“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
“All of us are going to die. … We have to stop being a nation of sissies.”
“They’re dying. It’s true. … It is what it is”
“Numbers are scary … until they’re not”
An identifying feature of brutal dictators, thugs and war criminals is their utter disregard for the sanctity of life. But what happens when you let this belief that every single life is sacred rule your decisions?
Holding something, anything, as sacred is a highly emotive, spiritual identification that risks forcing individuals into potentially irrational decision structures. This absolutist ideology demanding that life be protected at all costs can restrict our capacity to solve important problems. I showed how those limited by the inflexible dogma of environmentalism (the sanctity of the planet) have led to decisions that do greater damage to mother nature; so too with the virtue zealots whose efforts to protect all lives are putting far too many others at risk.
The Irrational Sanctimony of Life
Lifeboat ethics exercises remind us that there are times when hard decisions need to be made – that some lives are worth more than others. But our present generation of Western decision-makers have been given a boat they have been told will never sink (and they think they have enough lifeboats) … hmm, where have we heard that before? We are unprepared to make those hard decisions if we start from the premise that every life is sacred and none shall ever be allowed to be sacrificed … That is, until this COVID-19 iceberg seemingly popped out of nowhere.
While I fear we are heading to a Titanic failure, still the dogmatic absolutists are prevailing in our policy decisions.
This week it seems likely the New York State public school system will enter into lockdown. After testing all teachers and students in the system, they have detected a 0.18% COVID-19 infection level. While less than a fifth of one percent may seem like an acceptable risk to take, it appears that even one infection is too high for the authorities. Any potential loss of life must not be tolerated; every life is sacred, point. I understand that this decision is based on pure emotion. Do the New York State regulators understand how irrational their decision is and what the long-term consequences may be?
Accepting no trade-offs to the potential loss of any lives from this pandemic (especially the rare cases where young people may fall seriously ill) might come across as noble and humane, but it is also irrational and dangerous. I get the manipulative motivation of these political actors though. At a time when death dominates the news, expressing a sacred declaration for life attracts nods and approvals – only an insensitive thug would say otherwise.
I had already noted how ridiculous it is to risk having four or five students in my classroom commit suicide following from the anxiety caused by the lockdown (just so their professor might survive and enjoy ten more good years). Sorry, but while I do enjoy my life, I’m not really that sacred. Not to mention how many of my students had dropped out of school during the first wave of the pandemic, face diminished career prospects, suffer from increased substance abuse, malnourishment and poverty and I think we have to revisit what this “no trade-offs” declaration actually means. Perhaps we should refer to this as protecting the “sanctimony of life”.
What is the philosophy behind this madness?
Kill the Kantians
I was born and bred a Kantian. In the naivety of my youth (as a doctoral student), I firmly believed that the dignity of humanity in one’s person can, under no circumstances, be violated. This intrinsic worth, established by the very being of our existence, transcends anything that has a price and can be bought and sold. Fundamental human rights have been founded on this bedrock principle of human dignity – the Enlightenment cult crafted centuries ago in remote Königsberg. I have been trained to look down on the bean counters, the utilitarians, who aim for the greatest good for the greatest number and who accept that, in certain situations, some indeed matter less.
Fortunately I have never been in a position where I have had to make decisions about anything that hasn’t directly concerned me … as I fear many more lives would be lost under the slaughter of such moralising Kantian conviction.
Kant’s idealism suits life in the isolated enclaves of the affluent where everyone has abundant, safe food to eat, no one suffers physical or mental health issues and there are no life-or-death economic decisions forced upon people compelling them to compromise their inherent intrinsic worth. Consequences from such absolutist decisions are not burdened on the comfortable – those most likely to pontificate on the sanctity of life.
As these privileged, powerful few build higher walls isolating themselves within their tribes, they more easily fail to acknowledge that not everyone enjoys the same level of affluence, life for many has severe challenges and sacrifices must be made.
- They can afford organic food and fail to realise that imposing this virtue on others with inadequate means hurts good dietary practices and augments the threat of famines and global food insecurity.
- As the sanctity of the planet must also predominate their logic, they celebrate the solar panels on their rooves while those struggling to afford a roof pay far too much for energy … and are often left in the dark.
- In times of pandemic, they lockdown their communities and retreat to their private gardens while those who need to survive with jobs in restaurants, shops and on the streets pay the price. And then they claim there can be no economic trade-off with the sanctity of life (as the poor lose the means to survive).
The sanctity of life takes on a different meaning when you don’t have adequate food, shelter, revenue and healthcare.
In the affluent West, dignity is a question of “how to die“;
In the developing South, dignity is a question of “how to live“.
Talk of dignity and intrinsic human worth usually arrives in response to a sense of loss. The affluent decorate their lives with material wealth and comfort – most have never known sacrifice or loss until they face the brutality of death (often hooked up to the finest healthcare technology their advanced economy can offer them), and these little trinkets that they had sheltered behind no longer have value. Only then are they faced with a question of protecting their dignity – of having a death with dignity. Those less fortunate, mostly in developing countries, are faced with challenges every single day, needing to surrender their self worth to survive and feed their family. Dignity for them is a daily question of how to live.
Even worse, the affluent accept that the sanctity of life in the West is “worth more” than lives lost in the South while imposing their affluent, precautionary decisions on them. (This is where the Risk-Monger usually loses it.)
- Western pro-organic lobbyists campaign to ban insecticides that could eradicate malaria or contain locust swarms while knowing their vulgar ideologies lead to millions of deaths. Under the banner of agroecology, these activists dress this death march up as a social justice campaign.
- When middle-class virtue signallers join groups like Extinction Rebellion to demand the end to a financial-industrial-technological order (that very order that allowed their society to develop and prosper), they refuse to acknowledge how those in the developing world will then never have the chance to improve their lives.
- After the protests, these hypocrites return to their comfortable homes, their cupboards are full, their healthcare exists and their streets are safe.
All lives are sacred … but affluent ones seem to be more sacred.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed hard decisions upon a class of Western policymakers who, for the last 20 years, had merely had to serve the interests of the affluent and make their zero-risk desire come true. Policy was simple: if a product, substance or process could not be proven to be 100% safe, then take it off the market. The precautionary principle was the tool of choice: if there is a trace risk of cancer from a life-saving disinfectant, then ban it (our surfaces are clean enough); if a piece of plastic washes up on a beach, get rid of it (we never actually needed plastic); if you can’t guarantee that an agricultural technology is 100% safe, then we will revert to traditional farming means (and we can import our food after our yields decline and the poor people can pull the weeds). The privileged could afford the alternatives so the panacea of precaution prevailed.
Time was we were allowed (trusted) to manage our own risks and use dangerous but effective products (only having to “keep out of reach of children“). Risk resilience developed through education, empowerment and experience. But as we moved into the affluent Age of Precaution, hazards were equated with risks and any potentially harmful exposures were eliminated via the precautionary process. We were no longer entrusted to “handle with care” as the Nanny State assumed its role of removing all potential hazards. As our affluence permitted more expensive and less effective alternatives, most negative consequences went unnoticed and docile populations expected their lives to be protected and completely risk-free.
After several decades of precaution preventing us from any hazard exposures, we started believing that the sanctity of our lives meant we could live forever in some zero-risk utopia. Yuvel Noah Harari’s Homo Deus declared that with the end of wars, diseases and want, it could become commonplace for humans to live for hundreds of years – the ultimate point of sanctimonious sanctity when we become the gods seeking eternity. Harari, caught up in his algorithmic solutions, failed to recognise how this end of suffering and struggle (this Pax Precautiana) created a population demanding nothing less than the myth of being kept completely safe. We became Docilians incapable of surviving in a world of death and suffering – we are “sissies” in the face of a pandemic without the resilience or tools to protect ourselves.
Maybe it’s time to take another look at how this Pax Precautiana ideology actually “protects” the sanctity of human life and the environment.
Hard decisions need to be made
In the face of this pandemic, we need risk managers making hard decisions rather than precautionistas locking us in our homes. We have to accept that not everyone will survive and that risk-reduction measures need to be taken to ensure that we can protect at least the most vulnerable.
In the time of COVID-19, the cult of Immanuel Kant, that every life is sacred, needs to yield to the pragmatism of the utilitarian bean counters who have to find the best measures to save the largest number of lives.
When I posted that I had signed the Great Barrington Declaration, I was taken aback by the outrage laid upon me by some science communicators in my tribe. The three epidemiologists who wrote the declaration expressed the need to be pragmatic and dedicate scarce resources to protecting the vulnerable while understanding that the consequences of lockdowns would cause far greater harm on many more people. Utilitarian and yet proactive.
The Kantian comeback in favour of harsher lockdowns (precautionary and reactive) defended the sanctity of life. The John Snow Memorandum was so predictable – full of name-calling and moral outrage (“just imagine if one child got sick in school and died“). It is tragic to have to accept that a small number of young people may also die from this coronavirus, but this is the cruelty of nature. In nature, runts get thrown out of the nest so that the flock may fly.
Both sides accused the other of cherry-picking and in the deadlock, those claiming the higher moral ground of humanity let their virtue be the decider. Science determined by moral outrage.
But in this precautionary virtue of protecting the sanctity of all lives (by locking everyone in their homes again), what would become of the sanctity of life for those suffering from mental health issues? Should we just forsake those experiencing increased poverty, unemployment, domestic violence or substance abuse? Do their lives matter less? What about those unable to stay in school or keep their jobs, relationships broken and essential service providers gone out of business? Whole sectors of our economies have been written off, charities and service clubs shut down while governments are effectively printing money to pretend to be solvent … but not one life should be surrendered to this virus! Cherry-picking indeed, but such a hideously malignant virtue does come at a price.
Protecting the sanctity of life (or the planet) at all costs is certainly perceived as more virtuous, emotionally reassuring and in line with our prescribed ideals of humanity. But outside of the sheltered comfort from within our affluent walls, in the face of a pandemic, such dogmatic absolutism risks leading these zealots down irrational paths based on emotional ideals (resulting in very poor decisions with catastrophic consequences).
The incoming occupant to the American White House has let this virtue define his presidential campaign. As a victim of tragic losses and the cruelty of human suffering, Joe Biden has vowed to protect the sanctity of life from this virus. His incoming Coronavirus Taskforce is made up entirely of healthcare professionals (people committed to protecting lives at all costs and incapable of making hard decisions). (He evidently did not read my Blueprint on Risk Management.) If the vaccines do not arrive soon, the likelihood of devastating consequences from such emotion-based decisions imposing hardships on generations to come may overwhelm American society.
Even the affluent may “pay a price” for such virtue.
If you felt in any way that this article has been insensitive, especially to those suffering from COVID-19, keep in mind that this was written as I leave the second week of battling this coronavirus. The first week was easy with only light flu-like symptoms but now the inflammation has caused my hypertension to surge and the pain from a chronic organ infection has become severe. While I feel I am slowly beating this virus, the day will surely come when I do succumb to some other horrible threat nature throws at me. You might notice one day how my page had gone silent, see an outdated last entry, shrug and then click on, going on about your day.
Get over your docilian sissiness; life is not sacred and nature can be very cruel … it is what it is.