Explanatory frameworks and managing randomness

Journal of Medical Ethics 46 (8):493-494 (2020)
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Epidemics, the medical historian Charles Rosenberg argued, typically have four Acts, as in a play. In Act I, which he termed ‘Progressive revelation’, ‘merchants’, ‘municipal authorities’ and ‘the complacency of ordinary men and women’, alike are reluctant to acknowledge an epidemic because of its threat to their ‘economic and institutional interests’ and to ‘their accustomed way of doing things’: gradually however, ‘inexorably accumulating deaths and sicknesses’ bring ‘ultimate, if unwilling, recognition’. In Act II, ‘Managing randomness’, ‘collective agreement’ is sought on an ‘explanatory framework’ to manage the epidemic’s ‘dismaying arbitrariness’. Such frameworks, in previous centuries mainly religious, are now more ‘secular and mechanistic’, but again also moral and social: explanation for example of the ‘differential susceptibility of particular individuals’ is sought in terms of ‘risk-enhancing behaviour’ and ‘style of life’, but also of environmental and social factors, such as ‘residence and occupation’, providing ‘a vehicle for social criticism as well as a rationale for social control’. In Act III, ‘Negotiating public response’, pressure is generated for ‘decisive and visible community response’, often taking the form of ‘collective rites integrating cognitive and emotional elements’. Such rites, including not only ‘the imposition of a quarantine’ and ‘procedures to cleanse and disinfect’, but also religious, or now more often moral or social rituals, afford ‘the reassurance of familiar frames of explanation and logically consequent policies that provide both meaning and the promise of efficacy’. Finally, In Act IV, ‘Subsidence and retrospection’, ‘incidence of the disease gradually declines’, and questions are raised ‘for retrospective moral judgement’ about ‘what “lasting impact” particular incidents have had and what “lessons” have been learnt. Have the dead died in vain? Has a heedless society reverted to its accustomed ways of doing things as soon as denial became once more a …



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Kenneth Boyd
University of Toronto, St. George Campus (PhD)

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