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“No Wealth But Life”: Moral Reasoning in a Pandemic

March 27th, 2020 | 17 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

Two weeks ago we awoke from our dogmatic slumber of American exceptionalism to realize that the coronavirus was not merely some “Chinese virus,” or the bane of aging Italians. America, and her public officials in particular, have been playing catch up ever since. Lacking adequate testing to have any clear handle on where the virus was and wasn’t, many states and localities began enacting stringent measures for “social distancing,” to mitigate and suppress the spread of the deadly virus before it overwhelmed hospitals across America.

No sooner had these measures been implemented, however, than we began to get second thoughts. Stop going out to eat, cancel church services, lay off workers, all to stop an invisible virus? Perhaps we should just have a stiff upper lip, keep calm, and carry on. Surely that’s what our braver, nobler ancestors would have done. Our mercurial president was among the first to voice this sentiment, tweeting “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” and proclaiming his sudden and uncharacteristic longing to see the churches full on Easter morning. Business leaders lined up on cable news to admonish us that we mustn’t sacrifice the economy in our haste to save human lives; people die all the time, after all, and no one stops shopping because of it.

Perhaps most surprisingly, it didn’t take long before Christian leaders were joining the chorus as well, positioning themselves as voices of reason in the midst of an irrational panic, prudent conservatives who understood that life involves trade-offs, and that in the present case, sacrificing economic activity for public health was not an acceptable trade-off. Indeed, certain high-profile evangelicals, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., have made news by flaunting government restrictions, and no less a figurehead than Rusty Reno penned an editorial in First Things denouncing all these precautionary measures as subjecting us to “the dominion of death.” Much better, he reasoned, to just face death head-on than to change our way of life in trying to avoid it.

This sort of stance puts conservative Christians in a somewhat awkward position. After all, have we not spent decades denouncing the “culture of death” that was more than happy to sacrifice the lives of the weak unborn, the vulnerable, and the inconvenient elderly for the pursuit of freedom, wealth, and material comfort? Now, it looks—at first glance at any rate—that the same Christians are denouncing as a “culture of death” a society that is prepared to sacrifice freedom, wealth, and material comfort in order to preserve the lives the weak, the vulnerable, and the elderly. A dizzying about-face indeed, and one that has prompted a fair bit of gloating that Christians are hypocrites, and that all that pro-life posturing was little better than self-indulgent moral preening.

Such accusations are surely unfair; there is, after all, an important moral difference between taking life (as in abortion), and failing to prevent death (as those like Reno encourage us to do). Moreover, it is not hard to see why some conservative Christians might have been so quick to take the “keep calm and let the economy carry on” line—after all, Christians are called to fearlessness in the face of death, and have become so accustomed to swimming against the cultural and political tide that contrarianism has become an almost unconscious reflex. Still, in politics and culture, perception is often reality, and we need to be very conscious of the damage that this reflex could do to the Christian witness.

As Rod Dreher noted, it is embarrassing that Andrew Cuomo of all people has succeeded in positioning himself as more pro-life than Rusty Reno. The current crisis, in fact, affords Christians an unprecedented opportunity to persuasively articulate our defense of life to a culture that might at last be ready to listen. For the first time in decades, our materialistic society has been put on pause, and people are looking around and asking themselves, “What is this all for? What is the value of human life? Am I willing to sacrifice my freedom to protect my neighbor? Can I sacrifice some comfort to protect life?” As Christians, we can use this opportunity to seize the megaphone and remind those around us of the transcendent value of human life and the frivolity of the kind of “freedom” that our culture so values. Or, we can squander this moment and go down in history as those who stood callously by and said that a few hundred thousand more American deaths is a small price to pay for maintaining our standard of living.

The Opportunity for Pro-Lifers

Now, at this moment, a chorus of objections will be raised.

Some will protest that there won’t be hundreds of thousands of deaths, and anyone who says so is a fear-monger. My hope too is that the death toll will be relatively low, but if so, it will only be because we listened to the so-called “fear-mongers” or because we got incredibly lucky. The vast majority of the epidemiological data points to a grim scenario in the absence of dramatic intervention. To be sure, models are sometimes wrong and experts are not omniscient, but we rarely hesitate to cut our beach vacations short when a major hurricane—something far less predictable than an epidemic curve—is on its way, so it’s hard to see the rational ground for blithely ignoring the threats of this other force of nature—infinitesimally smaller, perhaps, but far more deadly.

More substantively, perhaps, many will protest that it is unfair to characterize this as a tradeoff between economics and human life—even if that is exactly the way that many have carelessly articulated it, not least our own President. After all, economics is all about the preservation and flourishing of human life, or at least it’s supposed to be. It has no plausible justification except to promote life, health, and well-being; as John Ruskin argued powerfully in Unto This Last?, in the last assessment, there is “no wealth but life,” and our political economy must be ordered accordingly.

So what does this mean for our situation? If people lose jobs, they lose their livelihood. If they lose their livelihoods, they are much more likely to get sick and die—perhaps at some point far in the future, but still, why should we save 500,000 people now if it means losing five million newly-impoverished Americans to drugs, despair, or starvation in the next ten years. Can we knowingly sacrifice some lives now in order to protect other goods, including perhaps more lives later?

This is, I fear, something of an academic question at the current juncture—if public health experts are to be believed, this is not really a question of whether we lose jobs or lose lives, but whether we lose lots of jobs and few lives, or lots of jobs and lots of lives. It is difficult to believe that the economy would continue to properly function in the scenario of unmitigated spread toward which so many contrarians like Reno are goading us.

People are not going to casually ride subways and go out for dinner if hospitals are overflowing and people are dying in the streets. If proactive government action (which oddly now counts as “panic” in the eyes of many) didn’t shut down the businesses, real, society-wide panic would likely do so soon enough, and in considerably more disorderly fashion. Still, it has been long since we as a society have stared the prospect of mass death in the face, and many, understandably, cannot imagine or believe that we could find ourselves in that position in a few weeks time. So let us ask the question: if we could choose between losing lots of lives now and losing lots of jobs now, how should we choose? It is an important and serious moral question, one that should not be lightly dismissed. How might we begin to answer it?

Loving Our Neighbor by Staying Away?

The first thing we must do is get clear on what question exactly is being asked of us. Reno seeks to frame the issue in terms of the Christian duty to be fearless in the face of death, but this, I think, rather misses the point. The call to social distancing is an appeal first and foremost not to self-love, but to love of neighbor. Even if you are young and healthy and more than happy to endanger your life by going about your daily routine, that does not give you a right to endanger others, which is precisely what an invisible, often asymptomatic virus may cause you to do. Christians are called to faith and hope, to be sure, but also to love. Traditionally, Christians have taught that the sixth commandment imposes on us not merely an obligation not to kill but to do whatever we reasonably can to preserve life: “The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others…” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 135). So the proper framing of this question is: “is it more loving to our neighbor to increase the number of people who will get sick and die in the near term, or to decrease our economic well-being in the near-term (thus, presumably, increasing sickness and death in the long run)?”

We must also recognize that considering such tradeoffs is not in itself morally odious. Tradeoffs are the basic material out of which the moral life is woven, and this includes tradeoffs in human life. At first glance, this may look like an appalling consequentialism—“would you shoot one person to save the lives of ten others?”—but that is an optical illusion. There is, as Oliver O’Donovan keenly notes in Begotten or Made?, a moral asymmetry between action and inaction. It is never acceptable to push someone out of a lifeboat to save more food for the others on board, but it may be acceptable—and indeed necessary—to choose how many drowning people to fish out of the sea and into your lifeboat. If you cannot save all, you must let some die. This is one point that Reno is right to make: “Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage”; we must always give up some goods (say, serving more customers) in order to protect others (spending time with family), and life-or-death situations like war and disease simply throw this moral constant into sharper relief.

Indeed, Christian ethics has also long distinguished between directly intending the death of another, and acting in such a way that the death of another is a foreseen likely consequence. So, for instance, just war theory never authorizes the intentional targeted killing of innocent civilians, but it does allow that one may bomb a munitions factory even when this is likely to result in civilian deaths—if the action is otherwise justifiable in terms of the goods to be achieved and the evil averted. Similarly, I should never swerve out of my way in order to hit a deer, but if it’s a choice between hitting the deer and swerving into a ditch, thus risking the lives of my passengers, then the right thing to do is obviously to plough on ahead.

This is the kind of moral question that social distancing poses. Indeed, to put it in the most concrete possible terms, imagine that you have an older friend who is depressed and suicidal. You can drive over to their house, comfort them, give them a hug, and risk possibly infecting them with Covid-19. Or, you can keep your distance, leave them alone, and risk letting their depression take its dark course? This is in effect the question we are being asked to answer on a society-wide level (and the answer may look very different on that level than when considering an individual friendship): do we choose isolation so as to avoid endangering others here and now? Or do we try and choose normalcy, so as to avoid imperiling livelihoods now—and thus more lives in the long term?

Against Sentimentalism (and Utilitarianism)

With the question before us now clear, how can we answer it? It’s not easy to find the right path in the midst of such moral murk, but we can at least discern that it must lie between two common errors. The first is a sentimentalism which says that the life that we can see most vividly is always the one that needs protecting. This is the error which sees a picture of drowned migrant child on the coast of Greece and concludes that every refugee must be given asylum now, and every border guard is a murderer, or who painstakingly counts the number of civilian deaths in a war and concludes that we should all be pacifists. Life demands to be protected, but the life that is most vividly and immediately threatened does not necessarily impose such an overriding moral claim that we can ignore any thought for future lives.

The second error is a soulless utilitarianism that would turn every decision into a open-ended calculus of potential lives saved or lost, however distant or speculative. Such an error lies behind the totalitarian dream of maximizing human well-being by transferring resources wherever they are most needed: if more people could be kept alive by taking a little wine and cheese off of your table so that there could be a bit more bread and water on others’ tables, then the Commissariat will see to it that the transfer is made. Life demands to be protected, but some lives—those that are near and clear rather than far and vague, those that are at risk now rather than in the dim mists of futurity, those that have been given to us to protect rather than those that lie in the hands of Providence—demand to be protected most of all.

In the present crisis, sentimentalism appears to us in the guise of the earnest politician who says that a single extra life lost to coronavirus is a price he will not pay, and that he will take any steps necessary to prevent that. The sentimentalist fails to realize that every decision involves paying some price, perhaps even in human lives, and that it is blindness, not love, to ignore these hidden costs.

Utilitarianism appears to us in the guise of the steely-eyed “realist” who tells us that we must accept any number of lives lost in the near term because of his calculations about how much damage a quarantine would do to our economy. The utilitarian fails to realize that these calculations are just that—calculations, highly complex and speculative—and that there are other actions that may be available to us in the future to prevent the harms that he foresees as inevitable. (After all, there is no shortage of wealth in our economy; making sure that the most vulnerable are protected in an economic collapse is more of a political problem than a straightforwardly economic one).

The Time That is Given to Us

Posed with such a challenge, we are liable to respond, like Frodo, with despair: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” But Gandalf’s famous reply is apropos: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” But how can we decide?

In the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson places this conversation right after Frodo’s exclamation that “it was a pity that Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.” This, I would suggest, holds a key insight for our dilemma. Had Bilbo killed Gollum when he had the chance (which would hardly have been unjust), suggests Frodo, much future harm would have been averted. But, says Gandalf, “even the wise cannot foresee all ends”—utilitarianism fails because we simply cannot calculate the future possible consequences of our actions. We must act in the here and now on the basis of virtue, honor and duty, on the basis of the moral obligations which seem nearest and clearest. Again, wartime can furnish us with useful examples.

Reno appeals to the example of triage, which is sadly not a far-off hypothetical, but a present reality in many hospitals overflowing with Covid-19 patients. In the gruesome field hospitals of wartime and the overwhelmed ICU wards of a pandemic, doctors must allow some to die in order to save others.

This situation, however, fails as an analogy for the “quarantine vs. the economy” dilemma. In triage, both deaths are near, clear, and avoidable by similar means, and so it is merely a question of probability: I can operate on this guy and he’ll have an 80% chance of pulling through, or I can operate on this guy, and he’ll have a 50% chance of pulling through; so I must prioritize the former. In the “quarantine vs. the economy” dilemma, there is a much more profound uncertainty. We do not know exactly how many lives might be saved by quarantine measures in the near term, and we certainly do not know exactly how many lives might be saved or improved by better economic performance in the long term. The time scales of the two risks are also radically different. The analogy to triage fails.

On the other hand, consider the “no man left behind” policy that many armies have practiced in wartime, including our own. According to this policy, honor and duty dictate that a unit must be willing to subject itself to great risk in order to rescue a trapped comrade or even bring home a fallen comrade’s body. Is this mere sentimentalism? No, it recognizes that life is more than mere breath, that a life without honor is not worth living. (Ironically, Reno makes this same point in his article, but seems to conclude, bewilderingly, that our honor is at stake in our right to keep on going to work as usual.)

A military unit that subjected its fallen comrades to a utilitarian risk/reward calculus beyond would not be a unit, because it would have no bonds of honor and loyalty to hold it together. Similarly, a society cannot function if it treats every possible life as a cipher in a grand trade-off equation. It must, like a military unit, establish some non-negotiables.

Among these non-negotiables, it seems to me, should be honor and respect for the aged. Utilitarianism says that these people have the least time left to live anyway, so they are the most expendable. The Judeo-Christian heritage says that the aged are priceless repositories of wisdom, that they gave us life and wealth and left us forever in their debt, that they demand our honor and respect. They do not deserve to die alone at home or in an overflowing hospital hallway, gasping for breath.

Moreover, in this war that we are fighting, our doctors and nurses are our front-line troops. We complain about having to stay at home—they wish they could stay at home. Instead, they are bravely marching to battle each day and risking their own lives and those of their families, while we sit at home on our laptops and pound away angrily about how our freedoms are being violated. Do we not have a duty to them to do whatever we can to mitigate the spread of this virus? It all sounds so abstract and hypothetical to say, “forget flattening the curve; let’s just get it all over with quickly,” but it does not sound that way if you’re working at a hospital and watching the ER rooms fill up each day with new patients gasping for breath.

Life After Normal

We do not know what the economic costs of social distancing might be. But we know well enough what the human costs of flaunting these demands might be. We know that we cannot wantonly and recklessly infect our neighbors and endanger our doctors simply in pursuit of near-term normalcy. To be sure, we have an urgent responsibility to think medium-term and long-term as well. We must not, as Trump tweeted, let the cure be worse than the problem. But there are political remedies to the unavoidable economic damage. There are, moreover, remedies that each and every one of us could be a part of. What might it be like if every American whose livelihood was secure gave their entire stimulus check to a neighbor who had lost his job, or donated it to their church’s diaconal fund? Would we really be facing untold death and misery as a result of a social-distancing-induced recession? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

At the root of our protest that “the cure is worse than the disease,” I suspect, is a fear that our own way of life may have to change. Comforts that we once took for granted might turn out to be luxuries. Luxuries that we once aspired to may have to be shelved for another decade or two. Freedoms that we thought were our birthright, we will be forced to realize, were in fact simply the lucky blessing of having been born at the right time. For every generation in human history before those now living, “the economy” lived in a state of constant fragility, subject to forces of nature large and small. Epidemics and quarantines were facts of life. The freedom to live under your own vine and fig tree without interference was an eschatological hope rather than a political given.

Behind the anguished cry, “But the economy!” I suspect, is a futile grasping after the mirage of freedom that is now fast slipping away—the idea that we can and should be free to make our own decisions about our lives without regard to the effects of these decisions on those around us, that you’re welcome to give me advice about when it’s safe to leave my home, but how dare you give me a command? Such freedom—the freedom to live independent from natural constraint, independent from coercive authority, and independent of considerations of the public good—may be the freedom that Olympian gods aspired to, but it was never Christian freedom or a viable political reality.

Christian freedom means love of neighbor, and this begins with the Sixth Commandment. What does this mean in the face of pandemic and recession? The same as it has always meant:

The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations, by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 135)

Let us be grateful that our political leaders have the moral awareness to recognize these obligations, and pray that God would give them wisdom to do their tasks faithfully in the face of the most difficult decisions that many of them have ever faced. There may be a time to protest and speak prophetically against tyranny, but this is not that time. Rather, it is a time to

“submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” (1 Pet. 2:13-17)

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Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.