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Weighing Individual ‘Value’ Against the Greater Good

Police officers wearing protective masks stand in front of The National Gallery on the first day of a newly imposed coronavirus lockdown in London, England, November 5, 2020. (John Sibley/Reuters)
Every person has equal moral value, but that shouldn’t preclude a debate about the proportionality of lockdowns.

When asked, “Is the lockdown punishing too many for the greater good?” on a recent episode of a BBC’s ethics show, “Big Questions,” Jonathan Sumption handed his enemies the perfect weapon with which to attack him.

Sumption, a former U.K. Supreme Court justice and formidable lockdown skeptic, began by saying what he has said many times before: that the British government’s decision to close businesses and force the entire population to live under house arrest has been disproportionate and ineffective. He believes that asking the elderly and vulnerable to self-isolate is a preferable strategy. On this occasion, however, he took the argument further, saying that his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were worth more than his own “because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead.”

At this point another panel member Deborah James, a 39-year-old mother of two, interjected: “With all due respect, I’m the person who you say their life is not valuable. I live with metastatic bowel cancer.” Sumption replied, “I didn’t say it was not valuable. I said it was less valuable.”

As is so often the case, the short clip that went viral on social media was not necessarily representative of Sumption’s actual views. He later clarified that he objected “extremely strongly to the suggestion” that he was implying that James’s life was less valuable because she has cancer. He said he thought she had been responding to his earlier comments about “older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected.” He also added that the debate’s video-conference format contributed to the misinterpretation, since “sometimes on video links it is difficult to hear what the other person is saying.”

No doubt Sumption did not mean to personally attack a seriously ill woman. Still, doesn’t the standard he applied to himself also equally apply to James? If she has a life-threatening illness and has less life ahead of her, isn’t her life also “less valuable” by his own logic? Perhaps “valuable” was not the right word. In the United States, the Declaration of Independence holds as a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” This is consistent with the Judeo-Christian belief that the value of human life is intrinsic and immutable, unaffected by any qualities or attributes the individual may or may not have, which of course includes age and health.

It is regrettable that one careless word, meant in a very specific context but conflated with the moral status of an individual, should become such a distraction from the other, more serious arguments Sumption has made during the course of the lockdown debate. Elsewhere, for instance, he has written more clearly (emphasis added):

In public policy there are no absolute values, not even the preservation of life. There are only pros and cons. Do we not allow cars, among the most lethal weapons ever devised, although we know for certain that every year thousands will be killed or maimed by them? We do this because we judge that it is a price worth paying to get about in speed and comfort. Every one of us who drives is a tacit party to that Faustian bargain.

The arguments for lockdowns — that they’re necessary to institute track-and-trace programs, or that they ensure the vaccine rollout is not overtaken by a new deadly strain of the virus — may be justifiable on public-health grounds. But as Sumption contends, such decisions require careful cost-benefit analysis and cannot be (and, in any case, are not) informed by the absolute principle that every human life is sacred, true as that may be.

This relates to a second point that Sumption has made about our culture’s “irrational horror of death.” Part of the problem, as he sees it, is a loss of perspective. While an 18-year-old dying of natural causes (e.g., a weak heart) is a tragic example of a life cut short, an 80-year-old dying of natural causes, provided they are suitably cared for and attended by loved ones, is an inevitable albeit sad loss.

Having these debates requires careful and clear language, separating the moral value of human life (which is absolute) from policies (which are, by nature, arbitrary) designed to promote human flourishing and the greatest good for the largest number. Unfortunately, both Sumption and his critics have on this occasion failed to make that distinction.

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