As governments worldwide impose restrictions on freedom of movement, critics of that response to the pandemic raise various objections. Anne Applebaum warns that rulers will exploit the crisis to suspend civil liberties and that, fearing death, people will accept and even applaud many such power grabs. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben worries that something of the emergency measures taken now will linger after the pandemic subsides. “Italians are prepared to sacrifice practically everything . . . to avoid the danger of falling ill,” he writes in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis. “Our society no longer believes in anything but naked life” — i.e., people are surrendering much of their freedom to the state because they make the more fundamental error of fetishizing their mere biological existence. “What is a society with no other value than survival?”
Here in America, R. R. Reno echoes the thought, arguing that “there are many things more precious than life” and that the proposition that we have a moral duty to “save lives ‘at any cost’” is “a dangerous falsehood, one that leads to barbarism and slavery.” That idea was formulated perhaps most famously by Hegel in his passage on the “primal conflict”: The one who backs down for fear of losing his life becomes the slave to the one who, in his struggle for “recognition” — for honor, we might say, or prestige — risks his life, subordinating his animal instinct for self-preservation to an aspiration that is putatively nobler and unique to the human person.
Americans are loudly divided over the question of whether the nation is overreacting or underreacting to the pandemic. Some who say that we’re overreacting maintain that we’ve overestimated the threat that the coronavirus poses to human life and public health: State and local governments and the public are erring too far on the side of caution, overshooting the mark, and crashing the economy in consequence, making the cure worse than the disease.
Estimates of the number of people who will die if we don’t observe this or that level of precaution vary. Riddled with even more uncertainty are efforts to measure the impact that the economic contraction resulting from quarantines and statewide lockdowns will have on public health. Will the second- and third-order effects of rising unemployment and small-business failures include a shortening of lives? How many? And by how much?
Conversely, how much economic contraction, and consequent loss of human life, would result from failures to mitigate the pandemic now? “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” Representative Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) tweeted earlier this week.
As the questions multiply, they tangle and knot. Cut through them, as Reno does, by arguing that “our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage,” and you hit a nerve. If I wanted to, I could live more frugally, save more money, and send it to a charity that would provide food or medicine to someone for whom it might be the difference between life and death. I don’t do that. Someone on the other side of the world died because I would rather order dessert than buy antibiotics for him. To say it is jarring, but to deny it would be to succumb to “sentimentalism” (Reno’s term). The philosopher Peter Singer is probably the best-known exponent of this line of reasoning. It’s captured nicely in “Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence,” the title of a book by the philosopher Peter Unger.
War demands the same questions, though adjusted for context. Whose life do I value less than I value my well-being? What do I value more than my own life? What do I value more than the life of my neighbor whom I would conscript into the army? What do I value more than the life of the stranger wearing the uniform of my nation’s enemy? We honor our soldiers who risk their lives for the sake of our freedom. We especially honor those who died for that cause. Give me liberty, or give me death. More in silence than in celebration do we honor them for their willingness to take the lives of others so that our own lives will be richer.
Many are the ways in which people take human life, though often they do so indirectly. In many cases the difference between justifying the act and rationalizing it is only a matter of how honest we are with ourselves. We might defend our action, or inaction, by noting the difference between killing someone and letting him die. True, that difference is often morally significant. But sometimes it isn’t. A baby is drowning in a shallow pond. If I see him struggling and I pass him by, instead of wading in and rescuing him, I haven’t committed murder but I’ve committed an equivalent wrong, according to my conscience and perhaps to yours, even if the law might treat me with more lenience.
Many of us feel obligated to try to rescue the baby from the threat of abortion. We try to thwart his mother or his mother’s doctor, whose intentions may be defensible, even admirable, but we think they’re misguided. Our obligation should be no less when the lethal agent is a pathogen instead of a person. If we have the means to stop the virus from killing him, we should stop it — unless, you could argue, our doing so would sap resources that could have been used to save someone else’s life.
In the coronavirus pandemic, our focus is on the elderly, not infants, but the moral reasoning we need to apply is the same. We would try to stop someone who was attempting to kill old people. First we would put him in handcuffs, but our ultimate aim would concern them, not him. If we have a duty to protect them, it’s made no less pressing by the fact that what threatens their lives happens to be a virus that must be prevented rather than a man who must be arrested.
Even in normal times, medical care for the elderly is expensive. If we’re cold-blooded or, depending on your point of view, clear-eyed and non-sentimental, we conclude that the quarter-million dollars it would cost to provide humane treatment for a nonagenarian dementia patient in the last few years of her life would be better spent on higher education for her great-grandchild. That calculation supports the right-to-die movement, whose advocates prefer, no surprise, not to go there.
Reno goes there, or to the general vicinity, but by no means is he alone. He joins a chorus of Americans who support the pro-life cause as it relates to abortion and who in the past few days have spoken with great vigor against what they see as the temptation to overvalue “naked” human life, to borrow Agamben’s expression. To Reno’s critics on the left, I would say that the impression that his argument makes on you is the impression that the argument for abortion rights makes on those who find that cause disturbing. To his defenders on the right, I would say that your disagreement with the abortion-rights movement is superficial and that your agreement with it is deep.