Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:
…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.
To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life. And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…
There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.
For those who have taken the position that no relaxation of the lockdowns should be even contemplated while any significant risk remains, that means accepting and acknowledging that zero risk is an unrealistic and unachievable standard. It means acknowledging that reducing risk for some causes real and consequential harm to others and that, at some point, the harm of incremental gains in risk reduction exceeds the incremental harm of the virus, itself. We can’t live in lockdown forever; and, in the absence of an effective vaccine or a cure, widely deployed to create widespread immunity, the lockdown will, indeed, stretch on forever because there will never be a time when releasing it will seem propitious and wholly safe.
For those who have been advocating for a quick and complete re-opening – and especially for those actively protesting the imposition of various modest public safety measures like the wearing of masks – that means accepting that we all have responsibilities commensurate with the rights we so self-righteously defend. What we do affects the community. Yes, we have the personal right to accept a risk of catching the virus in pursuit of some other reward. But, assuming risks for yourself – by exposing yourself to disease carriers – and imposing risks on others – by carrying the disease to them despite their own best precautions – are two very different acts and should fairly be judged by different criteria, the latter more stringent than the former. Whether you like it or not, in a world of pandemic you have a moral responsibility to protect others against the possibility of your own contagion. If you cannot willingly and diligently assume that responsibility, then your moral claim to a “right” to be free of restraint is little more than a hollow defense of self-indulgence.
And for all of us, that means taking each other’s concerns seriously, with empathy rather than with contempt. The pain people are expressing is real, not imagined. What you find comforting, others may find distressing. What you find to be reasonable precaution others may experience as destructive overreaction. Neither side may or should presume they hold a monopoly on truth or on wisdom. We are, indeed, in this together because this is a contagion. But that doesn’t mean we all experience that contagion in the same way or bear its burdens in the same forms or to the same degree. The fact that someone disagrees with your value judgements about those burdens means they and their circumstance are different than you and yours. It doesn’t mean they are right. But, it also doesn’t mean they are wrong.