Day Seventeen: Calculus

Yard work is a virtue.

I felt virtuous today. I got a lot of raking done, and I cleaned out the rain gutters in preparation for snow that I am really hoping will melt fast. But as I sat, enjoying the view up on the roof, I had to ask myself if I should feel good about my choice.

The simplest decisions have become fraught with a sense of moral calculus. Was it really socially responsible to scramble up onto the roof and, even riskier, scramble back down in the midst of a pandemic, when emergency services have their hands full? Is the risk offset by the fire mitigation benefit of cleaning out the gutters, a responsibility not just to ourselves, but to our neighbors? Am I being absurd to even be thinking about it?

I ran across this interview today with five ethical thinkers about the national moral calculus involved in opening up the country again. And I also ran across this piece arguing that sacrificing lives or sacrificing the economy is an unnecessary choice.

If it is a choice we come down to, how do you weigh deaths from COVID19 in the short term against deaths of despair in the long term? How is the moral calculus effected by the fact that both this disease and deaths of despair are horrifyingly segregated by race and class?

It seems like all the smart people are saying we’re going to have to get serious about testing and contact tracing. This makes sense to me, but as one of the ethical thinkers pointed out, we have to make sure we still have a country we want to live in when this is all over. How many civil liberties should we be willing to sacrifice? How can we be sure we will get them back? How can we ensure that all the data gathered won’t be misused? Who defines misused?

There is also the question of sustainability. It sounds callous to say (and I generally try to avoid that), but this is the best thing that has happened to the environment since we stopped making a hole in the ozone. If this puts a brake on our frenzied and ecologically disastrous consumer culture, shouldn’t we think twice about getting back to normal? Could we ever have an economy that focused on a simpler lifestyle? What do we owe to the estimated 200,000 Americans who die from air pollution every year?

The danger, in both our individual lives and our national life, is that we turn away from these questions, and let events carry us where they may. It’s really uncomfortable to engage in moral calculus. As it should be. But we owe it to ourselves to make engaged and thoughtful decisions about where we go from here. When you refuse to make decisions, events decide for you, and usually not in your favor.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

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