(Bloomberg Opinion) — The coronavirus pandemic is a test. It’s a test of medical capacity and political will. It’s a test of endurance and forbearance, for believers a test of religious faith. It’s a test, too, of a different kind of faith, in the strength of the ideas humans choose to help them form moral judgments and guide personal and social behavior.
The epidemic forces everyone to confront deep questions of human existence, questions so profound that they have previously been answered, in many different ways, by the greatest philosophers. It’s a test of where all humans stand.
What is right and what is wrong? What can individuals expect from society, and what can society expect of them? Should others make sacrifices for me, and vice versa? Is it just to set economic limits to fighting a deadly disease?
The lieutenant governor of Texas thinks that those over 70 “shouldn’t sacrifice the country” by shutting down economic activity, but should instead be ready to sacrifice themselves. A 22-year-old partying on Spring break in Florida becomes a social media sensation with a different critique of social distancing, saying, “If I get corona, I get corona.” Consciously or not, both men are placing themselves in distinct moral traditions.
Several philosophies of social justice have claimed wide adherence in the modern world. They do not line up neatly with party political labels, and most people have sympathy for more than one. Here is a guide to some of the leading idea systems undergirding competing conceptions of right and wrong. Each is being put to the test. As you are put to the test, which do you choose?
Many westerners are Rawlsians without knowing it. Fifty years ago, the Harvard philosopher John Rawls tried to work out how people would construct their society if the choice had to be made behind what he called a “veil of ignorance” about whether they will be rich, poor or somewhere in-between. Faced with the risk of being the worst off, Rawls posited, humans would not demand total equality, but would need to be assured of the trappings of a modern welfare state. The assurance of basic necessities and the opportunity to do better would form the foundation for social and political justice and provide the ability for people to assert themselves.
Rawls’s monumental 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice,” is now regarded as the clearest moral and intellectual justification for modern center-left mixed economies. But the idea comes from somewhere deeper. Rawls was not religious, but his philosophy is essentially in line with the golden rule handed down by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus, that we should do as we would want to be done by. Some religious leaders have approached the awful dilemmas presented by the coronavirus just as Rawls would, by taking treatment of the worst off as the criterion for social action.
“I hope the lessons we take from our country’s experience with Covid-19 aren’t about food or avoiding the spread of germs,” wrote Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in the New York Times, “but about how we treat the most vulnerable among us. A pandemic is no time to turn our eyes away from the sanctity of human life.”
Pope Francis also invoked sympathy for the most afflicted as he addressed a prayer to an empty St. Peter’s Square. “We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other,” he said.
Perhaps because of their religious resonance, Rawlsian ideas have guided the approach to the pandemic chosen by authorities in the western world. Societies are mobilizing, and governments are taking extra powers to mandate claustrophobic lockdowns in a bid to minimize the death and suffering of the weakest.
Even those who aren’t religious tend to accept the logic of the veil of ignorance. If a person is unwilling to be abandoned, governments are not entitled to give up on them; they must do their best to protect everyone, particularly the weakest.
Other philosophies produce very different ways of dealing with the epidemic. Under utilitarianism, most associated with the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, rulers must be guided to the total happiness, or “utility,” of all the people, and should aim to secure “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
In Victorian Britain, this was a radical creed, and the first utilitarians were passionate liberal reformers. But the utilitarian calculus opens up a new possibility — that in situations such as a pandemic, some people might justly be sacrificed for the greater good. It would benefit society to accept casualties, the argument goes, to minimize disruption.
Explicit utilitarian thinking still seems beyond the pale. Last weekend, Britain’s Sunday Times reported that Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had advocated in private meetings a policy of letting enough people get sick to establish nationwide “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” It caused an outcry and met with an immediate and impassioned denial by Downing Street. Even Cummings, an iconoclast, refused to be attached to such brutally utilitarian ideas.
Mill himself would not have advocated putting money ahead of people’s lives, but a utilitarian calculus is not about balancing money and life. If a recession could lead to shorter lives and widespread misery, it is possible that making less of an attempt to save every last life from the pandemic now could lead to greater total happiness.
In the U.K., a paper by an academic at the University of Bristol used mathematical techniques developed to measure the cost-efficiency of safety measures in the nuclear power industry to calculate the likely savings of human life by different approaches to the virus, and found that a 12-month lockdown followed by vaccinations would be best. But it cautioned that this would only create a net saving of life if the reduction in gross domestic product could be kept to 6.4% or less.
That paper, broadcast on the BBC, provoked a fiery response from economists, and some research suggests counterintuitively that recessions lengthen lives. Most people find the mere attempt at such an exercise callous, but it’s difficult to dismiss it. Governments and insurers do indeed put a notional price on a human life when setting policy. Must every last patient be given the utmost care if this plan of action causes greater suffering in the long run? Or, as President Donald Trump put it: “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.”
It’s intuitive to view moral problems through a utilitarian lens and then to find outcomes like this distasteful, and to reject them because they conflict with the golden rule. If the lockdowns drag on for months, utilitarian ideas may bubble back to the surface.
The libertarian place in American thought is long and distinguished. Its lineage goes back at least to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and the founding fathers, and in its modern incarnation gains inspiration from the author Ayn Rand, who outlined her ideas in novels and essays. For her, man had a right “to live for himself” and an individual’s happiness “cannot be prescribed by another man or any number of other men.”
The most famous libertarian thought experiment was conducted by another Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, in a riposte to Rawls. He imagined what kind of political state would be built, and how much personal liberty citizens would surrender, if everyone were dropped into a utopian landscape with no social structures. The novelist William Golding gave one answer in “The Lord of the Flies.” To avoid the descent into violence that the schoolboys of Golding’s novel endure, Nozick, in “Anarchy, State and Utopia,” reckoned that people would set up a very limited state dedicated to self-defense and the protection of individual rights — but nothing more.
The western coronavirus response has hugely expanded state powers and limited individual rights with little debate, and to date populations have consented to privations that Rand and Nozick argued they should never accept.
But wait. There have been objections to lockdowns on the libertarian basis that they infringe on rights. Critiques are appearing saying that politicians haven’t proven that such drastic measures are necessary. Before the coronavirus, the U.S. suffered a measles epidemic as the result of anti-vaccination activism, a libertarian cause that put parents’ right to choose not to vaccinate their children above the state’s attempt to defend other parents’ right to expect that their own children wouldn’t have to mix with unvaccinated peers. Panic buying, and hoarding of medical equipment also show that many people are following Rand’s idea of self-determination and putting themselves first. Such ideas may grow more appealing after a few more weeks of self-isolation.
In public spaces around the world, libertarians are in conflict with the state. Social media is full of images of big social gatherings, often in luxurious social settings. “If I get corona, I get corona,” as the 22-year-old said on video in Florida. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” Oklahoma’s governor even felt the need to tweet that he was at a packed restaurant.
Libertarians are not only found on the political right. As the crisis began to unfold, the American Civil Liberties Union made a statement accepting that civil liberties must “sometimes” give way when it comes to fighting a communicable disease — but “only in ways that are scientifically justified.” It said, “The evidence is clear that travel bans and quarantines are not the solution.”The right to walk in a park looks like a flash point. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was furious to see crowds expressing libertarian sympathies — whether they saw it that way or not — by gathering in parks. “It’s arrogant,” Cuomo said. “It’s self-destructive. It’s disrespectful to other people. And it has to stop and it has to stop now!”New Yorkers are organizing to keep the parks open.
In these conditions, individual choices become freighted with moral significance. How, for example, will society eventually judge behavior like that of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul? Arguably the most prominent libertarian in the U.S., he continued to socialize as normal for a week after being told that he had had contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. He had no symptoms. Recall that there are many elderly members of the Senate. Last weekend, after a workout in the Senate gym, he discovered that he had himself tested positive.
Yet another approach is based on the notion that everyone derives their identify from the broader community. Individual rights count, but not more than community norms. These notions go back to the Greeks, but in modern times, the philosophy is most widely connected to the sociologist Amitai Etzioni and philosopher Michael Sandel. Sandel’s “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice” is another riposte to Rawls, arguing that justice cannot be determined in a vacuum or behind a veil of ignorance, but must be rooted in society. He sets out a theory of justice based on the common good.
Speaking last week to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Sandel said: “The common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life.”
The virus has attacked in exactly this place, depriving everyone of life in a community. And communitarian ideas are showing themselves. Across Europe, people on lockdown have arranged to go to their windows and balconies to applaud their national health services. These are seen as bedrocks of society. At London’s Olympic opening ceremony in 2012, a pageant of Britishness, the organizers celebrated the National Health Service with dancing nurses wheeling hospital beds. For many countries with a modern welfare state, celebrating and supporting the workers of their public-health service is seen as a communitarian duty.
This is a critical point of difference with the U.S., where the expansion of medical care is a hugely contentious issue. Communitarians like Princeton’s Michael Walzer argue that any system of medical provision requires “the constraint of the guild of physicians.” The coronavirus promises to bring this debate to a head.
Communitarianism also underlies much social conservative thought. When the very conservative Republican Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on Fox News that the rest of the country should not sacrifice itself for the elderly, he was making a communitarian argument, not a utilitarian one.
“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick, who is 63, told the host Tucker Carlson. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
In this telling, it is the patriotic duty of the elderly not to force privations on their country, and make life worse for their grandchildren. Such a communitarian ethic has always resonated within the U.S. (just read Alexis de Tocqueville), and it provoked an outcry on social media.
China practiced another kind of communitarianism after the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan in January. The people of that city were told to lock themselves in, and often forcibly quarantined, for the good of the community and the state, largely identified with the Communist Party. Under Xi Jinping, the Party has rehabilitated the Confucian thought that long justified obedience to a hierarchical and authoritarian but benevolent state. That the notion of social solidarity remains strong showed in the spectacular discipline with which China and other Asian nations dealt with the problem.
‘We Are All Rawlsians Now’
For now, the approach being adopted across the West is Rawlsian. Politicians are working on the assumption that they have a duty to protect everyone as they themselves would wish to be protected, while people are also applying the golden rule as they decide that they should self-isolate for the sake of others. We are all Rawlsians now.
How long will we stay that way? All the other theories of justice have an appeal, and may test the resolve to follow the golden rule. But I suspect that Rawls and the golden rule will win out. That is partly because religion — even if it is in decline in the West — has hard-wired it into our consciousness. And as the epidemic grows worse and brings the disease within fewer degrees of separation for everyone, we may well find that the notion of loving thy neighbor as thyself becomes far more potent.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
John Authers is a senior editor for markets. Before Bloomberg, he spent 29 years with the Financial Times, where he was head of the Lex Column and chief markets commentator. He is the author of “The Fearful Rise of Markets” and other books.
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