Crises—whether arising from politics or pandemics—give us circumstances that seem utterly complex. Lack of control characterizes moments like ours. Technocrats and idealists find themselves in the same flailing position, struggling to find a quick fix. Elected officials, business owners, and ordinary citizens all face countless practical decisions—on a daily basis—that affect public health. The sheer number of practical decisions that we make on a daily basis is often overwhelming.
One of the curious and sad features of our current health crisis is that we often forget that most of us, presumably, want the same thing: to preserve human life and the fabric of society. We want to come out on the other side of this tragedy as whole as possible.
The problem, of course, is that we often identify competing means to the same end. So, for instance, you might presuppose that the shutdown of non-essential commerce will lead to all sorts of ills: bankruptcy or enormous government debt. Or you might point out the significant psychological toll that accompanies enforced social isolation. It might be natural to conclude, then, that it is worth getting straight to the point, so to speak: let the virus do its worst, then move on. Vulnerable segments of the population might need to serve as collateral damage.
On the other hand, if you believe that flattening the curve of infection—preserving the health system’s ability to serve the sick—will save an exponential number of human lives, you will likely conclude that the economic costs are well worth it. We should weather the long storm, and only afterward let the economy begin to heal.
Means and ends.
This is not to endorse any kind of relativism. There are reasons—hopefully informed by expert knowledge and experience—behind the means that we choose. But this is where the debates often fall apart.
There is no silver bullet for moral messes. But there are frameworks that might help us think more clearly about crises like the present one. For instance, let’s indulge in a thought experiment. What if we considered the pandemic as an enemy? What might be some principles for just war against such an opponent?
- We need a just cause.This principle seems the most straightforward. We want to overcome an enemy that is ravaging through society. Some kind of collective action seems necessary to defend ourselves.
- There must be a lawful authority to declare war.This is where we might start to see important fault lines emerge. Where does political authority reside? And who can legitimately wield it? Is a representative government authorized to enforce social isolation and commercial shutdowns, for instance? Or should a more individualist notion of freedom inform our decision-making process? Our definition of liberty is at stake here. If we are to use this principle in action, we will probably need to do a better job on our homework on some of the fundamental political (and theological) concepts in play.Thankfully, we have communities and institutions—largely at the ground level—that can supply us with conceptions of the good life and what it means to have rightly ordered relationships with others. Churches, synagogues, mosques, broad-based community organizations, and other civic groups often live out these richer conceptions of social life in ways that elude us in national and electoral settings.
In the same way, we need to differentiate between our respective callings. Those who serve their communities in elected offices have a different set of obligations than, for example, a local business owner or a pastor or a stay-at-home father or mother. But each role does have attendant obligations in a context like our own—all of which relate to our obligations to our immediate relations, but also to our neighbours. Should the restaurant owner with no outside patio reopen immediately when able, or consider taking a financial hit out of consideration of public health? When should the parent with stir-crazy children begin hosting playdates, or taking his or her children out to public parks? Not long ago, these questions would have seemed weirdly mundane, but now they carry a kind of moral burden with them.
- The war must have a good intention.What are we aiming at, most fundamentally? The preservation of human life? Giving individuals freedom from any kind of external coercion? Keeping the economy intact? Of course, these are all good ends, but they often seem to conflict with one another. It is easy to confuse which ends are ordered to which. We are called to make prudential decisions about how to coordinate among these various goods, but that will likely require richer discussions of the nature and ends of political life than we—in the Western tradition—have been able to muster of late. Too often, we accept a blinkered view of political concepts, which have withered away in our polarized context. But in various traditions, we have a wealth of critical reflection on the nature of political order, the common good, and freedom as non-domination. If we want to recover all this, we will likely have to put ourselves under the tutelage of thinkers like Cicero, Augustine, Montaigne, Mary Wollstonecraft, Henry Highland Garnet, James Baldwin, or Cesar Chavez—all of whom drew on traditional sources in surprisingly radical ways.
- There must be a reasonable chance of success.Hopeless wars are unjust wars, in an important respect. You fight with at least the glimmer of hope that you can prevail, or why engage at all? If we did not think a vaccine were possible, we would focus on another means to defend ourselves. Here, things are a bit more complicated than they seem, however. What does it mean to be reasonably possible? Who can we turn to for practical wisdom about the best means to go after our common enemy? We have to hope that we have enough sense to recognize the wise among us, and who the fools and charlatans are. To do that, we need virtuous people, formed in homes, schools, civic and religious spaces. These are the seedbeds of virtue, building from the ground up.
- The means used should be proportionate to what the war hopes to achieve.Here is where the ideological differences are most heightened. How drastic should our defensive measures be? How should we be spending our resources? What businesses are considered “essential”? How far should we go in enforcing quarantine, knowing the psychological and financial costs? Our application of this principle depends on all the rest.
The tricky thing about principles, of course, is that they require assembly. Like a complicated piece of IKEA furniture, they do not offer ready-made solutions. Nor do they give us the quick fix hoped for by the technocrat or idealist. They demand practical know-how and moral excellence—wisdom—and when that is in short supply, it is easy to despair.
We do have one of the less popular virtues on offer, though: patience. The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once described it as the “grace of doing nothing,” which is intentionally misleading. Patience, the graced obedience in the midst of uncontrollable circumstances, is itself an activity. Perhaps even a subversive kind of moral warfare. It is “full of hope and is based on faith. It is not the inactivity of the noncombatant, for it knows that there are no noncombatants, that everyone is involved.” And yet, it does call us to wait and shoulder the burden of uncertainty when all we want to do is fix things. But perhaps in times like these, in the midst of a war of unknown length, the better part of wisdom is knowing how to wait.