As the initial panic of the coronavirus crisis subsides, those who fostered fear as a means to assume powers previously unimagined now find themselves scrambling to maintain leadership among the many who did not experience either the death of someone close to them or even an acquaintance with someone mildly infected. Even now those unwilling to relinquish power insist on dangling before us a second wave of infections, clearly implying that all are at risk and all are endangered. But looking back, we can now clearly see that such was not the case even in the first wave.
In knowing the context in which deaths occurred, we must agree that it was rational, and continues to be so, for some of us to fear the virus. On the other hand, it is not remotely rational for others to fear the virus anymore than they should fear walking out the door each day knowing some will die, often unexpectedly, of some cause before they can return home that same day. Though panic seems to have ruled in the first onslaught of the pandemic, it would help us to see that it only did so because of the vacuous principle deeply ingrained in our modern culture—“if it only saves one life.”
In recent times this phrase or its variants has been used to justify anything that anyone with a cause wishes to forward. In the current crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo has invoked this principle repeatedly to justify his edicts. Like Cuomo, those who invoke this sentiment do so with the inherent assumption that the action they propose will self-evidently save lives and, since one life is worth more than any dollar amount, any cost is justified. To suggest otherwise invites scorn directly proportional to the self-righteousness of the person proposing the life-saving proposal.
To assume that this position—if it only saves one life—is being seriously offered for discussion, particularly by Governor Cuomo who supports abortion without restriction, is to enter a quagmire with no exit. The statement is not meant to justify policy, but is, rather, an assertion of self-righteousness. Rather than favoring prudential discussion that mitigates panic, it directs the discussion toward the moral bona fides of the speakers. Instead of a conversation, the moral posturing of “if it only saves one life” challenges an opponent to a duel of honor that can only be settled with one vindicated and the other dead, or sufficiently wounded and discredited enough to leave the field. The very purpose of the position is to end conversation before it begins. It perpetuates the panic that power requires, and it allows any opponents to be derogated as callous self-seekers with blood on their hands. Rather than seeking truth, it prevents a prudent discussion of costs, benefits and, even, the value of life.
Prudent discussion begins with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season… a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ec 3:1-2). Despite man’s best efforts, every life ends in death. Assuming that the proper allocation of resources, directed by those with the proper expertise, will somehow end death and suffering is not wisdom but hubris. As the Greeks knew long ago and history, particularly that of the twentieth century, makes more than clear, hubris leads to far greater tragedies than nature can invoke left to its own resources. “How can we defeat death?” has always been the question of the fool. The wise man accepts the inevitability of death and asks, “How can we live well?”
Paradoxically, life has value because it ends. It has value because it is a limited resource. If we had unlimited resources to extend all lives indefinitely, no matter what, we would find it actually had no value at all. Without death our freedom would be meaningless because our choices would never be final. Without death we would live the hell of Shakespeare’s Macbeth where life with its endless tomorrows becomes a “tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing” (Act 5, Scene 5). Death is inescapably a part of everyone’s life, and to assume the vapid position that discussion ends with an assertion of life’s value as beyond any expense actually de-values that life, reducing it to something whose value is in quantity rather than quality, in living long rather than living well. Ultimately, our lives are judged by our contributions to others, not by how long we have lived. The value of our lives is not measured by what it costs to sustain us; it is measured by what we can give.
Unfortunately, many who invoke life’s value as beyond price will jump on the phrase “we can give” to justify their actions. But “we” can only be properly understood as a collection of autonomous individuals who each identify as “I.” To ask the question, “What can we do?” is, more frequently than not, shorthand justifying authoritarian rule by the few who assume knowledge of the many while excluding their “I” from the “we.” In being told what to do, the many individuals who comprise the “we” become objects manipulated rather than subjects acting. The “we” are no longer autonomous and free individuals asking, “What can I do?” Rather than give, what they have is simply taken. Rather than being persons who are loving and caring, they become cattle prodded into action.
Daily we read about people deemed essential, about data that must be considered, and about experts who must be listened to. But they are wrong about who is essential, what data is important, and who the experts are. All of their analysis, data, and experts reduce men to objects manipulated rather than subjects living. Rather than valuing life as something that is inherently about quality, i.e., about how it is lived, life is devalued to a quantity, i.e., how long it is. Prudence requires that we reject the meaningless “we” and replace it with every man’s “I”—I am essential, I live the data that makes up my life, I am the expert regarding that data, I determine the ultimate value of my life, and I alone can give of what I am. Only with an “I” that belongs to every person can men and women love and care for other men and women. Without recognition of a subjective “I,” an “I” that lives life, an “I” with a capability to freely give, there is no intrinsic value to life.
Prudence also requires truth. Our lives begin with the truth of who we are. Gaudium et Spes tells us that man’s life only has meaning “…through the sincere gift of self.” Only in this context can each person recognize both his essential nature and the expertise only he possesses to live his life to fulfillment. In this pandemic, life lived in the spirit of gift will open social spaces where necessary and close them where unnecessary. In either case, the decision will embrace life truly lived rather than life merely extended. Rather than separating grandparents from grandchildren, husbands from wives, brothers from sisters, or even strangers from one another, it will bring them together in mutual gift, socially distanced or otherwise. Panic and fear are the proper response if life’s value is in its length. Only in accepting that life is worth infinitely more than just another day, another month, or another year, can we truly meet and conquer the current pandemic with prudence rather than panic.
Image: Paul Manship’s Youth statue in Rockefeller Center wears a mask to coincide with New York City moving into the phase two re-opening from the coronavirus pandemic. (Getty Images)