Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey published a very interesting piece on how policymakers, ethicists, and religious leaders are thinking through the apparent dilemma of practicing extreme measures to preserve life versus the cost that such practices will mean for the economy.

The dilemma as presented can be stated in this way: Is it more important to preserve life or preserve economic vibrancy? Do we sacrifice the economy to save human lives or do we sacrifice human lives to save the economy?

This is an important topic as it is at the front of the public mind, and it hits squarely upon the tension between utilitarian ethics and deontological ethics: Is the best action that which obtains the greatest outcome for the largest number of people, or does a commitment to human dignity mean that we cannot treat humans as a means to an economic end? I’ll offer a couple preliminary thoughts on this question before I get to delivering my own answers.

Really a dilemma? 

First, as a matter of presupposition, a dilemma posed like this is the result of living in a world marked by the principle of scarcity. Scarcity is simply the idea that conditions do not exist that guarantee ideal outcomes for all parties: There is not enough money for every person to have a Mercedes. At present, there are not enough hospital beds for every human being who might need one (and manufacturing seven billion beds in a short time is more or less impossible). Eliminating the scarcity principle is a utopian ideal. In a world of limited resources, there will be a shortage of supplies necessary to address all problems sufficiently and perfectly. 

Pragmatically, we might also call the scarcity principle one of imperfectability. But scarcity is also a theological principle. The reason we humans lack essentials or are in need of anything for our survival is because we live in a world governed by Genesis 3 and Romans 8. A fallen world ensures that even in a context of profound economic growth, somebody, somewhere will lack what they need not only for their basic flourishing but survival as well.

Second, we need to raise the issue of apparent dilemmas versus real dilemmas. Since the problem we’re facing—preserving economic growth versus preserving human life—assumes a zero-sum answer, we need to question whether that’s the correct way to understand the situation. I would argue, upon deeper examination, it is not actually a dilemma like we think it is, because a dilemma presupposes an either/or solution in absolute form. It presupposes there are no exceptions, allowances, moderating positions, or prudential judgments at stake. Either one is wholly committed to one outcome to the neglect of the other.

Zero-sum game? 

The situation we’re in as a culture does not require this zero-sum analysis. While it is wrong to pit life versus the economy, speaking as a Christian, human dignity means we are committed to not intending direct harm to an image-bearer of God. What results are prudential decisions and actions to keep people healthy and prudential decisions and actions to keep the economy going. It is most assuredly not a choice between absolute death and absolute poverty. Such a dilemma would only be real if there were no alternative resorts. 

But last resorts have not been exhausted. For example (and I’m not necessarily recommending this as much as I am exploring it as a hypothetical), what if the government called for all elderly and immune-compromised persons to stay at home while developing a volunteer system that allowed healthier individuals to “adopt” a compromised person during the duration of the quarantine? The person would be responsible for daily phone calls to check on their neighbor’s welfare, get them groceries and necessary items, and in return, the government could issue a tax-credit at the end of the year as a way to socially signal its approval of human dignity and as a way to stimulate the economy? This is just one example of how to creatively think about the moral intentions behind policy.

Choose neither or both

That gets me to how I would address the question of whether one side is more or less correct in choosing to preserve life or choosing economic health: One does not have to choose between either. The way the debate is popularly framed is a false dilemma. The framing depicts the government as intending one harm or one benefit over the other. We can eliminate this framing by appealing to the Law of Double Effect, a theory with origins in the Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

In ethics, Double Effect theory states that a morally good action is justified in pursuing even if an unintended, but possibly foreseen negative consequence results. In the case of a terminally ill patient, a doctor has performed a morally justified action in reducing a patient’s pain, even if, as a result, the patient dies. The doctor was intending to reduce pain, not hasten death.

What does this mean regarding COVID-19? It means that unless government action is intending the destruction of human lives or the economy, action that may result in unintended harms is justified. In this instance, policy decisions that the government makes are not reducible down to consequences, but intention. The government, in choosing to protect its citizens, may, as a result, harm the economy. Perhaps, though, it could find a prudentially creative means to both preserve life and stimulate the economy. Alternatively, in choosing to stimulate the economy, it by no means entails the government wantonly disregarding care and concern for human life. It is not inviting death or willing death. It understands that despite the exercise of prudential wisdom in calling for people to quarantine or social distance, it is impossible to eliminate all negative consequences in a moral event.

These are really challenging times, and we need to exercise caution in judging the motives of our policymakers. For who among them actually believes themselves willing the harm of those they are called to govern?