Oops!  Mistakes and moral responsibility under COVID19

By Neil Pickering

I’ve been pondering for some time about the use of the term ‘mistake’ to describe one’s actions, and this has been brought to the fore again by actions of government ministers during the COVID 19 pandemic.

The BBC recently reported on the case of Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer.  Calderwood made journeys to her holiday home during the COVID-19 crisis, despite fronting a government campaign telling people not to do such things.  In the end, Dr Calderwood resigned, but initially she intended to stay, and was backed by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who thought “Dr Calderwood had made a mistake but should stay in her job”.  New Zealand Minister of Health, David Clark, also broke his own government’s rules, driving his family 20km for a walk during the first weekend of the COVID-19 Alert level 4 measures.  He was reported by New Zealand media company Stuff as saying “I have got this completely wrong, I have made a mistake”.

I can think of other examples too.

I recall that one All Black, after he had had sex with a woman in an airport toilet, said afterwards that he had made a “massive mistake”.  Another All Black also described himself as having made a “big mistake” when he purchased drugs on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

But are these mistakes?  I think of other circumstances when I would unhesitatingly use the word:  for example when someone makes an arithmetical error, or mispronounces a word.  In these cases, for the most part, people did not set out to do the sum wrongly or to mispronounce the word.

Given the use of the term ‘mistake’ in the latter sort of case, I can’t help feeling that it is being misused in the former sort of case.  Yes, it is a mistake when you add two numbers instead of multiplying them, for example.  But is it really a mistake when you deliberately enter a toilet and have sex with someone who is not your partner, or when you deliberately purchase an illicit substance, or when you get in a car and drive to your holiday home or for a walk against the advice you have yourself been giving others?  Why does the use of the term ‘mistake’ seem suspicious in these cases?

Of course, words such as mistake are not well-defined.  We’d expect the word mistake to cover a range of different examples.  Yet we notice when a term is used in a challenging or extended way, in poetry for example.  Even if, with some ordinary language philosophers, we regard the use of a word as showing what it means, we can still identify cases where a use seems a stretch.

Yet, when I think about the two kinds of case – the mistake in arithmetic, and the mistake in purchasing illegal drugs – the boundary I sense between them seems to become porous or soft.  In fact, both cases involve intentional acts, which break known rules or laws.  Someone who knowingly purchases drugs illegally is acting intentionally, and against a law they know to be in place.  Someone who mistakenly adds two numbers instead of multiplying them, is also acting intentionally, and they also know that there is a law about how to read the symbols of arithmetic.  Of course, the law in the case of the arithmetical mistake is a law of mathematics, and not a law of the land, and the penalty is a wrong answer, not a fine or worse.  Nonetheless, it would be odd to say in most cases that the person making the arithmetical mistake intended to multiply the two numbers but unintentionally added them instead.

Consider a mistake in a more complex activity such as chess, or rugby itself.  You can make a mistake in chess by moving in such a way as to lead to your own eventual defeat.  You can make a mistake in rugby by choosing to hold on to the ball instead of pass it, in circumstances where (as it turns out) a try would have been scored in all probability if you’d passed the ball.  Again, these are reasonably designated mistakes, but take the form of intentional acts.  That is why we attribute the mistake to the chess player or rugby player in question rather than to bad luck or fate.

So is the only real difference between the cases the seriousness of the consequences and the content of the action?  Are buying illegal drugs and making losing chess moves basically the same sort of thing, just differing in the social consequences – being caught by the police and exposed to public questioning about your morality, on the one hand, or losing a chess match on the other hand.

I don’t think so.  The choice of the word mistake to describe the cases of having sex in an airport toilet, or buying illicit drugs, or breaking the COVID-19 lockdown advice of the government you represent, is deliberate.  It is designed to purloin something the more usual use of the term mistake offers you for free.  In the usual cases, the mistake appears in the context of a wider intention to do the right thing:  to get the sum correct, to win the game of chess, to score a try.  These intentions are more defining of the person than the mistakes they make, even though they undermine the achievement of the person’s aims.

The person who deliberately flouts norms of professional behaviour, or of the law, doesn’t want this to define them.  The word mistake is used in an attempt to distance the action from the actor.  I can’t say I blame anyone for wanting to do this; it is wholly understandable.  I can imagine wanting to do the same if the circumstances arose.  Nicola Sturgeon wanted to keep Dr Calderwood in her job.  So she chose the word ‘mistake’ to categorise Calderwood’s actions with this in mind.

The word helps to maintain the idea that the person’s good intentions and their good character are intact.  The use of the word may play this role for the person him or herself.  But the audience for whom the use of the word mistake is intended should be alert.  Calling something a mistake may not imply that it was unintentional, but it does imply an attempt to attenuate the link between the act and actor.

Author:  Neil Pickering

Affiliation:  Bioethics Centre, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago

Competing interests:  None

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