Thursday. Brilliant sunshine and cold, crisp air. I take Lucy for her walk. We linger in a shaft of sunlight angling onto the street corner. I have a flashback: Forty years ago (more!) in Yosemite in Camp Four, wearing the wool sweater my mother had knit me, standing in a patch of sunlight trying to warm up on a cold October morning.
The urgent demands of press week are behind me. I take time to reread Yuval Levin’s 2012 essay “Putting Health in Perspective.” He notes that our public life is disordered by “our inability to properly rank health in relation to other public goods.” The problem arises “because modern science and modern political philosophy have put avoidance of pain and the prevention of death at the forefront of public life.” This makes us unable to explain (even to ourselves) why, at times, other goods such as virtue, honor, equality, and prosperity are more important than avoiding pain and preventing death.
Reflecting on Levin’s essay, I see more clearly my concerns over the last two weeks. Rod Dreher, like many of my friends, has adopted the view that pro-life Christians are obligated to preserve life at any cost. This requires one to hold, as a matter of principle, that physical death is the greatest evil, since preventing death is the highest good. No ancient philosophers held such a view. Nor did the Old Testament prophets. Jesus certainly didn’t.
Levin observes that the view that death is the greatest evil was first articulated by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and Bacon. Their materialist view—physical suffering and death are the gravest threats—has a compassionate side. We devote ourselves to preventing death, which is of course often fitting and sometimes obligatory. My concern is that the well-intended rhetoric of compassion, amplified by denunciations of any who dissent from the present “at any cost” mentality, will contribute to the reduction of public life to purely materialist considerations.
At 11 a.m. I’m scheduled to join a video meeting with a committee of the First Things board. Our purpose will be to talk about the budget and finalize plans for ensuring the survival of the organization. In preparation, I read a summary of the economic rescue bill scheduled for a final vote tomorrow morning. Wow. Huge sums of money. Even the dry legal language conveys the tremendous power of the American government. In my mind’s eye I see a gigantic dump truck raising its load and the contents thundering out.
After lunch I head to my neighborhood church to pray, using today’s readings in the old missal. Kings 4:25-37: A Shunammite woman came to Elisha, begging him to restore her young son to life. Elisha’s disciple cannot raise the child, so Elisha himself must go bring the gift of life. Luke 7:11-16: In the town of Nain, Jesus raises the mother’s only son from the dead, for he is the power of life itself who, like Elisha, has come. The closing prayer: “Free your own from the temptations assailing them, so that they may please you and be protected by you.” I ask Jesus to free me from the temptation to accord death a final say over my emotions, thoughts, and actions so that I might live more fully in him.
Walking toward the office along 1st Avenue, I spot a dog walker holding onto three leashes—a sign of normalcy sneaking back into daily life. Near Grand Central Station, I pass an empty airport bus waiting for passengers. I ask the driver if anyone is using his service. He starts to speak, but his face mask makes it impossible, so he pulls it down below his chin. He makes the run every hour, as scheduled, he tells me. Yesterday he had one passenger. None so far today. One block from the office I pass an older woman with green surgical gloves and a cigarette between her fingers. Strange combination of precaution and nonchalance.
A friend emails. He’s been following the strident reactions to my argument against insistent claims that we must save lives “at any cost.” He makes a penetrating observation. A signal achievement of our technological age has been to make many deaths preventable with vaccinations, antibiotics, and more, including the ventilators so much in the news.
Our condition in this mortal coil has been improved by this achievement, but the technological promise has political ramifications. We accept deaths that seem inevitable or unpreventable. We mourn them, but don’t litigate them. By contrast, “preventable deaths do not end with the funeral, but go on and on reverberating in society with recriminations, reparations, and sometimes violent reprisals.” This is why the 3000 deaths on 9/11 reverberated (and still reverberate), while the 300,000 deaths in the 2004 tsunami did not.
As a society, we are acting on the technocratic assumption that a total mobilization of society can significantly reduce the death toll. This frames nearly every death from the coronavirus as “preventable.” From the outset, I’ve had deep misgivings about this approach. My concerns have not been epidemiological (an area of expertise in which I have no right to an opinion). They have been political, social, and spiritual. By emphasizing the technological promise and the rhetoric of preventable death, often amped up to extremes with “at any cost” moralism, we are ensuring that this crisis will go on and on, reverberating in society for a long while to come. This will bring many unforeseen changes—as well as recriminations, reparations, and reprisals.
My thoughts return to the CARES Act and its huge allocation of funds. The reparations have already begun. A friend sends a link and I read Russell Moore’s intervention, “God Doesn’t Want Us to Sacrifice the Old.” He traffics in the “do everything possible” rhetoric. We must spare no effort, and if we fail to do so, we, as a society, “kill the vulnerable.” Moore’s evocation of murder implicitly calls for punishment of those responsible. Twitter enforcers are already meting out the reprisals and recriminations. The voters, too, will have their say, though they may end up punishing the technocrats currently doing “everything possible.” Reverberations upon reverberations.
The late afternoon sunshine is glorious. I ignore a phone call from my sister so that I can answer some urgent emails before heading home. (I promise, dear reader, I’ll call her soon!) A baby is crying in his mother’s arms on the sidewalk below. The sound echoes in the empty canyon of buildings on 40th Street.
I’m on the phone with my sister as I’m walking down 42nd Street. A tall young man in the garb of a construction worker walks beside me. He looks over, and nodding toward the book under my arm, says, “What’s that say, happiness and contemplation?” He notices I’m on the phone. “Oh, sorry to disturb your call. Your book caught my attention.” I turn away from my phone, and tell him, “We need more of both these days.” “Got that right,” he replies as he descends the stairs to the Lexington Avenue subway. I continue on my way.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.