The UK Government's "balancing act" in the pandemic: rational decision-making from an argumentative perspective

Fairclough, Isabela orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-6718-2636 (2022) The UK Government's "balancing act" in the pandemic: rational decision-making from an argumentative perspective. In: The Pandemic of Argumentation. Springer Argumentation Library . Springer, pp. 225-246.

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This paper looks at how the "balance" between lives, livelihoods and other concerns was talked about in four main newspapers in the UK, between March 2020 and March 2021, in assessing the UK government's performance. Different arguments were made for opposite conclusions, favouring either strict and prolonged lockdowns or, on the contrary, a speedy exit from lockdown and a resumption of normal life. From the point of view of argumentation theory, the empirical data suggests that what is being balanced or weighed together in pro/con argumentation by two opposite parties are not as much the costs and benefits of one's own proposal, but the costs of one proposal against the costs of its alternative (a "cost-cost", rather than a "cost-benefit" analysis). Rather than defending their own proposal by arguing that the benefits outweigh the costs, each side is criticizing the opponent's proposal by claiming that the costs of their proposal are more unacceptable than the costs of their own. The "best" decision in choosing among two proposals with negative consequences is the one that avoids the proposal with the worse overall consequences (and thus minimizes the maximum possible loss). This implicit minimax strategy was applied in radically different ways, depending on how the consequences were assessed by various parties to the debate (including the government), which consequences were considered less unacceptable (or became less unacceptable as the situation evolved). Different lines of action were defended in light of their ability to avoid unacceptable costs (negative consequences), i.e. their ability to withstand criticism in light of their potential costs. The debate over lockdown illustrated an interesting type of pro/con argument, in which all the intended "benefits" were in fact avoided "costs". It also placed in clear contrast a medical/epidemiological and a political perspective on the best course of action, stressing a government's obligation to balance together a much wider range of responsibilities and concerns.

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