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Guest opinion: The pandemic reveals the soul of American society

The politics of the COVID-19 pandemic have asked society to choose between economic survival and human life — and we’re leaning in the wrong direction.

People embrace while waiting in line to be tested for COVID-19 at Intermountain Healthcare’s mobile testing unit at Park City High School on Saturday, April 18, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Crises have a way of clarifying and focusing the values that a society holds dear. As we grapple with what to do in this present pandemic, significant questions come to the fore that do not have easy answers. And the way in which society answers those questions — both the processes and the answers themselves — vividly reveal the priorities that animate our society.

Such is the case with the current pandemic. The questions raised by the crisis cut to the heart of the moral orientations of American society. On one extreme, people contend that government restrictions, lockdowns and forced closures of business have exacted too harsh an economic toll. “The cure must not be worse than the disease” is a common call from this group. They uncompromisingly pronounce that people die, and people dying is just the cost of doing business.

On the other side, people call attention to the shared humanity of citizens. The obligations that people have to each other go beyond economic constructions of society. They resist the modern impulse to assign a dollar value to human life.

Both positions raise the question of what people owe to each other. On the first side, people normally contend that they have no obligations to each other beyond the requirements necessary for economic transactions to occur. They emphasize that all public policies result in disparate benefits and harms — including death. “If we wanted to save lives, we could mandate a speed limit of 10 mph on all roads or ban cars altogether.” The fact that we still drive down the freeway at a brisk 70 mph illustrates that policymakers and the public they represent are familiar and comfortable with the tradeoffs of safety and economic activity.

On the second side, people look beyond utility maximization and try to find a commonality that transcends the view that other people are simply means to economic ends. Life is both precious and infinite, and it cannot be reduced to economic language. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York recently made a statement that contained echoes of this uncomfortable calculation. He said, “There’s a cost of staying closed. There’s also a cost of reopening quickly. That’s the hard truth we are dealing with. Let’s be honest about it. Let’s be open about it. The question comes down to how much is a human life worth? ... What the government does today will literally determine how many people live, and how many people die. That is not hyperbolic.”

Which side is right? We would suggest that either argument, taken to its extreme, is untenable, impractical and overly simplifies our complex society. Nevertheless, these deeper considerations of life, humanity, our economic connections, and shared moral obligations are rarely brought so close to the surface for everyday folks to seriously consider. This moment provides us an invaluable opportunity to reflect on these ideas and why they matter.

So, why do they matter? Because any government is more than a set of institutions. Governments are moral frameworks. They rest on assumptions about what it means to be human and the way in which power can be used to achieve given ends.

When individuals believe that government does not serve those ends or is even antagonistic toward them, conflicts emerge that can call even the most basic assumptions about the purpose of government into question.

A political life attentive only to economic “needs” has the potential to overwhelm other matters of concern that are necessary for those in a democracy to forge meaningful bonds. Reciprocity between citizens seems hollowed out if the only demand for it comes in the form of requests for material well-being, while matters of the good life and community are shooed off the stage.

Our founders wrestled with these ideas as they forged the institutions of the grand experiment of the American government. Both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton devoted significant intellectual energy to building a republic that would prove more prosperous and durable than those that preceded them. Indeed, this preoccupation with durability led Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 1 to question “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political institutions on accident and force.”

“Reflection and choice” would mean analysis of each feature of the republic, including the nature and disposition of the people who lived in it. Madison, ever the keen observer of human nature, noted in the Virginia Ratifying Convention that Americans “will as readily do their duty, as deviate from it: Nor do I go on the grounds mentioned by gentlemen on the other side — that we are to place unlimited confidence in them, and expect nothing but the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue.”

With that simple formulation, Madison outlined one of the critical features for understanding whether or not a republic had the capacity to endure. Would the people turn inward and spend their time pursuing private economic interests, whereby they only see their fellow citizens as competitors and consumers? Or would the people heed the prompting from assorted religious and civic leaders and fulfill duties placed before them to care for others and curtail private interests in a common pursuit?

Clearly, whether the inclinations of the American people would list toward private and individualistic interests or toward public and community pursuits has been a persistent apprehension since the nation’s founding. Moments of strife and shared sacrifice are not unfamiliar in American history, and in each of those moments our country has grappled with the questions posed by Hamilton and Madison, whether we recognize it or not. Today’s pandemic crisis is no different.

The extent to which America has a soul beyond economic activity hinges on the weight placed on the fulfillment of either a selfish orientation or on the ability to heed the call for a greater public good. Too much emphasis placed on the economic component of American life imperils the possibility of recognizing any duty to somebody else or performing any duty at all.

We should keep these questions in mind as the pandemic reveals new ways to conceive of how we relate to each other. As Michael Sandel recently wrote, “The moral and civic renewal we need requires that we resist the anguished but misconceived debate now emerging about how many lives we should risk for the sake of restarting the economy.”

Rather, we should remember that we are literally called by history and citizenship to remember what binds us together — what makes it possible for us to perform heroic actions to protect our brothers and sisters, instead of sacrificing them on the altar of expediency. Such a realization can help America avoid the moral rot that doomed so many other experiments in government.

Michael Barber, Chris Karpowitz and Kelly Patterson are faculty members in the Department of Political Science at Brigham Young University. Their views are their own.