The Sophists in ancient Greece were a class of teachers who, for a fairly high fee, would instruct the affluent youth in politics, history, science, law, mathematics and rhetoric as well as the finer points of grammar and history. The man named as the first Sophist, and certainly the most famous, was Protagoras of Abdera (c.485-415 BCE) best known for his claim that “Man is the Measure of All things” and that the gods’ existence could neither be proven nor disproven. While Protagoras, like those who followed him, charged exorbitant fees for his services, a story is told of how the great Sophist was once outsmarted by one of his pupils and this tale came to be known as Protagoras’ Paradox.
Protagoras agreed to instruct a poor young man, Euthalos, in law and rhetoric free of charge on the condition that he would pay the Sophist’s fee in full if, and only if, he won his first court case. Once Euthalos had completed his course of study with Protagoras he assiduously avoided taking any cases at all. Protagoras, finally out of patience with the young man, took him to court for payment and argued, “If I win this case, Euthalos will have to pay me what he owes me. If I do not win this case then Euthalos will still have to pay me because, under our agreement, he will then have won his first court case. Therefore, no matter what the outcome, Euthalos will have to pay me.” Euthalos, however, contested this claim, stating, “If I win this case, I will not have to pay Protagoras, as the court has declared his case invalid. If I do not win this case I still do not have to pay as I will then have not won my first court case. Therefore, no matter what, I do not have to pay.” This is known as Protagoras’ Paradox, which ever way you look, both have equally convincing arguments, one can go either way in supporting the teacher or the student and would not be wrong. This argument (for which no solution was ever offered in antiquity) came to be known as the Paradox of The Court and a resolution to the question is still debated today in law schools as a logic problem.
We, in the present day situation have an uncanny similarity to this paradox. The Protagoras’ Paradox succinctly captures the paradox of our times when the coronavirus COVID-19 is affecting 212 countries and territories around the world . Health and economic issues aside, the virus is playing havoc on our social fabric. Projected figures of the death toll due to the coronavirus, from Harvard to Imperial college, are based on complex calculations beyond the comprehension of most of us. Equally baffling is the downward or upward revisions by the same institutions. It is truly an infodemic within a pandemic. While the value of a human life can never be compared or quantified with economic cost, there is enough evidence to suggest a direct qualitative and quantitative relationship of economic wellbeing with life.
Those in the medical practice often come across such situations, either in making diagnostic or therapeutic decisions. One physician recommends a course of treatment based on scientific evidence and another recommends a diametrically opposite course, again, based on medical evidence. Right or wrong, but some merit would exist on both sides. Often the physicians are having an internal struggle to make a decision about the most appropriate course of action, Protagoras and Euthalos are arguing in their minds and the horns of dilemma are tearing them apart.
This essay was prompted by someone’s tweet , ‘hope the cure is not worse than the disease’. I hate to say, but I find some merit in this tweet. In our global attempt to flatten the COVID curve, one must hope not to flatten the global economy curve. The question is what’s the best way forward. Do we continue lockdown for a very long time and wipe out our economies or let a few 100 million die and keep the economies going ? One group recommends ‘total lockdown’ to break the transmission chain, based on the evidence from China (they managed to control the spread of the virus by ruthless lockdown and 3 months later they are telling the world that the disease has been controlled in Wuhan). On the other hand, the other school of thought is divided on graded isolation and protection of elderly and the very young and those with co-morbidities. They believe in letting it spread amongst the young and healthy, hoping that the disease will ultimately be controlled when we achieve ‘herd immunity’. The medical community is divided in these two groups. To enforce complete lockdown or graded isolation?
To complicate the issue, the epidemiologists have joined the bandwagon with their own interpretation of statistical analysis saying that if we don’t opt for a complete lockdown then a million people will die in 1 year. No, say some more, like 90 million will die in 1 year. Whose data analysis is correct ? Some suggest do nothing, nature will take over in a few months and all will be well, they quote historical data to justify their recommendations. On whose inputs should we base our disaster management strategy.
Then come the economists with their doomsday predictions. If this continues after May, our medical resources will be overwhelmed, agriculture will suffer, food shortages will occur and all production will come to a standstill. There will be an economic crisis of the proportions that world has not seen ever. So, break this lockdown nonsense and let’s get back to work as usual.
What will our political masters do? My guess is they will listen to medical experts, epidemiologists and economists and then decide what course of action will ensure their survival. What will get them people’s votes and they will run with that. At present, ‘lockdown’ finds favour with them. UK had to abandon the recommendations of the medical community about graded response because of the people’s perception that the government is not doing enough to protect the citizens. So, screw it, lets go with total lockdown if that’s what the people want. Gradually people will get tired of lockdown and demand to let the life go on. Then, with equally convincing arguments the governments will say the time has now come to lift the blockade, we have controlled the contagion, we have won. Unfortunately, the costs in either case will be huge in terms of both, lives and money.
Who are we going to blame for this pandemic? Pandemics come out of nowhere and go the way they came. When all this ends- and fervently hopes sooner than later– proponents and opponents of every action will undoubtedly claim to be vindicated and pat their own back even as distinction between experts and astrologers will increasingly get blurred. Didn’t Malthus predict that when population would overshoot the earth’s sustainable capacity, natural calamities and disease would restore the balance? It is really a perplexing situation and no one seems to be correct or in the winning mode. The Protagoras’ Paradox is as true today as it was then.
* * *