Last week, Brad Littlejohn published an article at Mere Orthodoxy calling for us to trust the experts, accept the uncertainty, sacrifice (at least some of us) for the collective good, and get comfortable with tyranny and the loss of freedom.
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.
Much more can be said, but here is a brief response.
By this point, Brad has already won the argument, because in the modern Christian ethos other people’s perception is always reality. I won’t dwell on this; I’ve talked about it before. I’ll just say that the background assumption for most evangelical elite moral commentary is, ethos is the form that shapes the public logos and praxis — or the demands of the secularist is what shapes our “witness.” This article follows that pattern.
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?”
Strange use of the first-person, singular. The fact is, not all people will make a huge sacrifice; many government workers are likely enjoying themselves quite well right now. Brad should ask whether “we” are willing, and the “we” is not a simple composition of individual sacrifice. Some will bear the load far more than others, and they are the ones whom we praise and celebrate the most: independent small business owners.
When you share Brad’s article, it would be helpful to see how *you* are sacrificing for the collective good and not simply deciding for others to sacrifice. As I said, the “we” is the whole, but certainly cannot be divided into equal sacrificing parts. If you agree with Brad’s argument, it is a good bet that you have decided for others to sacrifice for the collective good. You can squash that guilt, I suppose, by donating your surplus income to those who might lose everything.
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,
Brad makes no mention of the Oxford study, which in one scenario says that herd immunity in the UK is almost achieved (viz. over 50% have already been infected and show little to no symptoms).
Some epidemiologists have publicly questioned the Imperial College report. Here are some examples:
Though the lead author of the Imperial study has not substantively changed his model, his current predictions are still a little lower than what he predicted and he says that the total deaths in the UK could be “substantially” lower. And even if his predictions are accurate, this does not prove the model, which would be an affirming the consequent fallacy. Only antibody testing can prove or disprove the competing models.
Also, most models that deal with complex data, rely on numerous assumptions, and lack robust data are in the end wrong, often widely wrong. To say “sometimes” is false.
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.
The “experts” themselves didn’t frame the issue like that. The Imperial study offers five different types of “non-pharmaceutical interventions” and recommends the implementation of all five for “several months” (a point that Brad failed to mention). I’ll discuss the time-in-quarantine issue below. The point here is that it is not “no intervention” versus “intensive intervention.” There are multiple options (by Ferguson’s own admission), and easing back into economic life by removing some interventions is precisely what Trump and others are calling for. Brad never mentions this possibility.
Unfortunately, people are using Rusty Reno’s extreme piece as the standard position. It is not. While some people like me might appreciate the spirit behind it, they (and I) do not agree with it in substance. Brad’s framing the issue fails to capture the views of most people who are on the “economic life matters” side.
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.
I agree with this.
(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).
1) “wealth” is not as easy to extract as income. 2) In an “economic collapse” that wealth has probably lost much of its value. 3) the “vulnerable” ultimately need goods and services, not fiat currency. Wealth doesn’t magically become goods and serves in an economy no longer producing goods and services.
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.
What Brad fails to mention is that the Imperial College London study calls for the implementation of the most intensive interventions (all five) for “several months” and only then to ease off them to avoid a rebound in cases. (Has Brad read the study?) Again, “several months” of little to no economic activity. I can’t predict exactly what people’s lives will be like in several months of economic collapse, but I am certain that it will be dreadful and terrifying.
The “economic life matters” crowd is not concerned with maintaining a “standard of living,” but about avoiding an economic (and so social and political) catastrophe. What will our political institutions look like after “several months” of little to no economic activity? Nowhere does Brad mention the expert recommendation on how long we must endure the quarantine.
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.
There is a sort of timeless principle here, evident from the Iliad to the present US military practice. But the “no man left behind” is only under ordinary circumstances and is an ideal. And no worthy commander would sacrifice his unit, nor lose the war, to follow this “non-negotiable.” The “no man left behind” is more a matter of ethos than moral principle, and it is followed only when resources make it possible. The Black Hawk Down situation was one of abundance. Most militaries in history would not have the means or resources to conduct that operation and so would leave the man behind.
Among these non-negotiables, it seems to me, should be honor and respect for the aged.
Doesn’t this contradict his rejection of sentimentalism earlier in the piece? Brad hasn’t provided much moral reasoning here. The question is a matter of competing goods and limited resources to meet all needs, and the demands of necessity might require an allocation of goods that increase the risk of the 80+.
There may be a time to protest and speak prophetically against tyranny, but this is not that time.
And this last section is incredible. Brad is essentially telling us to start getting comfortable with long-term, extensive, and very visible governmental intrusions into our lives. This appears to include government/corporate censorship, by the way.
What is fascinating is that this loss of freedom factors nowhere into his moral calculation. Americans will have to cease worrying about tyranny for, what seems to be, two decades. Wouldn’t this radically change us? Will Americans even tolerate such a state? Is this worth the trade-off?
To minimize the risk of death for elderly people with underlying conditions, Brad is demanding not only that many suffer economically (in ways far above job loss) but for us to permit before our eyes the fundamental transformation of our thinking on and relationship with government, economic life, liberty and political life? That’s the trade-off he wants us to make.
I actually appreciate the honesty here. We are being asked to fundamentally change who we are and in ways most contrary to our historical sentiments — toward massive government control, dictation, censorship, technocracy, etc., which likely will involve the cooperation of corporations and the exclusive relevance of the elite “creative class” to the exclusion of the rest.