Viral Ethics: The Value of a Life

Today, we’re happy to lend this space to Tom Galvin, a former journalist who has worked at the intersection of technology, policy, and the economy for the past two decades.11219646_10206707969871603_4201137767317298659_nTom used those experiences to write his debut novel, The Auction, due for release later this year.

The following guest blog grew out of one of Tom’s  recent Facebook posts:

The hesitant steps to reopen the economy are spurring a collective ethics test for us as citizens. Today, many of us may view the demands to end the lockdown as reckless and selfish. In eight weeks, however, if the lockdown is still in place, we may share the belief that the damage to the economy outweighs the health risks.  So, who and what is right? And is there such a thing?

To explore it, I posed a question to my Facebook friends: “Imagine there’s about 500nyc people in your neighborhood. Would you stay in lockdown if it meant one of them wouldn’t die? Or would you say that the life saved (maybe your own) isn’t worth 500 people being out of work?”

I choose that scenario because at that moment the ratio of deaths to jobless claims was roughly 500 to 1. I didn’t reveal that at the time; I wanted to provoke thought about the difficult choices we face.

The responses mirrored the public debate. Initially, most echoed this comment, “That’s a tough one. I can’t imagine that I could live with myself if there was a chance that I had something to do with someone dying.”

But as the question settled, others explored the implications, and as they did, a simple answer became elusive. “What if that person lived and 250 lost their jobs, 90 lost their businesses, and another killed herself after suffering from depression and was facing that disease of depression all alone?” one asked.

Another demanded more information: “Is one of them a parent whose child would eventually die not to Coronavirus but to poor diet/pre-existing conditions? Is one an 18 year old who is caught up in addiction and can’t get treatment but wants it?”

Their comments exposed the challenge we face as a society. We are making difficult choices with the best available information and the disturbing realization that the information is continually changing. COVID-19 mirrors the flu, except it also attacks the lungs. No, the virus mirrors altitude sickness. Malaria drugs may work; no, they don’t on many patients. Hydroxychloroquine could be a solution; a new study says it led to deaths. When will a vaccine be available?

Thanks to social platforms and 24/7 news we get bombarded with these real-time “one step forward, two steps back” updates. While we sit at home and wait.

No wonder citizens grapple with whether the greater good is to stay at home and weather the economic damage or venture out and risk our collective health. But whose health? The Facebook debate turned to the harsh reality.

“[T]he loss of lives is disproportionately among the disadvantaged and minorities. In other words they are the essential service workers, who are in the frontlines of danger. So to accept that bargain, you are not just saying that you would harm (i.e., kill) one life to save another… but that you would harm (i.e., kill) one life to better the economic impact for a few others,” said one person.

The debate on a Facebook page became a microcosm of what society is grappling with: horrible choices that we haven’t as a country been forced to confront since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

That’s why, I believe, so many who reacted to the post rejected the premise of the question or felt the need to find an alternative. “I would stay in quarantine to protect the one, use my time to invent a device that will protect that person who is vulnerable, and then release everyone from captivity,” added a poster. These responses reflect that the reality of the question is too disturbing to accept.

America has grown unaccustomed to making hard choices. How people reacted to the post itself underscore that. It generated among the most comments I’ve received on Facebook. But very few were willing to “like” it.

The aim was, in a small way, to condition my Facebook friends to accept that hard choices are ahead; reinforce that we must make them with incomplete information; and, to view with empathy those who may see it differently.

That essential ingredient, empathy, has been in short supply this past decade. Perhaps one of the good things from this pandemic can be its return as we all chart an uncertain course into a new era for which we have few answers.



6 thoughts on “Viral Ethics: The Value of a Life

  1. Great blog. Tom Galvin’s question is similar to asking Americans how many car deaths are they willing to approve annually? No one likes to answer the question. Shouldn’t we all want zero?

    As a society we question approve a number of 40,000 a year deaths in cars, even though the number could be dropped to 5,000 with lower speed limits. Same general idea with Covid-19.

    Tom’s greater point is that society settles on an impersonal numeric balance on many things – even though we don’t like to admit it personally. We do so with car deaths, crime rates, poverty and hunger, and we’ll do so with Covid-19, too – even if some of the numbers end up becoming tragically personal to any of us. God bless us all. I enjoyedTom’s post. – Rich Sammon.

  2. Tom’s post brings to mind a classic ethics dilemma commonly known as “Would you kill the fat man?” The idea is that you have the chance to save 5 people by tossing one on the subway tracks, which would would kill him but save the others. The problem Tom poses is far more complex because there is so much we don’t know about Covid-19, but if you’re interesting in hearing more about this particular issue, there is a book I recommend here:

  3. Mark, excellent blog by Galvin. Thanks for sharing.

    Imagine a count of 2,000 deaths per day in the US, through the end of 2020. What would happen? It sounds morbid, but folks would probably normalize it. They did in the Civil War and there were 620,000 deaths over four years, with a national population of only 31,000,000 – a much higher relative toll. Yet folks absorbed the daily casualty counts and went on with their lives and businesses. Human beings are incredibly resilient and the work ethos of the American people has always been a strong force. The whole thing is very surreal in today’s modern day and age but we do have history as a teacher.

    Great reading, thanks,


    • Yes, but obviously in times of war, people on the home front didn’t have to worry that going on with their lives might put themselves and their loved ones at greater risk of joining the casualty list

      • Right. Bad example on my part. Was trying to agree with the point in the article that we are a risk-based society. At some point we’ll identify an acceptable number for infections/deaths from COVID and normalize the outcomes.



  4. If people are well-intentioned and following the best facts and science that they can get their hands on, opening up without overwhelming health systems and losing a million lives would still be tricky. Why? Combination of:

    1. Delayed feedback
    2. Potential for exponential growth
    3. The virus does not *directly* respond to policies, laws, regulations, suggestions, etc. It will respond to human behavior. Policies, etc. only indirectly impact behavior. The same regulation may be taken quite seriously in one place (98% of the people wear masks in circumstances where they’re recommended) and not at all in another place (40% of the people wear masks in circumstances where they’re required.

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