What makes a life worth living? Or, what might seem a more pertinent question under the current circumstances, what makes a life worth saving? As the city, the nation, and the world struggle to find ways to mitigate the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic, these questions—often relegated to college seminars on ethics—have come to the fore.
To find our way to answers that we can live with, it helps to first take a moment to reflect on the nature of the questions themselves. They are moral questions, of course, meaning that they arise out of the friction between the world as we find it and the world as we prefer it to be. Bringing the two into alignment is rarely easy and often impossible. The world as we find it is in continual flux, populated as it is by other people possessed of their own pictures of how things are supposed to be. This is what makes most moral questions so hard and their answers so contestable.
Think of morality, therefore, as manifested in our reactions to the uncertainty generated by others. And as each person’s experience of uncertainty is to some degree unique, it is unsurprising that their moral reactions are as well. There is, to be sure, often considerable overlap in those reactions, due to the significant effort people make to coordinate them and bring them into line. Yet coordination sometimes fails or, worse, isn’t attempted to begin with, because the initial reactions seem so disparate. These situations are generally lamentable and occasionally dangerous but we rarely have good reason for thinking any one of the opposed reactions is wrong. Indeed, the notions of right and wrong often seem spectacularly unsuited for addressing our moral disagreements, and one suspects that their real purpose is to assure ourselves that we have no need to do so.
If it’s public health versus the economy, the only choice is public health. You cannot put a value on human life.
You do the right thing. That’s what Pop taught us @ChrisCuomo
— Archive: Governor Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 24, 2020
“If it’s public health versus the economy, the only choice is public health. You cannot put a value on human life. You do the right thing. That’s what Pop taught us.” So read a March 23rd tweet of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, which he directed to his brother Chris. The tweet echoed comments that the governor had been making for days in his public briefings on New York’s governmental response to the unfolding coronavirus crisis. They also served as a sort of summary justification of the state’s actions, actions that a few weeks ago would have been unimaginable to most citizens.
As of 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 22nd, every New Yorker was under orders to stay home unless they were an ‘essential worker,’ a status that includes those who work in shipping, media, warehousing, grocery and food production, pharmacies, health care providers, utilities, banks and related financial institutions. All remaining ‘non-essential businesses’ have been informed that they must remain closed, with bars and restaurants restricted to providing takeout or delivery. Non-essential public gatherings of any size and for any reason have been banned, and schools have transitioned to remote/online instruction. New York has ground to a halt.
The economic fall-out from these measures looks to be devastating. Some forecast that New York City alone will see 500,000 people lose their employment. The MTA has asked the federal government for a $4 billion dollar bailout to counter the “financial calamity” they are facing as ridership all but vanishes. Many small businesses are not expected to survive. Long-nurtured dreams will be dashed and livelihoods lost. Nor, of course, is this dark vision of the future limited to New York. At the time of this writing thirty states had issued similar ‘stay at home’ orders, extending to three-quarters of the entire US population, with calls for a nation-wide lockdown growing louder by the day.
But with 3 million Americans losing their jobs in the last week alone, there is a voluble counter-chorus warning that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” One of those voices belongs to Texas Lt. Governor Daniel Patrick, who achieved greater notoriety than most Lt. Governors by going on national television to express his willingness to put himself at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 if doing so would increase the chances that his grandchildren would be left with a functioning society. And while he has been mocked and demonized by some for claiming that “grandmas should sacrifice themselves for capitalism,” (he said no such thing), he is confident that there are many grandparents who would strike such a bargain to benefit those they love, and I’m inclined to agree.
There is, nevertheless, a flaw in Patrick’s thinking but it isn’t a moral flaw. Rather it is that the logic of his bargain would have the virus appeased by his sacrifice; his selfless gesture rests on the forlorn hope that if the virus takes him and those who feel similarly, then it will spare the rest of us as though it were a killer with a conscience. It is not. With no interest in the value we might place on our economic liberty, Covid-19 will not sell it back to us in exchange for unfettered access to already well-lived lives. We therefore have no choice but to save lives now and tend to the economy after, remembering all the while that, as the philosopher Daniel Kaufman aptly put it, economies often recover but the dead never do.
Not all lives can be saved, however, and when faced with the awful choice—as they have in Italy and soon will here—health workers are likely to make the very decision that the Lt. Governor is asking of the virus. Some patients will be left to die as necessary resources, in the form of both people and equipment, are directed elsewhere. Grim assessments of who has a better chance of survival, and who is likely to live longer after having been saved, will figure prominently in the agonizing choices to come. And while this is and will forever be undeniably and inexpressibly tragic, it is also revealingly human.
That the attempts to subdue uncertainty that philosophers have articulated, systematized, and then baptized with sophisticated sounding names such as ‘utilitarianism’, ‘deontology,’ and ‘contractarianism’ all converge on this same emergency protocol, suggests that we have reached deep into the soil from which all our values grow. Our various and occasionally contradictory ‘ethical theories’ are all animated by the same impulse to sustain our identities indefinitely over time. I am not referring to the biological instinct for survival but rather the human imperative to become who we are and might yet be. These are fundamentally distinct. One emphasizes the primacy of the self and provides us with a license to kill; the other teaches that a life spent alone is a life barely worth living and directs us into the emotional embrace of another.
Look again at Governor Cuomo’s tweet. What justifies his commitment to putting public health first is not, ultimately, that it is right, but that doing what is right was what his Pop taught him and his brother. This is the firm ground from which he acts, a foundation formed through the love of his family. Similarly, what renders Lt. Governor Patrick’s willingness to sacrifice himself not simply understandable but sympathetic is his love for his grandchildren and his desperate hope for their continued well-being. Whether love is the primary end of life, it is unquestionably its essential means. Our lives resonate with meaning and purpose only because we love and are loved. And it is the unrepeatable uniqueness of each of those loving relationships that renders each of us the unrepeatably unique individuals that we are—a uniqueness, by the way, that generates the very uncertainty our moralities are used to mitigate.
In his thoughtful piece on the effects of social distancing, Ian Olasov wonders what changes when we come to see one another as vectors of disease. Whatever those changes might be, we cannot allow them to obscure the fact that we are first and foremost vectors of meaning. Our lives become meaningful by having meaning for others, and that’s what makes them worth living. When we love another person, be they our parent, our child, our sibling, our spouse, or our friend, we imbue both their lives and our own with the significance needed to sustain them. That’s what makes them worth saving.
Joseph S. Biehl is the founder and Executive Director of the Gotham Philosophical Society. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from St. John’s University and a Ph.D. from the Graduate School and University Center, CUNY, and has taught philosophy for over twenty years. He is the co-editor (with Sharon Meagher and Samantha Noll) of The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the City, (Routledge, 2019).