Before starting, I want to be clear that I am presently in full support of the self-distancing and the “shelter at home” orders in many places across the country where coronavirus and COVID-19 has hit the hardest.
However, that said, whenever we as humans face an unknowable and uncontrollable threat, which the coronavirus is at the present time, we have a predilection to morally rationalize the often extreme actions we take by denigrating and misrepresenting alternative options that could be taken. When face with a threat, we often feel the need to somehow present our action as the right moral action to take and we do that by the exaggeration of any views that go against the prevailing opinion. We are witnessing this right now in the United States, at least.
There are deep fears about the economic future of the United States. However, anytime some suggestion is made that the present actions are either (a) overboard or (b) not necessary for the long term future because of economic necessity, you see the principle above go into full swing. Any attempt to talk about the “economy” is straw man into various other things, like money, the stock market, etc. With this straw man in place, the moral dilemma is framed in such a way as to suggest that the sacrificing of lives for such obviously evil or unimportant is a deep moral evil: human lives or money? human live or the stock market? It seems on the surface that the choice is inevitable.
However, here comes the problem: the “economy” is not really about money, even though the money is the water that keeps the boat of the economy money. The “economy” is not really about the stock market, even though it is often one of the most salient indicators of the economy. The “economy” is about human activity and work to acquire people’s needs and wants. The economy is, at its core, about obtaining the things that make human life possible by using our skills and capacities. While we can try to measure and assess the economy in many different ways and these measurements often are more indicative of the circumstances of some people over others, what the economy as a whole is about is part of that which makes us human: human labor.
Hannah Arendt treats labor as necessary but the lowest and least important form of human activity as being based upon our biological necessity. However, this perhaps reflects an implicit “transhumanism” in Western philosophy that attempts to make humans out to be as something more than the creatures we are, distancing ourselves from our biology and creating an increasingly artificial world that does not remind us our of biological limitations. Or, perhaps alternatively, this reflects an elitism in the Western intellectual tradition by those who have the “leisure” time to higher, loftier thinking as looking down on “menial labor” and those who perform them. Given the way they have influenced culture, labor has come to be seen as trudging because we have tasted other forms of activity that seem so much more appealing, that provide us a sense of enduring “meaning” in the world around us.1 The net effect of this, whatever the cause, is to overlook our biological life, apart from the most salient aspects of biology rooted in one of our most powerful instincts we can not overlook: the desire to live and not die.
Now, it is often true the the economy does not function well, leading often to the despair about human labor that philosophers and intellectuals can point to in order to confirm their overarching philosophical and economic points. When the economy does not function well, whether that be with the inability to get people what they need (related to capitalist fears) or a pervasive sense of subjugation (related Marxist fears), human life suffers in various facets and ways, whether it be in feeling of alienation or anxieties about providing for the future.
So. I now I bring up this point: the long pause of our economy that is doe to “flatten the curve” is not simply effecting the creation of wealth or the numbers in the stock market. It is radically altering people’s human lives in various facets and ways. This will have the effect on people’s quality of well being into the future and, in some cases due to being vaulted into poverty, may reduce the lifespan of many people.
I bring this us to say that the choice between containing the Coronavirus or the economy is not a matter of choosing between life and death: it is a matter of choosing the quicker death now for some of the vulnerable in our population, most notably the elderly, or the slower death of many people into the future as the consequences of an economic slowdown will impact them.
I don’t bring this us to say we should not quarantine and social distance. I bring this up to reveal something very fundamental within the Western consciousness: we fear death. We fear death so much that the idea that the choice of viral containment or economic prosperity is about making a choice that will create death for some people, just different as to who and when, would be such a scary prospect to accept that we are highly motivated to frame our moral choice in this time as seemingly clear: quarantine equals life and to not quarantine equals death. The idea that we are exchanging the deaths of some for the deaths of others would frighten many of us.
Now we can say there is a good reason for this: there is a dignity to life that means we should seek to protect and nourish life. Any action that we take that seems to violation and diminish human life is seen as something wrong, immoral, if not outright evil. However, I would put forward that valuing the dignity of life is not the same thing as the fear of death. In fact, I would put forward that these two perspectives may look similar on the surface, but they actually diverge far apart in many situations.
Put simply, the fear of death is an instinctual impulse that makes us favor ourselves and those who we identify with at the cost of other people. The fear of death makes us take drastic actions to stave off death for some people, even when those actions can have severe effects on other people. The dignity of life, on the other hand, is not about trying to prevent death, but rather it is the concept of death that gives life meaning, that we seek to life in such a way that we don’t let life become cheating by a wrongful, unjust type of death. The dignity of life include, among other things, allowing people to live and die well.
In some situations, the fear of death and the dignity of life can make similar judgments. Societal evils such as genocide, murder, abortion, callousness to the desperate, etc. are condemned both by those who fear death and those who give dignity to life. Where they diverge, however, is how far we will go to save lives. The fear of death makes us exhaust every option we can to prevent death, no matter the costs so far as the costs are not immediately apparent. The dignity of life, on the other hand, accepts death as part of life and does not seek to unnecessarily put heavy burden upon others simply for the sake of preserving biological life.
Shortly put, there is another moral framework for understanding the situation the United States, and even the rest of the world, is facing when it comes to the present pandemic and crisis we are facing. Valuing the dignity of life does not say we should prioritize the economy so much as it says that the fear of death should not cause us to value lives now at the cost of lives later. Valuing the dignity of life does not lead one to fear the reality that death will happen, one way or another, but rather enables us to face these choices we have to make with the whole of what it means to be human and to have life in mind in all its biological reality, rather than reduce it to simply to matters of biological continuation and cessation.
- I speak as one who has the economic privilege to being given the capacity to engage in the leisure time to think and research on various intellectual topics, and in the course of my life, I have myself been left wishing I had something much more mundane but that tasting what I have has left me in a state of regular discontent with the intellectual life.