T.S. Eliot prophetically described April as “the cruellest month” – and he had never heard of coronavirus.
Compared to April, 2019, 44,000 more people died last month, making it the deadliest month on record. Could many of those people have been saved had the government acted earlier? Were many more indeed saved by the lockdown?
Probably, on both counts. In any case, those numbers provide a sombre illustration to the argument I had the other day with a friend, who tends to see the world mainly in economic terms.
Actually, I wouldn’t call it an argument because everything I said was couched in doubts, whereas his position was chiselled in stone. Destroying the economy, according to him, was too steep a price to pay for saving a few wrinklies.
Now, regular readers of this space know that I’m not usually short of a strong view or two. Yet ever since Covid arrived “I don’t know and nobody knows” has been the leitmotif of my writings on the subject.
I don’t know what would have been the right course of action. Perhaps the government went too far with the lockdown. It’s possible that isolating the most vulnerable groups while letting others roam free would have been wiser. It would certainly have been less economically ruinous.
But what if tens of thousands more still had died? Libertarian arguments would have been compromised, wouldn’t they? Or would they? I just don’t know.
My friend does. He hit me with a rhetorical device called reductio ad absurdum, pushing an argument to its grotesque extreme to show how ludicrous it is.
“You’d be willing to pay a trillion pounds to save a few lives,” he said. Actually I didn’t recall putting a precise number on it and, not being a financial man like my friend, I couldn’t even imagine a trillion pounds.
But yes, I said, I’d be willing to pay quite a lot of money to save quite a few lives. My friend immediately did what I would have done upon observing vacillation on my interlocutor’s part. He demanded that I define ‘quite a lot’ and ‘quite a few’.
That I couldn’t do. As a matter of historical observation, however, good countries, including Britain, have been known to accept economic ruin for the sake of upholding certain values and, yes, saving lives in the long run.
Turning the rhetorical tables on my friend, I could have said that, to him, no number of human lives is worth a large amount of money. This argument probably would have been as powerful as his – and as unsound.
I wish I had been as certain as some people, those who don’t care how many die defending abstract libertarian principles. All I can do at the moment is grieve for those 44,000 excess deaths we’ve suffered during that cruellest month. Putting this in perspective, the Luftwaffe only managed to kill 32,000 British civilians during the 10 months of the Blitz.
I am certain, however, that a human life is valuable throughout its duration, from conception to death. The argument that most of those people would have died anyway, what with their existing conditions, of which age is the deadliest, is immoral to the point of being monstrous.
The underlying assumption is that a 25-year-old is worth saving, while a 65-year-old is not, or at least less so. Perhaps in God’s eyes both lives are equally precious, though I wouldn’t like to second-guess the deity.
But regarded through human eyes that proposition isn’t just horrific morally but also unsound empirically. I’d suggest that the last year of J.S. Bach’s life, during which he composed The B Minor Mass and The Art of Fugue was of greater value to mankind than the whole life expectancy of a 25-year-old pusher at King’s Cross.
Bach died at 65 and I can’t begin to imagine the sublime revelations he would have bequeathed us had he lived another year – or ten. Actually, I find it easier to imagine a trillion pounds.