THR Web Features   /   May 18, 2020

Healthy, Wealthy, or Wise?

Aristotle and the pandemic debates we aren’t having.

Mark Hoipkemier

( Bust of Aristotle (St. Petersburg, Summer Garden). Via Wikimedia Commons.)

We embarked on the COVID lockdown with talk of the common good, and we should keep the same goal in mind as we ease up on it. It is easy to think that “reopening the economy” will involve a descent from the chilly heights of the common good to the flatlands of private life, but that is not quite right. Some citizens have been obliged to stay at home who would rather have kept working, and soon others who would rather stay “safer at home” will be compelled to return to normal(ish) life. The lockdown burdened some citizens for the benefit of others, and the bounce-back will too. So questions of justice deserve a larger role in our pandemic discussion than they have received so far. Given the depth and breadth of the issues at stake, it would be well to frame this debate in the grammar of the common good, which is not a “pattern laid up in heaven” but rather a language in which citizens can reason together about their shared life at its most fundamental level.

Aristotle is a master of thinking politically about the common good, and there is much we can learn from him. In his view, which I have laid out in detail elsewhere, the common good of citizens is the ultimate standard for evaluating political actions and institutions. The common good shared by members of any community is that their community should flourish—as a state, a town, a school, a family—in answering the question Who are we to become? In politics, this lofty question does come up explicitly in campaign rhetoric, but concrete answers are usually given indirectly, even unwittingly, in decisions about who owes what to whom—i.e. in matters of justice.

Citizens of a liberal democracy may not recognize garden-variety political decisions as claims about human flourishing as a whole, but in Aristotle’s view that is exactly what they are. Politics is inescapably about laying down an order among a wide range of human goods championed by different citizens. To distribute money, power, or honor to some persons rather than their rivals sends a symbolic message and has a practical effect concerning what citizens shall value. For a community even to survive, much less flourish, it needs to strike a just balance among the many concerns and persons at stake: “The political good is justice, and this is the common advantage.” Because we all tend to overemphasize what is most salient for us personally (e.g. CEOs arguing that the economy is paramount), Aristotle maintains that sharing power broadly is the most practicable way to do justice to the full scope of human concerns at stake. If many different persons are at the table, many human goods will be represented as well. A just order among these goods is a “correct” answer to the question of the common good.

This classical vision illuminates why the COVID crisis has brought the common good to public attention again. The ostensible reason is technical: Coordinated action was necessary to counter the spread of the virus, and the common good helps to elicit compliance. The more profound reason, I think, is that the crisis has forced democratic societies to face a conflict between two fundamental democratic values: health and wealth. Thomas Jefferson was merely reflecting the common sense of democracy when he suggested that the political importance of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is “self-evident.” Public life in recent decades has focused on the third of these, construed in terms of maximizing prosperity. As James Carville reportedly said to Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!” But the COVID crisis has brought two of Jefferson’s “sacred and undeniable” goods into overt conflict, forcing citizens ask about the just place of health and wealth in common life.

This is an uncomfortable question in a democracy because, as Aristotle suggests, it implies a kind of authoritative moral order between these goods. Health and wealth are mainly individual goods, which is why they are considered legitimate public goals in the first place. Normally, we can tell ourselves that free individuals make their own decisions about how to rank and pursue these goods. If this is only a half-truth in times of peace, it clearly cannot be the basis on which to “reopen the economy.” All the plans laid out by various governors presuppose some ranking between health and wealth. The moral ramifications are large, in that leaders’ decisions will shape the perception of how “decent, responsible adults” behave, and of what is owed to (and who counts as) the vulnerable.  Citizens and civil institutions will be forced, or at least strongly influenced, to conform their own lives and decisions to the public ordering. If you would like to travel in spite of ongoing restrictions, you can’t. If you would like to stay hunkered down when there is no more social and economic support for it, you will be hard put to do so.

Yet there is no dimension on which we can directly compare health and wealth. Aristotle suggests that we can best order such incommensurable goods by viewing them as parts of a larger whole, in this case the overall flourishing of citizens’ common life. (Analogously, the wisest way to balance my personal work and exercise is not by putting a dollar value on my cardio or a life-expectancy number on my job—as an actuary might—but by considering both in terms of my life as a whole.) The reality is that any choice among constituent parts will affect that larger whole, whether we overtly consider it or not. Since the public value of health and wealth can be wisely compared only in light of citizens’ overall project of living well together, it is in the terms of the common good that we should conduct our debate.

Technocratic tunnel-vision makes such a conversation impossible. The global pandemic response up to this point has put health (and possibly fear) above all, taking a damn-the-torpedoes approach to the economic fallout. There is something noble, even heroic, about this reaction in a world ruled by the almighty dollar—or pound, or euro, or yen. But even in terms of preserving life, we might turn out like the rabbit who flees so blindly from the fox that he ends up in the lair of the snake. One grim irony is that the lockdown may cause nearly as many deaths as the virus itself (accounting for deaths of despair, delayed medical treatment, and so forth), though these will be harder to count. Our efforts to save some vulnerable persons on whom the limelight shines may do serious harm to unknown others who will be denied their share of the goods of health. To the extent that preserving life is the supreme concern, we would do better to consider the full range of health threats to all citizens, and so ask who should justly bear the risks, both of COVID and of the lockdown, in light of our common good.

But health is only half the story, and we have not yet proved able to deliberate about the conflict between health and wealth in anything but reductive terms. The advocates of a long lockdown have argued that the pro-business lobby is putting a “dollar value on human life.” This rhetoric recalls the cries of “rationing” and “death panels” that punctuated the conservative opposition to Barack Obama’s health insurance reforms, though now the shoe is on the other partisan foot. Economists retort that we make this sort of tradeoff among incommensurables all the time, both as individuals and as a society, by opting for more of one sort of good (e.g. income) and less of another (e.g. leisure). True enough—we needn’t think of this as “sacrificial math.”

Unfortunately, rather than considering the tradeoffs in light of some larger moral vision, our economics-inspired policy talk analyzes the options by reducing all the goods in play to a common numerical metric, usually money ( “a measure of all things,” as Aristotle himself notes). Quantification brings a kind of spurious clarity to difficult political decisions, but it rarely helps in the end. Arguments about justice and political vision simply change keys, and are re-enacted as disputes about what and how to count. In the process we tend to lose sight of whatever is not captured by the underlying metric. Admittedly, it takes a great deal of political wisdom to perceive in a non-reductive way how a perplexing situation like the COVID crisis bears on a complex goal such as the common good, and there is no guarantee the wise will be listened to. On the contrary, it’s a safe bet they won’t.

We would all prefer to be guided by those who know how things really are, or ultimately by truth itself. That is why so much power and deference have been accorded of late to public health experts, who know best how viruses and pandemics unfold. Soon enough, we will turn back to the other sages of modernity, the economists, for help in solving the problems created by the solutions of the epidemiologists. But turning to one tribe of experts after another is not likely to yield a just ordering of health and wealth, since there are no accredited “experts” in human flourishing overall.

A truly wise epidemiologist would counsel citizens to adopt her professional perspective and follow her advice only to the extent that it is for their common good. Her knowledge is partial, and if it was all we had, we would be in trouble. The trouble is that as an expert she cannot tell us the proper place of her expertise. Only by standing outside a given profession, viewing it from above or outside as a citizen, can one say what its political role and limits are. Doctors and scientists and economists have no special insight into the general problems of politics and usually overrate their own importance (as do we all). It is rather for the general run of citizens, by ordinary political means and with ordinary, non-technical human knowledge, to decide together what shall be the place of health, wealth, and the relevant experts. In a well-framed political system, we might even hope to embody a greater degree of wisdom than what we individually possess.

Such a happy outcome would be less miraculous than it might seem. It is true that the dominant national forum is, almost by design, too large and stilted to bring citizens to a common mind on issues like COVID-19. Yet both health and wealth have vigorous partisans with scientific expertise and some measure of political power, who can each check the excesses of the other. And those many of us in the middle, who would like to find a balance between the two goods, can appreciate that “justice does not destroy the state,” either medically or economically. If citizens can first appreciate that any plan, however shrewd, puts a greater burden on some and confers greater benefit to others, we will be in a better position to press our own claims moderately and so together attain a solution that is in our common good. Still, however well and justly we respond, as individuals and as citizens we will not avoid the necessity of giving up great human goods, and even human lives—which could have been saved had we responded differently. If the COVID crisis helps us to accept the tragic costs of pursuing the common good together, perhaps we could indeed emerge healthy, wealthy, and wise.