All the epidemiologists and politicians are talking about flattening the curve, by which they don’t mean– at least not necessarily – reducing the total area under the curve, i.e. reducing the number of people who’ll eventually contract Covid 19. Even if the total area under the curve remains the same, extending the curve reduces the number of deaths from the virus by reducing the number of victims dying for lack of a ventilator. But as the supply of ventilators increases, so can the height of the curve. So flattening the curve is actually a metonym for matching need to supply.

With a little thought, that, I take it, will be widely allowed. That is, all this social distancing is being urged, and rightly so, in order to flatten the curve in order to reduce demand on therapeutic resources until supply can meet it. An autonomous effect of that social distancing might be to reduce the number of people who ever will be infected. But reducing that number, i.e. the area under the curve, has nothing to do with flattening it. If the area under the curve were fixed, and if we had an infinite supply of ventilators, then we might decide to compress the pain and get it over with rather than drag it out. That is, since the only consideration other than fatalities is the economy, we might decide to just let the virus take its toll as quickly as possible so we can move on. After all, most businesses and households could survive a two-week shutdown. Far fewer will survive several months of it.

But, of course, these are all counterfactuals. As a matter of fact the supply of ventilators is hundreds of thousands short of expected demand, and social distancing is expected to significantly reduce the area under the curve. So as a matter of fact this social distancing, and the economic damage it incurs, is amply justified. But I want to consider how this judgment would change if …

Look. We have good reason to believe social distancing will flatten the curve. And we have some reason to hope it will reduce the area under the curve. But we don’t know the length of the curve along the x axis. Suppose it’s not over by mid-summer. Or even if it is, suppose that in the fall we’re hit with a second wave worse than the first. Or suppose we come to accept that we may be saddled with this thing for years. At what point would we decide that the losses in the quality of life for the rest of us outweigh the number of deaths we have reason to anticipate, even notwithstanding the widespread availability of ventilators?

That you can’t put a value on a human life makes for good rhetoric. But obviously we can, because obviously we do. In fact earlier on in the outbreak there were some people advocating we let the virus do its worst and rely on herd immunity to protect the rest of us. No social distancing. And so no shutdown of the goods and services that make our lives worth living in precisely those ways the shutdown does not. Wuddya say?

Most of us, myself included, would say no. Today. But what about a few months from now, if there’s still no end in sight?

This no-end-in-sight clause is important, because there’s a difference between knowing that the sun will come out again and knowing when.

But let’s even suppose we do know when. Today’s the 4th of April. It’ll be over by mid-June.

“I can live with that!”

It’ll be over by Labor Day.

“Thank God! “

It’ll be over by Christmas 2022.

“Well now wait a minute!”

Most of us can put our lives on hold for a couple of months. Some of us can’t. But none of us is willing to put it on hold for years. Why not? Because I don’t know who I’ll be years from now. Or even if I’ll be. After all, I’ve just had my three score years and ten.

Is a life on hold still a life? Depends how much I value the life I’m living. Maybe when I’m standing at the altar and I’m asked if I take it “in sickness and in health”, I’ll say “I do!” And my suspicion is that I wouldn’t be the only one to say “I do!”, just as I haven’t been the only one to say “I do!”

Now it might be supposed the analogy breaks down because it fails to capture the moral dimension of refusing to social distance oneself. Suppose that for every hundred thousand men who say “I do!”, someone dies who would otherwise have lived. Am I prepared to take on that responsibility? Are you?

Your lips say no, but your behavior speaks otherwise. Do you drive to Calgary every weekend, notwithstanding you know that for every hundred thousand trips to Calgary someone dies who would otherwise have lived? How do you wash your hands of that blood? By availing yourself of the Principle of Double Effect. 1) You anticipated her death, but you didn’t intend it. 2) There’s only a one in a hundred thousandth chance it was your driving that caused her death. And 3) though the loss of her life was a disproportionate sacrifice for whatever business you might have had in Calgary, it wasn’t disproportionate to whatever a hundred thousand of you had to do in Calgary. So, can one put a value on a human life? Well, apparently you have.

But now comes the kicker. If we acknowledge that there will come a time at which, there being no end in sight, we’ll decide to abandon this social distancing, then what exactly will have changed between now and then? Aren’t we in exactly the same place, both epistemically and morally, as we’ll be then, save that the earlier we bite the bullet the earlier we can repair this unwarranted damage we’ve done to the economy and the earlier we can get our lives back.

There’s obviously something deeply flawed about this reasoning. Now I just need to figure out what.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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1 reply

  1. The threat this virus poses to our infrastructures, especially in healthcare, is the broader issue. So the ‘unwarranted’ damage to the economy may be comparatively inconsiderable if or when we see our institutions collapse from overwhelming them by a preemptive return to ‘normal.’ Hence the confusion about what to do by those who wish to maintain the status quo; there’s less confusion from those ready for economic reformation. Perhaps the latter only feel less confused due to hubris—unlike our humble world leaders.


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