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Moral Realism, Public Health, and Truth-telling Amid COVID-19

April 14th, 2020 | 8 min read

By Andrew Walker

As the lockdown proceeds with no official end date in sight, we must turn our attention to a new reality confronting us: It is impossible to proceed with a lockdown to prevent COVID-19 deaths without other harms resulting. This was an intellectual argument only but a few weeks ago.

But now, as exhaustion and unemployment mount, the question of trade-offs seems more vivid and more urgent. This is because we cannot have an economy—a measure of public health by its own standard—if we wait until there is no longer anyone dying from COVID-19. The economic harms may not be as totalizing as death, but they are the harms that eventually revert society back to the Hobbesian state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

What’s at stake in society’s consideration for re-opening is a more capacious understanding of “public health.” Such a conception must never include anything less than the number of deaths that result from COVID-19, but must also include work, social health, and the economy as well. Such a framing in the emergence of a post-COVID world will require our politicians to clearly communicate this moral reality in their public discourse and decision-making.

A broader conception of public health demands that we confront the moral realities that such a broader conception would necessarily entail.

I have written previously about the question staring us all down: Do we take all possible measures to preserve human life or do we back off extreme measures for there to be a functioning economy? This seems all the more pressing considering that the disease’s impact seems drastically far off the original lethality estimates. Meanwhile, each new week brings further devastating economic news.

Appealing to Double Effect theory, what I wrote then, I stand by: Pursuing one or the other does not mean intentional harm to the other. To frame our moment as “economy versus life” is unnecessary, contrived, and characteristic of the type of thinking that leads to confusion. It begins from the wrong assumption about our world—that recovery must mean the total allocation of wisdom and resources against all other worthwhile ends. This is not how the real world operates. In any given home, a parent must both bandage their child’s wounded knee while also feeding their child lunch.

To relate this thinking to our current moment, a more balanced public mindset would understand it is possible to pursue wise social distancing policies that help preserve life while staving off economic ruin as a measure of public health. But such thinking is possible only if we’re willing to accept tragic realities: In the same way that it is impossible to prevent children from falling and hurting themselves, it is impossible to prevent all deaths resulting from COVID-19.

The longer the lockdown goes on, the more inevitable this conclusion becomes. We need to beware of reducing all situations to mere binaries: right or wrong, black or white, economic health or human life. A better framing, one of discretion and prudence, is to understand that public health and economic health are simultaneous and intertwined partners in the pursuit of human flourishing. Feeding a family, social interaction that blunts depression, the psychological benefit of good work—pursuing these good ends are valuable alongside attempts to suppress the disease and save lives. All of this means that the world’s stage and the moral realities confronting it, are more complex than simplistic straw man arguments that make the response all of one thing or the other.

This is why, more than ever before, the principle of scarcity must enter public discourse. It might be the most important principle to understand how we determine what the wisest course of action is as we continue to fight COVID-19 while looking to re-open the economy and heal our distressed civil society. Why? Scarcity reminds us that while we seek to overcome its effects, limits in supplies, and flaws in human knowledge and planning mean that it is highly unlikely that society can eradicate or reduce all deaths that would result from COVID-19. We cannot do this even with the typical seasonal flu, despite our best efforts to reduce its impact. We have to understand that there are limits to what technology can heal. We are finite, and so are our solutions.

To believe otherwise would not only be to engage in wishful idealism, but to run counter to biblical eschatology: To live in a creation groaning under the futility of sin and decay means, necessarily, that total eradication is not, theologically speaking, possible. To live in the world means to live in a world where death-causing viruses roam. We may not like this, and indeed, we grieve this, but we cannot overcome it in full; we can only mitigate against its full effects.

While I know that public officials have never communicated that the goal of quarantine was total eradication of COVID-19, public officials have not prepared society for what its new normal will look like alongside the inevitable likelihood that this plague will continue to afflict us for the foreseeable future. Our leaders have not prepared society to engage in the type of moral reflection where trade-offs and balancing interests bring about misfortune.

This lack of preparation for what society will look like after quarantine results in a constant revising of timelines for when the current lockdown will end. It causes a growing frustration on the part of the American people as their liberties are restricted. We have not been prepared to engage in moral conversations about society’s interests alongside saving human lives. We must prepare for a new normal, one that understands that some death will inevitably occur if society hopes to proceed with stability.

What am I asking? I am asking for more clarity from our public officials on what standards are in place to ensure we’ve flattened the curve. I’m calling for our leaders to help us understand that the new normal entails inevitable risks. This constant revising of models, at this point, is a reflection not just in human judgment’s limitations, but the ever-evolving challenges that face society. This continual shifting of goals is not sustainable, not because eliminating all human death is achievable, but because the resulting toll on civil liberties, psychological health, and the economy are legitimate measures of social health, as well. Click here to Watch Fury vs Wilder 3 Live Stream Free.

In the interest of public health, it is absolutely vital at this urgent hour for our public officials to begin training citizens to be thinking in terms of necessary trade-offs that must occur if society is to go on. And then from these trade-offs, tell us when society will open back up. Tell us what trade-offs in our understanding of public health are acceptable. This is not telling elderly people they need to die or their lives are less worthy. This is not to prioritize our pocketbooks over human suffering.

We need staid clarity on when we have flattened the curve. We need sobriety from our public officials telling us that despite wise social practices, some people will still die from COVID-19, in spite of our best efforts to keep that from happening. We must begin the public conversation that no one wants to have if we are to have a functioning civil society. There will always be a degree of trade-offs in the complex matrix of balancing the interests of human life with the interests of human society.

We need more Double-Effect reasoning by our policymakers and experts. We need them to tell us that we can pursue simultaneous goods all at once for the sake of human flourishing. And we need to do this without targeting motives. We can save lives and attempt to restart the economy, but knowing that in doing so, risks and loss are entailed with both, risks and loss that we’ll have to expect, manage, and reduce. Click here to Watch Wilder vs Fury 3 Live Stream Free

Much in the same way that we craft wise driving laws to mitigate the loss of human life that result from automobile accidents, we need to begin thinking more about balancing all interests simultaneously, not one against the other. Because the current trajectory of devastation to human and economic capital is not sustainable. This is an approach of moral realism. It may not make for cheerfulness, but it does make for honest and public truth-telling.

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