Wednesday. Governor Cuomo has declared victory and lifted the shutdown order!
Chilly wind out of the west-northwest, but blue sky. Sun. Finally.
I read Rob Koons’s article “Can We Measure the Value of Saving Human Lives in Dollars? Somber Calculations in a Time of Plague.” It’s the best piece of moral reasoning I’ve read since the crisis began.
He clearly distinguishes between killing—the intentional taking of a human life—and our current situation. “The unintended consequences of a course of action (like resuming normal activity), even when they include foreseeable human deaths, do not make the action one of intentional killing.”
This is obviously true. If, God willing, the coronavirus is contained and we resume normal activity, we will communicate the common flu to others, the most vulnerable of whom will die from complications. Foreseeing this outcome does not require us to remain in a state of perpetual lockdown.
Koons goes on to explain why we are not just morally permitted, but in truth required to return to normal life well before the probability of deaths caused by the disease goes to zero. He notes the common good is not “the aggregate of the individual welfare of a society’s members, but rather the flourishing of the whole community as such.” My death and your death concern our individual welfare, though the circumstances and conditions of our death say a great deal about the flourishing of the whole community. Thus the relation between statistics about death rates—very much in the news—and the common good is complex.
The meaty center of “Can We Measure” lays out principles with which to sort through this complex relation. Well worth reading and rereading. I hope our civic leaders do so.
I read some articles from The Critic, a British magazine that pushes back against today’s groupthink. Radomir Tylecote observes that Taiwan has weathered the pandemic very well, and “Taiwan is almost the only nation with no official relationship to the WHO.” Coincidence? Is the global expertocracy a self-reinforcing echo chamber?
Tylecote: “The public may emerge bleary-eyed from the isolation wards of their homes with unease deeper than even after 9/11 or the financial crisis: they really didn’t keep us safe this time.” I guess we should mark Tylecote down in the “populism redoubled” column.
Enough! As those who have suffered from severe disease know, medical topics quickly become a terrible bore. A friend visits. He wants to talk about your condition. You can barely bring yourself to listen to yet another round of ill-informed speculations about how you got it. In our technocratic age we do not petition God; we appeal to science for a feeling of reassuring mastery.
I do some editing work. An interesting and spiritually profound essay. Very satisfying.
Zoom meetings, blessedly short. The business of the magazine goes forward. Lunch. The sun seduces me. I put on my cycling outfit and go down to the building’s basement to take out my bike.
Over to Central Park. Rhododendrons and cherry trees are in flower. The trees are lightly veiled with budding leaves, a halo of ethereal green. Others are walking and biking, but not many.
I head north on Seventh Avenue at 110th Street, and then angle through Harlem on St. Nicholas Street, grinding my way up to Washington Heights. At the Cloisters I stop and watch a fuel oil ship steaming north on the Hudson River. The Palisades form a wall on the western shore.
I pedal back south on Edgecombe Avenue, then cut over to Lenox Avenue. In the small city parks older folks sit on benches, talking and enjoying the sunshine. Younger men are hanging out on the sidewalk. No officious social distancing to be seen.
As I continue along, I think of Theodore Dalrymple’s observations, which I read this morning. He notes that epidemiological models vary widely. Why do we act in accord with the direst predictions? “Since catastrophism comes naturally to people who have lived in security all their lives, we believe in the precautionary principle (Sod’s Law). We act on the worst-case model.”
Turning onto 135th Street, I smile. When I hitchhiked as a young man, the well-to-do rarely picked me up. My rides almost always came from people in the bottom half. They were people who had good reason to believe Sod’s Law (“If it can go wrong, it will go wrong”), but were not beholden to the precautionary principle.
Going down 5th Avenue I pass the temporary hospital tents in Central Park across from Mount Sinai Hospital. Medical trucks line the side of the avenue. They are not yet being used. Nearby, a man is holding a large flag. It’s unfurled in the strong breeze: “Trump-Pence: Keep America Great.”
Holy Week is coming. I see the local parish priest in front of the rectory. I ask him if I can make a confession. “By all means,” he replies. The church office is arranged for the penitent to sit at some distance from the priest. I leave shriven.
In the church I pray before the reserved sacrament and read Psalms. Pardon me, O Lord. Deliver me from the hand of my enemy. Aid me so that I may honor your name. I modify for my circumstances. Help me turn away from my cares, from my worries, preoccupations, and fears. Turn me toward Jerusalem, O Lord.
Back home. Catch up on emails. A reader writes, “Love what First Things is saying. But I’ve let my subscription lapse. Who do I call to renew?” Easy answer: 877-905-9920. Dear readers of this diary, please take note!
The evening light softens. I look out my window and watch the distant traffic on the new Koscuiuszko Bridge that links Queens to Brooklyn. Toy-sized trucks make their ways north and south. There is movement, but the spiritual atmosphere is one of suspension, a vast city on hold.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.