Necessity; Or: The Tyranny of Goals

[Alexander Somek] Tuesday, April 14, 2020


Two days ago, I watched a documentary on how China and South Korea have dealt quite effectively with the Corona Crisis. Seeing what has happened in these societies, one realizes that the imaginary of dystopian films no longer remains fictional. The whereabouts of people suspected to be carriers of the virus is monitored via their smartphones. The police immediately rush out to check private residences if the surveillance system indicates that a telephone might be used outside. Disinfection in special cabins is mandatory before entering buildings. Upon entering, sensors are checking the body temperature. If the temperature is raised, people are taken away for testing. The few people who are permitted to move around encounter medical personnel in protective gear that take every earthly appearance from their wearers. They look like astronauts or aliens.

If the documentary had been a feature film in a competition a few years ago, it could easily have won an award. The director would have received much praise for her disturbing message.


The documentation demonstrates how a society operates that observes the demands of necessity in the face of an objective on minimization. Whatever is necessary is done to prevent death and illness. If a society really wants to minimize infections and lift pressure from the health care system, there is no alternative to taking such measures. Temperature measurement and residence control? Most certainly, yes. Otherwise, there would be a greater risk that the infected part of the population further transmits the disease. There is no less restrictive way to keep the transmission rate as low as possible.

And that’s the problem. Minimization goals are inherently ascetic. They always incline us to add a little more restriction and renunciation. Rapidly the target shoots through the ceiling of human existence and turns it into a nightmare. At some point in this dream, figures might appear asking whether it would not be necessary to introduce a “social credit system” in the long haul so that undisciplined people can be nudged into observing the requisite sanitary discipline. Those wearing masks should score points, while those failing to keep their distance should lose some. Wouldn’t that be necessary to protect us all? Whoever objected to the idea would have to confront the rebuttal that grandmothers are more likely to die unless we make irresponsible people behave responsibly. Would anyone be willing to take the risk that they won’t? Think of our own granny. And, after all, one would not be asking more of people than to play by the rules. It’s five percent of unreasonable people that put us all at risk. “Nudging” them into conformity seems inevitable. It’s pretty lenient instrument, after all.

The logic of necessity is dangerous because it bows before the goal of minimization: “Yes, goal, as you say, goal. Everyone should be healthy, I understand, goal.” Actually, the goal and the purposive rationally mutually reinforce each other. Conceivable means of achieving objectives tend to spur the ambition of a goal without limits. Plus ultra!


In a situation of crisis, goals that effectively recognize no upper or lower limit pile up like thunderclouds. They become fanatical and seek alliances with scientists and mathematicians.

The only thing that protects us then from the tyranny of goals is what European constitutional legal scholars call the third component of the principle of proportionality: appropriateness.

It is the least technical element of this principle. It seems to require some trade-off, e.g. between health and freedom. In fact, however, it enables us to answer necessity’s question concerning potentially less intrusive means by asking the counter-question whether the goal pursued is worth even a least intrusive sacrifice.

There is no less intrusive alternative to a smartphone app that allows people to become aware of others reporting ill with whom they have had a longer conversation before. They can then go ahead, self-isolate and get tested. Arguably, if the identities of the persons are never revealed since what matters is prior contact with “someone”, no other way of protecting as many people as seems less intrusive. It better than forcing the whole population to self-insolate at home for as long as the crisis continues.

But is protecting us against infection really worth indirectly sending others into self-isolation after reporting that one could not avoid becoming infected oneself? Is this how we want to deal with one another? Do we want to go beyond wearing masks and keeping our distance and turn something as private as a personal illness into a threat to the public: “Someone you have met before has tested positive. Self-isolate and get tested!” Individuals are not given discretion to judge for themselves what to do, for example, depending on, to their best of their recollection, how close they were getting to others. The system judges it for them. Their perspective does not matter. Is the gain in risk-management worth the cost to our autonomy and to our general standard that it should be up to ailing to disclose their suffering to others.

But perhaps this is not a big issue. More disconcerting, however, is the precedent that is thereby set. Will we have to register all kinds of diseases in the future—anonymously, of course—so that others can seek cover? Whether living in a society where that would be the rule would still match our form of life, and not just life as envisaged by bureaucracies, is the decisive question.

We have been told also that there is no alternative to staying at home unless one has to go out to get groceries or to go to work. But is this maxim of risk aversion really worth waiving the Easter walk simply because citizens are suspected of being unwilling or incapable of keeping sufficient distance? Is it necessary to suppose that we behave unreasonably?

“Of course, it is,” the authorities will reply and blink: “Be smart and distrust your own judgment. It’s less cumbersome that way.”


The question of appropriateness concerns conflicting values. These are often incomparable. The goal of health protection collides with all kinds of freedoms. How can one translate increases in health into losses of freedom? There is no common measure for this. In virtue of its absence, the door is wide open for necessity. The goal does not encounter any internal resistance, for that which would want to resist does not speak the goal’s language. It has neither a vaccination record nor a test result. It does not even cough.

Nonetheless, we have always lived in conditions in which incomparable values co-exist. Life forms contain tacit arrangements. They often elude us, because within life forms incommensurable values coalesce into indefinable wholes. In Europe, we move through the social world without wearing masks and using disinfectants, even when people are ill. Yes, it may well be that we have more cases of illness than other societies. But normally we don’t care. This is how we live. We value showing our faces. This does not mean that we disvalue health, we just sustain room for traditions of civility.

In a situation of crisis such delicate cultural structures get out of joint. The rational pursuit of goals emancipates itself from human life and overrides established structures in which values coexist and sometimes rub against each other. We are flabbergasted by such developments and can only ask the question: “Are the measures really worth it in view of what we are about to lose?”

We can answer this question only by exercising our social imagination. We should not forget, under the impression of danger, how we have lived and how we want to live on in the future. Only the perspective on this can lend incommensurable values the appearance of being commensurable.

Once purposive rationality has gained the upper hand and decomposes the fabric of our way of life, the probability increases that it will take the lead again during the next crisis. Then, when the next flu arrives, everyone will again be wearing masks, and once more the restaurants will be closed. That will be our “new normal,” and we will be less free than before.

The asceticism of goals without limits has to observe those limits that originate from our forms of life. We have to assert them. We have to fight for them. A merely rational society does not recognize appropriateness, it embraces only necessity. Do we want that?

Alexander Somek | Vienna | April 14, 2020

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