Finding the ‘Common Good’ in a Pandemic

America today is engaged in a deep and broad philosophical/ethical debate unlike anything in our history. It’s a debate about what is the common good in the midst of a pandemic.

We may not be framing it as such, but every one of the unprecedented, vastly consequential, health and economic measures that state, local and federal officials have taken up to now — some engendering criticism, some applause — reflects an unarticulated ethical position about how we as individuals, communities and a nation define what is best for the most people. That is, how do we maximize the common good in the least heartless way.

This debate is being expressed through language that was wholly unfamiliar to most of us just two weeks ago — like epidemic statistics and vernacular and the differing impacts on rich and poor of a $2 trillion fiscal stimulus devised almost overnight. If all of that is not vexing enough, we also have a president who uses his wide-reaching bully pulpit to whipsaw us between optimism and pessimism based on his “gut” feelings.

To help surface this unarticulated ethical debate — so maybe we can have it more productively — I decided to call Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. Sandel’s lectures on justice have been devoured by millions of students around the world, and he is just finishing a book on why we’ve lost sight of the common good. (Disclosure: He is a friend of many years and we have taught together.)

As we are both sticking close to home — me in Bethesda, him in Boston — I began our combination phone-email interview with this question: What do we actually mean by the common good?

Sandel: The common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life.

This may seem a far cry from what we see in politics these days. But the common good, like all ethical ideals, is contestable. It’s always open to debate and disagreement.

TF: Well, if we are having a debate about what is the common good, how would you describe the actual competing positions?

Sandel: Think about the two emblematic slogans of the pandemic: “social distancing” and “we’re all in this together.” In ordinary times, these slogans point to competing ethical principles — setting ourselves apart from one another, and pulling together. As a response to the pandemic, we need both. We need to separate ourselves physically from our friends and co-workers in order to protect everyone, to prevent the virus from spreading.

But ethically, these slogans highlight two different approaches to the common good: going it alone, with each of us fending for ourselves, versus hanging together, seeking solidarity. In a highly individualistic society like ours, we don’t do solidarity very well, except in moments of crisis, such as wartime.

Our lack of preparedness for the pandemic reveals the lack of solidarity in our social and political life, especially in our inadequate system of public health and lack of universal access to health care and paid sick leave. This makes the sudden, ritualistic invocation of the slogan “we’re all in this together” ring hollow.

TF:There has been a lot of discussion, most prominently in Britain before it opted for a three-week shutdown, about “herd immunity” — let a lot of people quickly get the virus, most will recover fine, tend to the most ill, but within a period of weeks a critical mass of people who become immune will eventually force the virus to peter out because it won’t have enough hosts.

How do you see the ethical choices around herd immunity?

Sandel: The strategy of contending with the pandemic by allowing the virus to run its course as quickly as possible in hopes of hastening “herd immunity” is a callous approach reminiscent of social Darwinism — the idea of the survival of the fittest. It allows the contagion to spike, intensive care units to be overrun, the most vulnerable to die, but with the goal of jump-starting the economy sooner rather than later.

I predict we will soon be hearing cost-benefit analyses showing that the dollar value of a life saved by social distancing is too high to sustain the existing restrictions. This purely utilitarian approach is far from the ideal of solidarity, which requires that we show as much care and concern for those who are weak and vulnerable as for those who are strong and powerful.

I understand, though, that responsible public health experts have a less harsh scenario in mind.

TF: Yes, the ones I have been writing about or following are actually proposing a phased strategy: 1) Practice social distancing and sheltering in place across the country for at least two weeks, so whoever has the disease would likely manifest symptoms in that period. Those who can recover at home would do so, sequestered from healthy living partners, and those who needed hospitalization would seek it. 2) Alongside this we would do much more testing, to actually get a grasp on which regions and age cohorts — how many young people, how many in their 40s — are most affected. 3) Once we have enough of that data, we can then begin phasing healthy and immune workers back into the workplace, or back to school, while still sequestering those who are elderly or immune-compromised until the “all-clear.”

It seems to me that their argument is also grounded in the common good. They’re arguing that “work” and the overall health of the economy is also a health issue. If we have millions of people who have lost businesses that they have spent a lifetime building or savings that they have spent a lifetime accruing, we will have an epidemic of suicide, despair and addiction that will dwarf the Covid-19 epidemic.

President Trump said today that he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter,” April 12, less than three weeks away. I appreciate the president’s eagerness to get as many people as possible back to work. I want to as well, but we need this kind of national three-part plan — with real health care metrics established by experts and confirmed by data — to get there.

Sandel: If Trump, out of impatience with the economic downturn, declares victory over the virus and sends people back to work prematurely, then he will be enacting, in effect, the social Darwinist scenario. But it is irresponsible simply to let the most vulnerable die so the rest of us can fire up the economy and the stock market. The more humane scenario from the public health experts you have been talking to is obviously preferable.

But it presupposes precisely what our society unfortunately lacks: an adequate way of testing everyone and accurately identifying those most at risk. South Korea apparently came much closer to universal testing and was able to handle the pandemic more successfully than we have done — and therefore phase their people back to work. But this takes us back to our lack of public health preparedness.

TF: But this is where are. Do we just have to make a hellish trade-off between medical health and economic health?

Sandel: No, not necessarily. It all depends on whether we can start to reorganize the economy in a way that promotes the common good.

It is clear that this era requires an economy that provides universal access to health care, paid sick leave for all workers and economic support for those who lose their jobs, whether due to a pandemic or technology or other circumstances beyond their control.

Here’s an idea: Why not consider, as a condition of sending Americans back to work, extending these health and economic protections to all Americans for the next 18 months? Maybe this gesture of solidarity will prove habit-forming — and worth continuing even when the virus recedes.


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