Wicked dilemmas and political decision-making

April 6, 2020

For political leaders, preventing the further spread of the corona virus is the main priority, with the central objective of relieving the healthcare system to save as many lives as possible. But those who thought that the most trying time for governments was now over and that they had no more difficult decisions to make, would probably be sorely mistaken. Now that the dust has settled somewhat after the political storm of the first weeks of the corona crisis, public and political attention is partly shifting to the wicked dilemmas we’ll be facing in the coming months. Wicked dilemmas that science cannot easily solve either.

Our observations

  • The approach to tackling the coronavirus is entering a phase of grim trade-offs and degrading calculus. Governments currently have to deal with a worldwide healthcare crisis and, at the same time, account for the inevitable economic consequences of the lockdown.
  • The ethical dilemmas are not restricted to governments and their parliaments. They are part of a wider social debate where scientists, business men, health care professionals and the general public all participate and share their opinion, expertise and advice on the dilemmas. In the public debate, the tradeoff between direct healthcare costs and indirect health costs (as a consequence of an enduring economic crisis) is increasingly highlighted. The difficulty lies in the fact that often contradictory perspectives and interests are both reasonable and plausible. For instance, on the one hand business men emphasize the unintended and severe economic consequences of a prolonged lockdown but, on the other hand, healthcare professionals emphasize the dangers of easing the lockdown too soon.
  • Related to this is the bioethical question of the economic value of a human life, a question that has been relevant for some time now in healthcare, but that all of society is now being confronted with in a radical way.
  • Furthermore, we lack time for endless deliberation and informed debates. Some ethical and political dilemmas are already visible in the daily decisions of professionals. In hospitals the most urgent dilemma might be the issue of priority that could arise when intensive care units reach maximum capacity. Doctors might then be forced to make decisions about who gets to live and who dies. Medical triage isn’t new, but the scale currently occurring in peacetime might become unprecedented.
  • Finally, although this list of dilemmas is anything but exhaustive, the question looms what tradeoff should be made between the individual and his fundamental freedoms in society. Whereas before, discussions of this matter were rife with criticism of the East and its surveillance measures, the West now seems to be tacking partly, or at least a fundamental reconsideration seems to be expected of how the individual relates to the collective, how freedom relates to safety and how privacy relates to surveillance. These last dilemmas are political questions too that have been around a while (e.g. in the terrorism debate after 9/11, the migration debate and the big tech surveillance debate), but the pandemic is radicalizing and accelerating this reconsideration and reappraisal of fundamental rights and values. It’s imposing it upon all of society.

Connecting the dots

While hospitals are doing everything humanly possible to save as many lives as they can and the government is attempting to assuage the initial political storm with clear measures and considerable economic support packages, more wicked dilemmas for the medium-term are rearing their heads in the public debate, such as the issue of priority of ICU beds, the economic value of a human life and the tension between freedom and privacy (see observations).

These dilemmas are a major political and ethical challenge, there is no easy way out in terms of clearly good or bad solutions, it’s usually a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. In a democracy at least, the public debate, in interplay with the government, is the domain where decisions need to be taken collectively. One of the most important participants in the public debate, especially during times of crisis, is the expert or the scientist. Society and its political representatives are in need of experts who can resolutely and legitimately lay claim to the truth, providing clarity and bringing about concord in decision-making. But the interplay between science, politics and society is now threatened by two problems. The first is unequivocally the perfectly new and idiosyncratic nature of this crisis and the need to come up with a swift response. Because so little is known yet, science is continually lagging behind reality.

The second problem is reaching concordance in the transdisciplinary issues we are confronted with in times of crisis. The desired agreement and unity are only partial now. Especially scientists and experts are often copiously doling out contrasting information and advice on how to deal with the crisis. They all view the world from their own perspective and share these views with the public domain. The multitude of perspectives and fundamental concepts demand assessment, and of course, that’s where the difficulty often lies. It’s a slow and complex process, combining medical, political, economic, sociological and philosophical perspectives in a just decision. While these problems are not unfamiliar to politics in regular times, in times of crisis there simply isn’t time for lengthy and careful deliberation. And yet, the politician is asked, or even expected, to decide justly, resolutely and immediately.

Given that there is no simple solution to this crisis, more attention and room for transdisciplinary research may be needed in the public debate. Transdisciplinary research is a scientific approach that is geared towards the integration of knowledge, besides specialization. In many cases, scientific specialization and differentiation are partly what drives scientific progress and delivers (partial) solutions in domains such as oncology and neurology. But in times of crisis, the natural sciences simply don’t suffice, as the societal questions and dilemmas we face nearly always transcend disciplines.
Transdisciplinary sciences and scientific cross-pollination have two main advantages on single disciplines.

First, by definition, integration of knowledge has already taken place, which means that fewer assessments will have to be made afterwards. To illustrate, assessing what should be the tradeoff regarding the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis’ (in Dutch: CPB) current economic projection and the corresponding psychological dynamics of people and markets, relates to one of the basic tenets of behavioral economics. This integration beforehand ensures that in times of crisis, these sciences are able to immediately provide as much integrated knowledge as possible to political leaders and the public debate.

The second advantage is that transdisciplinary research confronts us again and again with the political and human naiveté that always lurks in our belief that society can fully rely on “objective scientific insights” to control the world and make the right decisions (technocracy). Transdisciplinary sciences such as systemic theory, cybernetics and ecology on the other hand, often rely heavily on complexity thinking and portray the world as a complicated field of interdependent networks and systems communicating with each other. These complex insights usually don’t yield simple or unambiguous political recommendations. Researchers in fields of scientific cross-pollination such as bioinformatics, neuropsychology and behavioral economy are usually modest as well when it comes to the scientific ability to control reality and deduce political decisions from their findings. Institutes such as the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (in Dutch: RIVM) are usually aware of this and openly accept accountability for it, but among the general public and in political debate, this often goes unnoticed. What these disciplines and society can learn now is that the world around us is fickle and unpredictable, that scientific control of the world is very difficult to achieve and that the gap between scientific insights and political decision-making is not easily bridged.

But we shouldn’t necessarily succumb to pessimism and fatalism. Politics has never been grounded in bare scientific fact and has always been a public affair, which science itself is a part of. Cultural values and interests should also be taken into consideration; bare facts are not enough to make good decisions, especially in a crisis like this. Politics is a practice in which we can definitely strive to be guided and even controlled by science, but ultimately, values and interests cannot be reduced to it. Not least because technocratic control and guidance themselves embody a political value.

The scientific provision of information is crucial to decision-making, as the RIVM has now clearly shown, but can never be its be-all and end-all. The political and ethical dilemmas the government will be faced with in the coming months will make that painfully clear.


  • Besides transdisciplinary research and complexity thinking, we can expect artificial intelligence to come to play a larger role in the political decision-making process. Not as smart systems that will completely take over decision-making, but in the form of a continuing dialogue between artificial intelligence and the public debate, allowing for dynamic measures to be taken when new knowledge is acquired. Artificial intelligence thereby integrates the complex network of dependencies and subareas in real-time and presents this in simplified form to the public, so it can be taken into consideration during deliberations. There is already a tendency towards this model of decision-making in Healthcare.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
Read the article
4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
Read the article
5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
Read the article
6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
Read the article

About the author(s)

Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.

You may also like