The Ethics of Opening

There is a furor of misinformed passion about whether we must stay at home, because it will save lives, or we must return to work, because it will save the economy. I think this is a false dichotomy – those are not the only two options, nor are the reasons given for these two options the actual or complete explanation for them.

Why We Don’t Close When We Don’t Close

California Governor Gavin Newsom insists, “We will let science, not politics, must be the guide” to when we reopen the economy, businesses, and public spaces.

Look at these numbers:

Deaths in California in a year (2017, CDC)
1.  Heart Disease                               62,797
2.  Cancer                                     59,516
3. Stroke                                             16,355
4.  Alzheimer’s Disease               16,238
5.  Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases 13,881
6.  Accidents                                13,840
7.  Diabetes                                9,595
8.  Influenza/Pneumonia        6,340
9.  Hypertension                                5,596
10.  Chronic Liver Disease/Cirrhosis  5,325

Coronavirus (4/15/2020)                         790

It’s not clear to me that science is calling the shots when we shut down the world’s economy for a killer that pales in comparison to a number of others, some of which, like heart disease, would actually be affected by public policy that controls people’s behaviors in a smaller way, such as making smoking illegal. We don’t run tickers on the front page of the LA Times of how many people have died of the flu each year. It seems that, in addition to science, fear, posturing, liability, electability, mental health issues, and a host of other influences are the guides. We’re not following one alone – we’re being pulled by a team of horses, and they don’t all want to run together.

Demonizing Instead of Discussing

A current Pharisaism comes from those defending the lockdown, insisting that opening things up again is an Ebenezer Scrooge kind of move, brought on by coveting money more than caring for people. The people who try to level this charge are ignoring the fact that they take part in the same kind of cold utilitarianism every single year, when, in the US, 30,000 people on average die of the flu, and they never even raise alarms about the fact that hand-shaking is an arbitrary and unnecessary custom. We all tacitly accept the fact that there are fatal infections loose in the world, and we don’t bat an eye at the fact that we contribute to their spread.

Claiming that coronavirus is worse than the flu is a bizarre kind of hypocrisy. Why is 30,000 annual deaths acceptable, and where is the breaking point where the number of deaths becomes unacceptable? The reality is simple – we’ve accepted the fact that we can’t do much to stop the flu without crippling society, and we’re not willing to cripple society to stop those tens of thousands of deaths. So maybe let’s put an end to the self-righteousness about how advocates for staying at home are heroes, when, on this subject, everyone is in one way or another using some kind of utilitarian calculus.

The Experts Agree…virus.jpg

No they don’t. This mantra is getting tired. Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, recently said, “Per case, I don’t think it’s as deadly as people thought…The World Health Organization put an estimate out that was, I think, initially 3.4 percent. It’s very unlikely it is anywhere near that. It’s it’s much likely, much closer to the death rate that you see from the flu per case.” Dr. Knut Wittkowski, former head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at the Rockefeller University in New York, said that we could wipe out coronavirus by going back to public life and only sheltering the vulnerable parts of the population (Rockefeller has distanced itself from his views). This flies in the face of other purported exports who warn of disaster should the world return to public traffic too soon.

More to the point, there is more speculation than data in our current climate. Because tests are not widely available, we don’t have accurate data on how many people have been infected, which means the mortality-to-infection ratio is necessarily lower than what has been reported, maybe much lower. I don’t know; I won’t speculate. I only mean, again, that the self-righteousness of the social media warriors who think they know everything is overblown.

Money or Mental Health?

The claim that people who want to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable from the public rather than the public from the vulnerable, are greedy, ignores several other factors that are affected by a long timeline to reopening. The most important


of these is mental health. Domestic abuse has risen worldwide during the pandemic. Social isolation, stress, and depression are factors that affect suicide ideation. Estimates suggest that around 20% of the population of the US, 1 in 5, struggle with anxiety disorders, which can be aggravated and intensified during this season. Reopening is not just about money, it’s about mental health. That’s a scientific consideration about which I’m seeing far less data. No one is talking about bending curves in that field, though clearly there are some exponential increases on the relevant graphs.

What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?

For Christians, the ethics are all the more difficult here, because we follow the guy who touched lepers, was confident about his ability to heal, taught his disciples to heal, and said that his followers would do even greater things than they had done back then.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for avoiding the sick.

On money, he has unilaterally negative things to say. Apparently, the goal of amassing wealth and storing it away is foolish, according to Jesus.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for the economy.

On government, he has precious little to say. He never advocates for a fiscal policy, doesn’t seek to overthrow Caesar even when they want him to, and refuses kingship. His single clearest statement about government is the recommendation that we pay our taxes – hardly the revolutionary material most of us were hoping for. Paul’s charge in Romans 13 to obey the governing authorities is clearly just to smooth the waves so that he could go about his evangelism, not some kind of subsuming of the government’s will under God’s will. Someone who got arrested and thrown in prison more than once was clearly marching to a different drummer than the local authorities.

I don’t hear Jesus creating public policy.

If I had to extrapolate, I would guess Jesus would go about his business as usual. When he would have us do the same is less clear. But I am clear about three things Jesus wouldn’t do.

  1. Jesus wouldn’t endorse our self-righteousness. Self-righteousness about knowing the right thing to do, and the consequent finger pointing at those who disagree, is clearly wrong-headed and out of place. Science is only a decent guide when it itself is guided by humility. The illusion that science is just a collection of objective facts untainted by those who use its findings needs to be dispelled.
  2. Jesus wouldn’t be afraid, either of sickness or poverty. Fear is not from God. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. Don’t be afraid! God is with you wherever you go.
  3. Jesus wouldn’t act from any motive but love. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. We might well faithfully and lovingly seek to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable, for the sake of a greater overall utility, with deep concern for the impact of mental stress and strain on the world. That’s nothing to demonize, and the motive isn’t money.