Coronavirus, risk and morality

Jonathan Ashbach:

There is a moral core to the argument against draconian use of stay-at-home orders that has yet to be well articulated in the public sphere.

Reactionary governmental responses to the spread of coronavirus have been catastrophic. We have inflicted job loss upon tens of millions of American workers. We have put a quarter of small businesses at risk of permanently shutting down. And we have inflicted untold mental distress upon hundreds of millions. All this in the last few weeks.

Yet extreme response measures still hold an aura of moral superiority for many. There is a touch of the surreal in the oblivious manner with which many talking heads have savagely put down any resistance to intrusive measures with a simplistic, “This will save lives,” or, “Our goal must be to minimize deaths.”

Point out the compounded economic and personal hardship that our response has inflicted, and in many quarters you will meet at best the dismissive retort that one can’t measure lives against the economy and at worst with the accusation that you are a selfish &^%$# who values your freedom over others’ wellbeing.

Now, there is a kernel of insight in this response. As a severe critic of libertarianism, I find it heartening that people are expressing at least subconscious recognition that freedom is not an intrinsic good. Valuable as it is, it is only a means to human excellence and happiness. So if the tradeoff were really as simple as amoral freedom versus the wellbeing of the nation, then this response would be entirely appropriate.

What is disheartening, on the other hand, is the intense poverty of moral vision that the response reveals. It takes for granted the moral irrelevance of work, study, human interaction, sightseeing, dating, going to the gym, attending sacred services, and all of the million and one things that the current restrictions have largely put on hold.

It is not true that those who value the plethora of activities that make up human life are prioritizing selfishness over the real wellbeing of the nation. Exactly the contrary. Months of people’s lives are slipping away forever. It is those who dismiss that who devalue the human.

The jobs we have taken from tens of millions of our fellow citizens cannot simply be dismissed as amoral dollars and cents. They are sources of meaning and provision, arenas of excellence of profound moral worth—and especially valuable, one might add, to the less economically privileged, who are disproportionately suffering under our new rules.

The hundreds of thousands of small businesses that we are driving into the ground are not simply abstract “companies.” They represent the investment of the dreams and life work of millions of our fellow citizens. A class is not merely an instrument for increasing average worker productivity. It is a sacred activity—opening the mind to truth, crafting the character, unfolding the understanding.

The personal, face-to-face human interactions that we have cut off at the source are the very stuff of meaningful life. To respond that all of these activities can be moved online would be to engage in an exercise in self-delusion.

Many have partial online substitutes, but many do not, and none of the substitutes fully compensates even where they do exist. We are embodied persons. We are not merely immaterial souls. There is no wireless substitute for a hug, a firm handshake, or beers and a long evening of conversation, face to face.

So the barbaric, panicky elevation of mere life as the only good worth conserving is becoming increasingly shameful. Please do not misunderstand. I do not use the word “mere” to denigrate the value of human life. Rather, it is the morally impoverished elevation of simple biological subsistence to the exclusion of all those things that make up a real, meaningful life that is becoming more and more disgraceful as the weeks pass on.

It is supposed to be reassuring when various establishments inform me that “Your safety is our first concern.” Dear heaven above, I hope not! Excellence? Virtue? Yes. Development as a complete human being? Sure. But safety? Our first concern?

Has our society become so pampered that we have forgotten we live in a world where risk is an intrinsic part of every moment of every life? Where tens of thousands of people die in car crashes every year? Where people trade years of life for an increased daily intake of sugar and salt? Where people may kill you for little reason, bad reason, or no reason at all?

All worthwhile activities always involve risk of death—to oneself and others. That is no excuse for assuming a fetal position and failing to live one’s life. Complete human beings will live in awareness and acceptance of their own and others’ mortality.

As the sense of panic caused by the unfamiliarity of the new virus passes away, the quality of much elite moral discourse over the past few weeks will hopefully be recognized for the embarrassment it is. Where is the vitality that led a young Jewish queen to say, “If I perish, I perish?” That led a mad German genius to say “You have given your life to your work and now your work has taken your life. Therefore I will bury you with my own hands”?

That led a medieval Japanese warlord to counsel that people “should not bring on eternal disgrace by solicitude for their limited lives…Sneaking past the proper time to die, they regret it afterward”? That led a doomed Greek king to laugh at a call to surrender his arms with the laconic witticism, “Coming, take!”? That has led generations of faithful Christians to say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”

This is not a call to throw aside all precautions and simply embrace the worst that can happen. Preserving biological life is a good, as well. Prudent safety measures are of course called for. And those of us who are at low risk should cheerfully bear with some constraints on our behavior for the sake of those who face the danger more directly.

But: Our discussion of what constitutes prudent safety measures should take place in the context of the awareness that there are far worse things than death, and refusing to live for fear of death is one of them. A healthy human life is lived in recognition of the fact that we all have to die. The question is whether we will remember to teach ourselves what it means to live.

The actions of major institutions communicate moral messages that deeply affect people’s subconscious minds.

The actions of major institutions communicate moral messages that deeply affect people’s subconscious minds. I fear the collective response of our governmental and social institutions to this crisis is in great danger of providing an experiment in the inculcation of cowardice.

The media have gone to great lengths to make sure young people know that they too are at risk: “Look out! Don’t do things that are worthwhile! You might die!” But a brief glance at the numbers is enough to confirm that if this is the real concern, the authors of these articles have a breathtaking case of the helicopter parenting syndrome.

An appeal to duty to care for others may be called for. This attempt to corrupt our moral character is not. Yes, there’s a chance we may die. We know. It’s okay. Calm down.

Of course, the hardest bit of this argument for the unreflecting to swallow is that living life puts others at risk as well as oneself. But as anyone who has stopped to think about it realizes, that too is an inescapable fact of life. Every drive to the grocery store imposes real risk of death upon others. So does buying a family pet. So does living around people, period. I hope it isn’t news to anyone that we all carry germs, at all times.

The same argument applies. Reasonable precautions make sense. But to cease living for fear or guilt over inevitable deaths is wrong. No one would be better off if we all made ourselves miserable “for others.” And none of us has a right to impose massive burdens on others for the sake of preventing a small risk of death to ourselves.

Too great a part of the country’s moral discourse over the past few weeks has resembled nothing so much as chorus of decadent, privileged elites demanding that the entire country abandon life and participate in the most rigorous of measures—cramping lives and destroying livelihoods regardless of real need—to diminish their panic in the face of possible deaths. It is time to raise our chins and be a bit more stoic about things going forward.

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