Between Scylla and Charybdis – The Coronavirus Dilemma

Derek Uejo on May 6, 2020

The last several months have seen a great deal of change in the United States, and around the world. As Ben Rhodes writes in The Atlantic, “our major cities now look like the set of some ominous disaster movie.” Addressing the present pandemic, and the connected economic crisis requires faithfulness, and prudence. It is not simply that we are concerned about human lives, but how. Unfortunately, our public discourse has oscillated between extremes, which offers us little clarity about how to sail ahead.

On one end of our ethical see-saw we have R.R. Reno, editor of First Things Magazine who critiques what he calls sentimentalism, or, saving lives at any cost. Reno writes in his recent article that “our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage.” Before the crisis, we did “not spend 100 percent of GDP on healthcare.” In 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reported that the United States spent only 17.7% of its GDP on healthcare. We’ve always had to “ration healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion.” Although a discussion should be had concerning economic priorities, the United States still spends more of its GDP on healthcare than any other country in the world. The problem is not simply where, or how many resources are allocated. Take Norway for example, which is still consistently ranked as one of the healthiest countries in the world, but spends significantly less per capita than the top-ranked United States spends.

Reno recognizes that being human has its limitations. Finitude requires that we make the best of our circumstances. In a crisis, this is readily apparent. While we should never will evil, “we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.” There are always opportunity costs to every decision we make. Unfortunately, we cannot use the time-turner that Ms. Hermione Granger used in Harry Potter, and be in two places at once.

Saving his sharpest criticism against restrictions for the end of his article, Reno writes that “fear of death and causing death is pervasive—stoked by a materialistic view of survival at any price and unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age.” Reno is rightly concerned that the public conduct of Christians should faithfully express truths about God, and human life. Have Christian leaders accepted “death’s dominion” by their actions? Are the policies of those that advocate for strict measures of containment simply an expression of “paranoia and hysteria?

At the other end of the ethical see-saw is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore writes in The New York Times, “each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product.” Moore goes on to say “we cannot coldly make decisions as to how many people we are willing to lose since ‘we are all going to die of something.’” While this narrative contrasts with Reno’s, the dilemma remains the same. Moore is right to assert that human value should not be quantified by dollar amounts, but is this the framework of his interlocutors? Is the recognition of human finitude an easy out for lackluster moral deliberation, and the prioritizing of dollars over lives?

Moore uses vivid, and religious imagery to shock his readers, reminding them that “we cannot pass by on the side of the road when the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the vulnerable are in peril before our eyes.” Moore appeals to our principles, arguing that we must not measure some lives as having value over others, rebuking a scenario where we are content with the elderly, disabled, poor, and vulnerable being sacrificed on the altars of comfort, money, and progress. It’s hard to miss Moore’s point when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas said “there are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” Statements like this are not helping us confront the moral hazard of an either/or scenario, even if they present partial truths about the choices before us.

Tragically, the bifurcation that Moore makes is not acceptable for those that are now unemployed and struggling to provide for, and shelter their families. Economic concerns are at once both moral, and spiritual concerns, because economics is an aspect of how humans do life together. Moore ends his article by saying “let’s respect human life in such a way that we will not be ashamed to tell them [our grandchildren] the truth.” If only public policy could be as simple as our ideals.

Other voices are charting courses between the Scylla and Charybdis offerings of sentimentalism and utilitarianism. Brad Littlejohn, president of the Davenant Institute, offers his perspective in a Mere Orthodoxy piece. Littlejohn reminds the Christian community that,

“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?’”

Drawing from just war theory, Littlejohn presents a salvo reminder that “Christian ethics has also long distinguished between directly intending the death of another, and acting in such a way that the death of another is a foreseen likely consequence.” Both the “steely-eyed realist” and the “earnest sentimentalist” lie before us like the mythical Sirens. Littlejohn argues that the “quarantine vs. economy” juxtaposition does not take into account the great degree of uncertainty we are operating with. Our question is really, what ought we do, given the limited information we have at our disposal? Littlejohn writes, “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.

Matthew Lee Anderson, founder and lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy, proposes one of the more careful ethical treatments of the situation to date, responding to the recent articles written by Littlejohn, Reno, and Moore. There is a need for moral reasoning to move beyond the world of grand narratives, and into the dust and dirt of the main city throughway. Of course, this invites potential failure and loss of life.

For Anderson, Reno and Moore are simply two sides of the same coin. They both have somewhat uncharitable views of the public rhetoric surrounding COVID-19, critiquing alternate considerations to their own as being either immoral or fear driven. Simplistic analyses can lead one to make “prophetic” claims about which good should matter most. Either/or reasoning can often be problematic. Anderson put it best when he wrote,

“If we honor the concrete value of each individual human life, we should similarly focus our accounts of the economic devastation we are wreaking on the real lives of those who suffer, rather than indulgently criticizing middle-class consumerism or reducing people’s positions to abstractions like the GDP. We might even momentarily set aside our sweeping narratives about the sources of cultural degradation and open ourselves to the possibility that there has always been more goodness latent within our society than our love of decay narratives would allow.”

The difficulty that Anderson points out is not indulging ourselves in either of those grand narratives. When we continue to read articles that flatten the issue to a binary, and use alarmism to repeat the narratives we already believe about the state of our culture or society, we will be unable to come to the truth that “public health and economic health are simultaneous and intertwined partners in the pursuit of human flourishing.Human flourishing is not simply about material comfort, nor is it reducible to the preservation of life as is. It is about living and dying well, and it is here that the Church can truly offer good news.

Derek UejoDerek Uejo is a Fall 2019 John Jay Fellow and graduate of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute. He is currently interning with the American Enterprise Institute, and will be pursuing his MTS in New Testament at Duke Divinity School this fall.

  1. Comment by Blake Ohanesian on May 7, 2020 at 10:40 am

    In my opinion, Uejo’s take on the rhetorical spectrum brought a breadth of views “full circle”. Per usual, the answer isn’t to entrench ourselves on one side- but to understand the trade-offs we’ll make as a society. So long as we have these conversations in good faith, I think the Christian ethic will prove to be fruitful.

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