File under: the ethics of pandemics. I’m going to send out regular emails to every subscriber for the foreseeable future, not just members. It has been exceedingly hard to feel helpful in the midst of this, even though I am cognizant that I’m doing what little I can to help by staying home. I began writing fifteen years ago because I wanted to help people, and I did a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics because I wanted to help people…and here I am, with lots of time to reason through with you how we should live together—or apart, rather—during this extraordinary time.
If you’re a new subscriber, plan on me sending between two and three emails a week. Responses are always welcome, even if I can’t reply to them all. If you want to become a member, you’re very welcome to.
For members, you are welcome to cease your payments—or, if you want, I’m more than happy to apply a three-month coupon to your account so you don’t get billed during this time. I am inclined to do that for everyone anyway, but it’s a manual process and there are a lot of you so….I’ll start by taking requests.
Finally: if you know someone who might benefit from anything I write, do feel free to forward any email you receive profligately—even if you’re a member.
Over the next few weeks, medical professionals and their families are likely to be sorely tested. Many of them already are. I suspect few medical-related crises are so likely to generate anxieties as a virus, which throws everything into a state of precarious uncertainty: did we adequately scrub the operating surface? Are we appropriately protected from such a deadly, insidious pathogen? Are the people around behaving cautiously, such that the risks of contagion are at least minimized? Those stressors are likely to increase as cases make their way into more hospital systems, and as we begin facing up to the reality of shortfalls in protective garb. In Waco, we have 19 confirmed cases already—and nurses who have been wearing the same mask for a month.
It is not wrong to describe this situation in terms of warfare, as Joe Biden did in the most recent debate.
The imagery is ready at hand: medical professionals are on the “front lines” of our response. We still speak of coronavirus as infections, but I’ve little doubt we will eventually name it an “attack,” as we do the flu. Practically, the situation in New York hospitals may soon resemble battlefields, as they will be forced to impose triage requirements and make extraordinarily difficult choices about who will receive treatments.
Such a framing is understandable—and even salutary, even if its reach is limited. For one, the ‘enemy’ is invisible and the ‘war’ means staying at home while reading through Shakespeare’s Complete Works (which is how everybody is spending their time right now, right? Right?) So it doesn’t quite feel like war. And I suspect such imagery doesn’t resonate terribly well with anyone below the age of, oh, 40—as we have largely been shielded from anything like the sacrifices involved in fighting a war. The last time we faced a crisis that was this disruptive—9/11—we were told to go out and go shopping. Normalcy ensued not long after, as fewer Americans beneath the age of forty knew someone who had served in the military than the previous three generations.
Yet I say such rhetoric is salutary, because it invokes the need for real martial virtues: courage, fortitude, discipline, obedience, sacrifice, loyalty. While that class of excellences is urgently important under any circumstances, they are especially urgent in the midst of a crisis. When we are at leisure, we enjoy the luxury of time for debate, deliberation, and consensus. When seconds save lives, there can only be commands and obedience, courage and sacrifice. The military hones those virtues through running recruits through as much training as they can, so that when they meet their first conflict they are prepared to act (in a sense) unreflectively and instinctively. But they can so act because those virtues are already in place: they are capable of feeling and overcoming their fear, because they have done so before.
While we speak of those virtues as ‘martial,’ they are actually the engine upon which a good society runs. In the Summa, Thomas writes that the “common good of many is more godlike than the good of an individual, wherefore it is a virtuous action for a man to endanger even his own life either for the spiritual or for the temporal common good of his country.” The sacrifices of individuals are intelligible precisely because the good of the community demands them and is, in one sense, prior and superior to their own good. The soldier takes care of his comrade, rather than his family, because they are both there, standing in solidarity for the good of the whole community. Whether people are willing to make such sacrifices when called upon is, in a sense, the litmus test of whether we have a common good at all.
For the past thirty years, Americans have largely outsources those sacrifices to those who have served in the military. We have rewarded those individuals who have served with unfeigned gratitude, and standing ovations at sports concerts—though not with a Veterans Affairs system that adequately cares for them. Yet I fear we ourselves have not learned from them, but have complacently left off acquiring the fortitude we now need most. Chesterton distilled the worry best in his critique of Kipling:
The evil of militarism is that it shows most men to be tame and timid and excessively peaceable. The professional soldier gains more and more power as the general courage of a community declines. Thus the Pretorian guard became more and more important in Rome as Rome became more and more luxurious and feeble. The military man gains the civil power in proportion as the civilian loses the military virtues. And as it was in ancient Rome so it is in contemporary Europe. There never was a time when nations were more militarist. There never was a time when men were less brave. All ages and all epics have sung of arms and the man; but we have effected simultaneously the deterioration of the man and the fantastic perfection of the arms.
Only Chesterton was wrong. He wrote that in 1905, not long before the United Kingdom sent an entire generation of its young men off to a devastating war. They had indisputably perfected their arms, but they had still made brave men. And they did again—and again—and again. As did we.
And now I think the same will occur. Doctors and nurses will do their duty, with not a little fear and anxiety, yes, but with the grace and courage to overcome that fear. (Every doctor and nurse I have ever known gives me great confidence in saying this.) Others will aid their families. Still others will resist the siren song of seeing their friends, and stay properly indoors so as to not add to the numbers of those in the hospitals. Others will sew masks for people who must go out to tend to the needs of others. We will discover over the next few months who we are as a people: with a little grace, we may find ourselves more ready to serve than we dare hope.