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Against Vitalism

Coronavirus shutdown skeptics force us to consider what this life is for.
Against Vitalism

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: The Chinese coronavirus is a serious disease, and demands to be taken as such. Many voices, especially on the Right, were late to that realization, as Tucker Carlson has aptly pointed out. Prudent, society-wide measures to limit the spread of the virus are necessary, both to protect the vulnerable and to prevent the oversaturation of our health care system. The potential magnitude of the pandemic is staggering: Recent CDC projections say a third of the U.S. population could contract the virus. Assuming a 1% mortality rate, that leaves roughly a million people dead. In the wake of those numbers, it’s hard to argue these shutdown measures are anything but necessary.

As this society-wide shutdown marches onto its second full week, though, the more interesting questions have come from those dissenting from the social distancing, shut-it-all-down line. They’re more interesting precisely because they raise uncomfortable questions about whether some things are more valuable than perpetuating life at all costs. It’s even more noteworthy that these takes come from wildly different ideological perspectives.

Libertarians writing in this publication and elsewhere have expressed concerns that the expanse of government power to combat the pandemic will set a dangerous precedent. Civil liberties must be protected, even if there is a cost to our ability to control the spread of the virus. The implication is that liberty can, at times, trump public health.

Elsewhere in the broadly libertarian camp, economic concerns rule the day. In Reason, Nick Gillespie warns that we should be taking the economic effects of quarantine more seriously. Heather MacDonald, writing in The New Criterion, questioned the Wuhan virus response on more utilitarian grounds, writing, “Sad to say, [most] victims were already reaching the end of their lifespan….Comparing the relative value of lives makes for grisly calculus, but one is forced to ask: are we missing the forest for the trees? If the measures we undertake to protect a vulnerable few end up exposing them, along with the rest of society, to even more damaging risks—was it worth the cost?” The more damaging risks, it seems, refer to the economic costs of the shutdown. Again, some things are more important than the health and lives of a few.

Some pockets of the Left display a similar calculus. Joe Biden made headlines earlier this month with his inclusion of bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel on his Public Health Advisory Committee. The inclusion was noteworthy due to Emanuel’s lengthy piece in The Atlantic back in 2014, in which he explained why he wished to die at age 75. It’s an ironic choice for Biden, of course, considering the Democratic presidential frontrunner is currently older than his public health advisor’s self-declared desired death age, and also because that age group is precisely the one whose health is most at risk from Chinese coronavirus. Emanuel’s reasoning in the article, though, is familiar: there are more important things than prolonged life. For him, death is preferable to the physical trials of aging past a certain point.

Lastly, social conservative R.R. Reno has provoked a flurry of backlash with a trio of articles published in First Things, the magazine he edits, calling quite literally to start “Questioning the Shutdown.” In response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo hoping drastic measures will “save just one life,” Reno writes, “Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life.” Reno’s contention is more acute in his call to keep the churches open: “Christians we have higher priorities. Our end is in God.” For Reno, our self-imposed alienation from each other and God’s Sacraments conveys disordered priorities.

The civil libertarians worried about preserving “liberty,” progressives looking to avoid the suffering of aging, and social conservatives seeking to subordinate this life to the next have more in common than not. Each recognizes that life—this life, this physical existence before our inevitable demise—is for something other than itself. The question becomes for what (or, more accurately, for Whom) we are made.

In the wake of a global pandemic, social and religious conservatives rightly bristle at the prospect of widespread death. But I worry that social conservatives have also increasingly adopted a dangerous sense of vitalism that neglects the proper order of things. We are pro-life, the argument goes, so we must do everything medically possible to prolong life. We are pro-life, so we must oppose capital punishment. We are pro-life, so we must be pacifists. But to oppose the unjust killing of the innocent, as we must, is far different from a radical vitalism that seeks to avoid all death. Each of these misapplications of the “pro-life” umbrella reveals that we have elevated physical existence to the Highest Good, forgetting that there are far worse things than death. It is a great tragedy to lose any life. But far more tragic to lose eternal life.

Whether or not the shutdown skeptics prove correct, they raise important questions as we plunge further into economic recession and self-imposed alienation. The Chinese coronavirus pandemic is a trying time for the whole world. But if there is to be a silver lining to this pandemic, let’s listen to the shutdown skeptics who force us to consider what we’re living for. After all, it’s only by properly ordering our lives that we’re truly alive.

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