The intense and sudden catastrophe that much of the world is living through now is unavoidably disorienting for all of us. It’s hard to know what course our society should take through it, and so how to judge the paths our elected officials are choosing. But one thing that shouldn’t be very difficult to see is that this is in fact an intense and sudden catastrophe: a real emergency that requires us to suspend some of the usual categories of our thinking about policy and politics.
But this has turned out to be harder for us to accept than it should be, despite the severity of the circumstances we face. We find it enormously difficult to avoid two related temptations in this moment. We incline, on the one hand, to want to treat this as a normal time and so to recoil from some of the dramatic steps being taken to respond to the pandemic because they strike us as extreme and therefore inherently reckless or unwise. And on the other hand, we incline to think of this moment as the proper test of our usual political attitudes and dispositions, so that we find in it proof that, say, America should have long ago enacted a higher minimum wage or pursued much more deregulation.
These two temptations have a common root. Both amount to something like a failure of prudence, or practical wisdom. Yet, ironically, both often take the form of calls to prudence. The first is advanced in the name of keeping our head and not panicking in the face of pressure or danger, and the second in the name of learning lessons from hard practical experience. And yet, both involve missing the crucial distinction between the normal situation and the extreme exigency — a distinction at the very heart of prudence.
It is not surprising that many of us should find this distinction difficult to pin down now. We have spent the past decade and more in our politics systematically blurring the line between extreme emergency and the normal ups and downs of life. Our intensifying partisanship has led us to treat every political dispute as an apocalyptic battle to the death. We have been unable to rouse ourselves to worry properly about the routine demands of self-government or the medium-term challenges facing every modern society without persuading ourselves that they are immediate and mortal dangers.
And so we hear that global climate change threatens to decimate life on this planet, that inequality will lead to the collapse of society, that the federal debt has brought us to an existential tipping point, and that the other party — whichever party that is — is at fault and will destroy everything we care about unless we stop it at the next election. “America lives or dies in 39 days,” Sean Hannity announced on his radio show in the buildup to the last presidential election. “The American dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before,” Kamala Harris has insisted about the next one.
The point is not that climate change or inequality or debt are not problems. It’s that they are normal problems with medium-term implications — the kinds of problems our politics exists to deal with. Some of these problems might even properly be described as crises — as might other challenges we face, like the social breakdown we have witnessed in recent years and the related spike in opioid use. But we should be capable of seeing the difference between a crisis rooted in a chronic problem that demands to be addressed within the normal bounds of our political culture and a rare, extreme emergency that requires us to suspend some of the usual frameworks of our politics and mobilize massively but temporarily to respond.
Our politics of catastrophism has accustomed us to dividing every debate into doomsayers and debunkers, who tend to switch places with the election returns. So it is only natural that some have approached the challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic as another scene in that drama, either seeking in it proof of the validity of their usual agendas or seeking to dismiss it as another scheme to advance the other side’s misguided goals.
The former response involves a distinctly modern lapse of prudence — judging the normal by the extreme. It’s true that in the natural sciences, extreme laboratory conditions can teach us about the underlying physical laws that govern the world in all conditions. But that logic does not extend into human affairs. A well-ordered politics would be wiser to treat exceptions as exceptional, and not insist that the only legitimate political ideas are those that would serve us in a catastrophic dystopia. An emergency like the one we are living through now doesn’t prove that the broader agendas of either of our parties were right or wrong before it came. And our extraordinary response to it does not mean that the protections of freedom, moral commitments, or constraints on public power that we usually insist on in our politics are mistakes.
But the latter response, the instinct to diminish and debunk the danger, runs deeper. It is, at least to an extent, a defense mechanism against our bipartisan politics of catastrophism, reaching for level-headedness in the face of bogus panic. This is often a healthy instinct, because groupthink is frequently a source of serious mistakes, and because most of the supposed crises we confront are less urgent than our politics insists they are. The question is whether this particular crisis is different.
The claim that Covid-19 presents us with something like a particularly bad flu season, so that our extreme response betrays a failure of proportionality, seems simply at odds with reality. Building on that skepticism with arguments about the enormous economic costs of intense social distancing, which are of course very real and serious, only amounts to an all-out critique of our response to the virus if you take for granted the dubious premise that the underlying public-health crisis is vastly overstated.
But the most serious of these objections have involved a critique of public health itself, or of our prioritization of health in the response to this catastrophe. My friend Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things and a man of both moral and intellectual depth, has made one form of this argument. By taking such extreme measures to contain the spread of the virus, he argues, we risk giving up essential human goods in a misguided effort to avoid the excruciating task of triage and to deny the hard facts of our mortality.
“Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage,” he writes. “That demand is now more visible, because the potent virus puts great pressure on our immune systems and healthcare systems. But it is always there.” In other words, Reno insists, this moment is not so different from our normal situation. To insist that it is utterly exceptional is to fail to fully grasp our permanent circumstances, and to risk imagining that health and survival are the highest of all goods.
There is certainly a danger of distorting the normal by treating the mere fact of our mortality as an emergency. I took up that danger in these pages some 15 years ago, in an essay on “the crisis of everyday life,” and again about eight years ago, in an essay (which Reno cites in a follow-up post) about the difficulty of putting health in perspective. I argued in both cases that the language of grave crisis and emergency can be misleading in our health debates because treating the very fact of our mortality as a moral emergency means eliminating any constraints on what can be done for the sake of health. In the embryo debates, for instance, and in talk of an “organ shortage,” this can lead in dangerous directions.
But that is precisely because such talk obscures the difference between the extreme and the normal — the emergency and the everyday. And it seems to me that is also the mistake involved in insisting that Covid-19 merely confronts us with the permanent fact of our mortality. To treat the everyday as though it were an extreme emergency is a dangerous mistake that threatens the moral foundations of our common life. But to treat an extreme emergency — an exceptional and temporary threat to countless vulnerable people from which we could protect them through extraordinary measures — as though it were the everyday is no less a mistake, and no less dangerous. It is to willfully deny the basic character of the circumstances we confront.
Everything therefore depends on our assessment of the severity of the crisis we are living through. We are called to judge our circumstances. And that means we are called to the hard work of prudence. As Greg Weiner puts it in his magisterial study of the subject:
An essential element of prudence is thus recognizing the difference between genuine emergency and the aggrandizing rhetoric of catastrophe. Not every moment is Munich, but Munich was. A wide range of experience and circumstances is necessary to discern the difference.
Not every moment is a time of exceptional crisis, but a few moments are. And how we think about the policies our country is now pursuing ultimately hinges on whether we judge this pandemic to be such a time. Most of us are not experts in the relevant knowledge, and we must make the necessary judgment as citizens, calling on our read of the available evidence and our degree of confidence in those who claim to know — calling, in the end, upon our prudence. This doesn’t free us from the need to consider tradeoffs. On the contrary, it compels us to consider them in full, and to do so in full knowledge of the limits of our judgment.
The debunkers may be right about some important elements of our situation, and we must not forget it. But it seems awfully likely they are not right on the whole. And so we need to treat this crisis as a grave emergency, with an eye to doing what’s required to protect the most vulnerable among us and recover our safety and prosperity — precisely so that we can return to normal life, and to our vitally important debates about how best to live it.
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Prudence in a Storm