I Don't Know What to Think
It was a review of a couple of books on the Virus (yes, such books are already in print). Both, the reviewer said, were persuasive arguments. Yet they came to quite differing conclusions.
And the reviewer said something that is true also for me. I find, he said (more or less), that I tend to agree with the last argument I have heard.
Yes, that’s exactly right! I read an impassioned essay that the dangers of the Virus are still here—it’s much worse than the flu, there won’t be “herd immunity,” etc. I am persuaded! But then another article: that we are over-reacting, that we need to be smarter and more focused, and that schools should reopen at once. Again, I am persuaded!
The truth is this: I don’t know what to think.
To be more precise: I don’t know what to think about what should be done to address the big questions before us today. I don’t know what policies we should have regarding the Virus. Nor do I know what we should do about racial unrest, protests, and riots. And whatever comes up in the next news cycle, the truth is that I won’t know what should be done about it either.
There are, nonetheless, some things that I do know. Two have been the subject of recent columns.
If we have a line of argument that assumes or asserts, along the way, that the ethical action is to take the safest alternative, I know that argument is wrong. Safety is not a trump card. Many things are more important than safety. Indeed, it is built into being human that we must take risks, and when we avoid risk as such we fail at being fully human. This is the truth behind the sentiment that it is wrong to say, for instance, “In the future we will just have to get used to wearing masks—because we must be safe, we must care for each other’s health.” The resistance to that conclusion is obvious: caring for other people involves looking at them face to face. (The deepest human desire is to be seen!) Health is not mere avoidance of disease. And so forth.
Which is to say: I don’t know if the conclusion is wrong (it may be that we will have to get used to masks). But I know that step of the argument is wrong that says safety must be first.
Conversely (another thing I know): if a line of argument dismisses altogether the importance of safety considerations, that argument is wrong. Again, it may (as it were accidentally) reach a correct conclusion—I don’t know about that! But part of our human friendship with one another entails the avoidance of reckless behavior.
I know, in other words, that to be human is to enter willingly into risky situations but not to do so recklessly.
To touch briefly on some neuralgic political questions:
I don’t know if we should outlaw capital punishment. It seems good to be able to get along without it, and so, if we could, we should. (It seems to be off the table in Minnesota, if not in Texas.) But is capital punishment always wrong? It’s not clear to me.
What is clear is that our governmental structures as a whole should (to the extent possible in a finite world) execute justice, and that part of justice is the system that pronounces guilt or innocence. I remember Oliver O’Donovan saying that the focus on capital punishment is too narrow. One can imagine an unjust system that had no capital punishment. Just consider, he said, the right to a safe arrest.
Ponder those words: The right to a safe arrest.
So I would say: human beings have a special place in God’s creation, a place that we try to point to when we speak of rights and dignity and freedom. Sometimes, laws are needed, and the infringement of laws of sufficient gravity needs to lead to arrest and punishment. But at no place along that line does the special character of a human being go away. It belongs to every one of us.
I don’t know what this means about the concrete details of our police structures, the rules of social media, and our criminal laws. But I do know that this principle of an innate or indelible specialness, intrinsic to every human being, must be affirmed, and needs our constant vigilance.
On the Web. I am thankful to Matthew Lee Anderson, the delightfully triple-named moral theologian at Baylor, for directing my attention to a marvelous essay on P. G. Wodehouse. The times are never too dark to pick up one of his books. If you don’t know Wodehouse, here is one way he is described: P. G. Wodehouse lived to be 93 years old and wrote 93 books. Every day of his life, starting at age seven, he wrote. Before that, he said, he just goofed.
Here’s the first sentence: “If we’re talking about culture that makes people happy, we have to start with the works of PG Wodehouse. There are two reasons why. One reason is that making people happy was Wodehouse’s overriding ambition. The other reason is that he was better at it than any other writer in history.” And here’s a delightful Wodehouse sentence, the favorite, by the way, of Hugh Laurie who played Bertie Wooster in the TV series: “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like GK Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.”
Sheer unabashed escapist delight awaits you: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200602-the-man-who-wrote-the-most-perfect-sentences-ever-written?utm_campaign=The%20Path%20Before%20Us&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Revue%20newsletter