decision that you wouldn’t mind if someone else made under circumstances that were sufficiently similar.  If we want to bar homeless shelters from our own communities, we must be comfortable with everyone else barring homeless shelters from their communities as well.  Of course, we can’t do that unless we simply want homeless shelters to no longer exist.  After all, every community is someone’s community.  

Of course, the concerns of the citizens of Draper are not entirely baseless.  Homeless shelters are not good for property values.  Though we don’t want to confuse correlation with causation, it is true that property values are 12.7 percent lower in areas with homeless shelters than they are in other areas (all other things being equal).  Homeowners have obligations to provide for themselves and their families.  Their ability to do this may be compromised if they lose equity in their homes.

Homeowners also have a legitimate interest in their own safety, and the safety of their families.  Mental illness is common among the homeless population, and so is drug and alcohol abuse.  Residents of the area may have justifiable concerns that their communities will be less stable if the homeless population is introduced.

It is worth pointing out, however, that less affluent families living in lower-income communities have the same safety and stability fears as the Draper residents.  If the concerns of the Draper residents are justified, and if those concerns are sufficient for the Mayor of Draper to withdraw his offer of the prison as a location for the needs of the state’s homeless, why aren’t the identical concerns of those living in less affluent communities deserving of equal consideration?

Let’s not forget the plight of the homeless population.  Many moral philosophers have suggested that the best measure of the morality of a society is the way the least advantaged members of that society are treated.  Booing a homeless person into silence at a town hall meeting doesn’t say anything good about the society in which that kind of thing happens.

There is a silver lining to this cloud, however.  Though this particular situation suggests that there is room for some serious character development on the part of many Utah citizens, Utah has been making international news in a more positive way for a different approach to homelessness.  Implementing a novel new approach called “Housing First,” Utah has reduced homelessness by 72 percent over nine years.  The idea behind this approach is to do what the name suggests—provide housing to homeless people right away, without making that housing contingent on mental health or sobriety.  When dealt with in this way, 88 percent of the homeless population remains in the housing a year later, at a cost to the state less than it incurred when the homeless people were on the street.

The success of the Housing First program suggests a need to change our collective mindset toward the homeless, and perhaps about access to crucial human goods and services as well.  It makes sense, not just from a legal perspective, but also from a moral perspective, to attend to the basic needs of all human beings, especially those that are much less fortunate than the rest of us.