Covid is annoying for many reasons, but I particularly dislike the way it makes people so cross and judgemental. We demonstrate an unfortunate tendency mid-pandemic to confuse maths with value judgements, slipping from explaining that something is, to something ought to be. But it’s a huge leap from a descriptive statement to a prescriptive statement, and we should be cautious when a politician or social commentator or Facebook friend starts to slip seamlessly between facts and opinions. So: to argue that people dying from Covid is wrong is to make a subjective evaluation, not present an objective fact. We tend to assume that human life is precious, the most precious thing on earth, but actually, it’s extremely abundant; and history is littered with instances where human life has been valued very cheaply, or there’d be no war, or slavery, or 5000 children dying every day from dirty water. In some instances – quite often, actually – we value other things more highly. Like freedom from tyranny, the right to self-expression, religious faith. You can argue that’s nonsense and there’s nothing more valuable than human life, if you like. But recognise you are making a judgement, not stating a fact.
In a free society people value different things differently. I tend to value freedom before safety. Many of my friends and family value safety before freedom. And that’s just fine. It doesn’t make the other side idiots or monsters. (You can point out that as a middle-aged white woman of robust health I’m very unlikely to die of Covid, and you’d be right. If I were an 80 year old diabetic Asian man doubtless I’d be feeling a bit more frightened and inclined to caution.) Similarly, people who tell us that war is necessary to keep down the population tend not to mean they themselves should be killed in conflict. That’s OK too. I do value my own personal comfort and pleasure over the lives of strangers, and so do you. But more on that later). The rhetoric around Covid tends to be fairly statistic heavy – R rates, percentage increases, hospital admissions and deaths: the difficulty comes when we conflate these interesting mathematical issues, which are facts, to consideration as to how we should respond to them, which are opinions. Muddling the two means value judgements are presented as truth, which is bad news both for science and for ethical dilemmas.
Back in February, many of my chums were screaming for lockdown ‘at any cost’, by which they meant let us hide in our nice houses while working class people bring us stuff and take their damn chances. And when the government didn’t respond as quickly as they’d hoped, I saw several memes claiming Boris was ‘worse than the blitz’, which only killed 43000ish.
Now this is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, and less interestingly, lockdown is quite likely to kill many more people long-term than Covid’s wildest dreams, when you factor in unemployment, mental health issues, missed cancer diagnoses, alcoholism, domestic abuse, heart disease from ceasing to race round shaking life by the throat. I don’t know anyone who’s died from Covid, but I do know two men who’ve chosen to kill themselves these last six months.
But second, and more interesting, who’s to say that people dying is bad?
Moral absolutism used to be popular, and I can see the appeal – simple rules are easy to understand, and tend to speak to the tidy-minded. Thou shalt not lie, or steal, or murder. The belief that safety always matters more than freedom is a form of moral absolutism, while calling those that prefer freedom over safety murderers is also a form of moral absolutism, the word ‘murderer’ containing a pronounced pejorative significance. Sadly for the tidy-minded, moral absolutism throws up problems quite quickly. Consider the philosopher Benjamin Constant’s ‘inquiring murderer’ example. Thou shalt not lie, but if a psychopath weighed down with semtex and machine guns requested directions for the nearest primary school, most people would agree that lying to him should at least be considered. And did you know someone did actually save a 4 year old Hitler from drowning? Bet he kept that quiet forty years on. Moreover, for moral absolutism to work we would all need to agree to a universally accepted source and authority. Religions tend to offer this, but there are lots of religions and they don’t all agree about everything, and worse yet, plenty of people subscribe to no religious position at all, thanks to that busybody Darwin.
And actually, we decide that we are OK with people dying all the time. I spend a lot of money on wine and sherbet and manicures that could instead buy mosquito nets or give a child access to clean water. Those children are strangers to me, so I prefer the manicure. I can pretend to care about those children, but I don’t, not enough to change my behaviour, and nor do you, probably, not really. If it were my child I would eschew the manicure and buy the mosquito net, but it isn’t, so I don’t. Perhaps there are some people who genuinely care for strangers as much as they do their husbands, mothers, children, but I bet they’re ghastly to live with.
So I don’t buy this human life at any cost schtick. You mean human life at any cost so long as I don’t have to sacrifice any of my own personal pleasures and not be too greatly inconvenienced. That’s not really much different from wishing I could spend time with my friends and continue to earn a living, even though people might die in consequence. In fact, I could easily make the case that wanting to earn a living and see my pals is more moral than my self-indulgent manicure, loneliness being deadly, poverty being deadlier. You know what’s a huge risk factor in dying from Covid? Being poor.
Hide at home all you like. The maths demonstrates you’ll be less likely to die of Covid, and indeed kill other people with it. But don’t claim to be more moral or somehow better than me. You prioritise different values, that’s all. And that’s OK.