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Ethics in a Pandemic

We have been battling COVID-19 for roughly half a year, and this fight against the pandemic seems to have polarized our nation even more, rather than bringing us together to fight a “common enemy.” A major disagreement has arisen over the ethical versus medical issues, over “being alive” versus “living.”

Dr. R.J. Snell with the Culture of Life Foundation has written extensively on the ethical issues facing us during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it means for us all to be true citizens. He joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss these ethical questions, and more.

“Human life matters and it matters from conception to natural death,” says Dr. Snell.  “But we’re not just lives. It’s not just that human life matters; it’s that human persons matter. And persons have a full range of goods that they’re concerned with.”

“To cast aside the goods of religion or the goods of the dignity of work merely to stay alive is to not really understand the value of the person. I think we need a bigger view of the good of the person, as opposed to it being a reduced view to just being alive.”

But as we attempt to resume our lives in well-rounded ways, Dr. Snell reminds us that we must still be responsible. “It seems to me that we have to be willing to understand that some people’s tolerance for risk differ from others. […] Reveal that you’re still responsible; you’re not trying to harm them or infect them, but you’re also unafraid to enter into relationship with them, to be kind with them.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. R.J. Snell unpack the many ethical dilemmas we face as we navigate lives amidst COVID-19.


Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Ethics in a Pandemic

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We’ve spent roughly half a year battling the coronavirus pandemic here in the United States. Unfortunately, instead of bringing us all together to battle a common disease, it’s been just one more thing that has polarized many of us.

Dr. R.J. Snell is with the Culture of Life Foundation, the Witherspoon Institute, and Princeton University. He has thought deeply and written extensively about public discourse and the many ethical issues confronting us specifically because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. R.J. Snell, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.

DR. R.J. SNELL: So good to be with you again. Thank you, Traci.

TRACI GRIGGS: You’ve written that “many Americans (not all, certainly) have forgotten what it means to be citizens” during this pandemic. So, what do you mean by that?

DR. R.J. SNELL: That’s an interesting claim, I think. And I’ve had a lot of friends ask me the same question. What do I mean by that? Well, it seems to me that to be a citizen entails two principles. The first is obligation, and the old understanding of natural rights assumed that we had rights because we had responsibilities to people. So, I was a father and a son. And so I had the rights to educate my children and the right to assemble with my family because I had those obligations. The new understanding of human rights sees us as isolated individuals. You can see how this works out in sexual matters or the transgender movement just now, that before we’re encumbered with our body or relations, we’re just individuals. The second principle of being a citizen is not only are we encumbered, but we’re real agents; we’re responsible for self-governance and self-rule. And at the current moment, I think both of those principles are under attack or are being swamped by a dual movement. The first is a kind of rabid, isolated view of the individual; we’re all alone. And then second is state-overreach. So, we often think of state-overreach as being against individualism, where I tend to think that state-overreach happens when we view ourselves as isolated individuals who are not encumbered or in thick relationships, and viewing ourselves as fathers, daughters, aunts, cousins. And so, the state overreaches and manages us as individuals as opposed to allowing us to be self-governing agents in our thick relations in communities. And I think a good many Americans view themselves as individuals who are managed by the state, instead of self-governing agents who are responsible for themselves and responsible for others.

TRACI GRIGGS: That’s a pretty interesting distinction. We’ve heard so much discussion about the economic price of shutting down businesses vs. the health consequences of not shutting down. So how do we go about evaluating these types of trade-offs?

DR. R.J. SNELL: Yes, of course human life matters and it matters from conception to natural death. I think humans are created in the image of God and thus have innate dignity and enormous value. But we’re not just lives; it’s not just that human life matters, it’s that human persons matter. And persons have a full range of goods that they’re concerned with. They’re concerned for their family. They’re concerned for religion and worship. They’re concerned with the dignity of work. Those are all goods too. And so I don’t see it as a trade-off. I’m certainly unwilling to think that human life doesn’t matter, but I think that human life ought to be evaluated within the full range of the goods of human persons.

You know, I’m adherent to the natural law tradition, which is a theory of how morality works. The natural law tradition says of course we’re alive and as alive, we seek to continue to be in alive. That’s good, and we seek the life of our children. But we’re not just lives; we’re rational lives, we’re personal lives. And as personal, we seek friendship, we seek the dignity of relationship, we seek marriage, and we seek religion. And to cast aside the goods of religion or the goods of the dignity of work merely to stay alive is to not really understand the value of the person. I think we need a bigger view of the good of the person, as opposed to it being a reduced view to just being alive.

TRACI GRIGGS: Great point. So, talk a little bit about expert opinions. We see our government touting a lot of expert opinions, often ones the conflict with each other. How much should they weigh into the decision-making process, especially during this crisis?

DR. R.J. SNELL: I think of this question as being caught up in the earlier question about what it means to be a citizen. To be a citizen in a liberal democracy like our own, is to be self-governed. We’re ruled by consent, and we’re ruled by consent because we’re real and fundamental agents. A wise agent, a wise citizen, takes into account the available streams of knowledge. I’m all for knowledge; I’m all for what experts know. I’m happy that there are epidemiologists; I’m happy that there are economists who are thinking about these questions and offering us their wisdom and their expertise. But at the same time, agents are responsible for their own governance, and they’re not just entities to be managed. There’s a new vision of rationalism in politics which misunderstands, in my judgment, what it means to be a human being because that kind of rationalism understands quantities very well. It understands GDP. It understands the number of cases of COVID. It understands the costs of treatment. But that kind of rationalism struggles to understand the quality of life. Right, economists are very good at giving us numbers; they’re not so good at giving us qualities. The decent life or the meaningful life is not something that the rationalist really gets. And so we tend to be, it seems to me, to be viewed as items to be managed by the experts. Whereas I think we should view ourselves as citizens who govern ourselves and we consult with the wisdom of the experts, but they don’t manage us. I think that’s a backwards way of viewing what it means to be free.

TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s talk about the U.S. medical system. We have not faced the life and death trade-off. In my understanding, we have not had to say we don’t have enough resources to treat everyone so we have to choose. They’ve had to do this in other countries, of course. What do we do in a circumstance like that? How do we choose?

DR. R.J. SNELL: Yeah. So thankfully we have had very few incidences like this. What I found so striking was that when some of the medical authorities and medical groups were planning or thinking through what to do if there were such scarcities, immediately the mindset emerged of “well you could withhold care from the disabled or the elderly.” Those are irrelevant conditions or factors under traditional triage. We ought to think, it seems to me, even if there were conditions of scarcity that you follow the old traditional rules of medical care, which is you take care of all. And when there’s scarce resources, you allocate those to those who have the most chance to recover from the particular disease to be treated. But everyone is to be afforded care, and palliative care where you make someone comfortable in their final days and final moments, can’t be viewed as anything like assisted suicide or euthanasia. And so it seems that COVID has exposed some of the anti-human mindset which has infected our point of view, and indeed infected some of our medical establishments and some of our medical colleges and schools. A condition which looks like a crisis reveals the deep mindset at work and should get us prepared to push back, to reeducate, to pass better law, but to be ready for a time where there really would be scarcity and unjust law and unjust rules would go into effect.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, do you have some advice for us as to how we can disagree with some of these decisions that are being made without seeming like we’re being irrational?

DR. R.J. SNELL: Yeah. You know, everything seems politicized just now in the contemporary political climate. Things which in an older understanding of American decency and civility, people would have followed good manners and allowed others to disagree, seems to be off the table. It seems to me that we have to be willing to understand that some people’s tolerance for risk differ from others. I may have a higher tolerance for risk than someone else does. We have to demonstrate that we care for life, that we’re prudent and responsible. We should demonstrate charity and kindness and real care and responsibility for the wellbeing of others. But at the same time, I think we need to demonstrate and insist that a self-governed people allow other people to govern themselves. I’m responsible to not harm my neighbor, I’m responsible to help my neighbors as much as I can. But my neighbor is also a free person and if he wishes to live his life slightly different than I do, well, it’s just good manners. It’s just old-fashioned American decency to allow him or her to live their life and not everything needs to be a confrontation.

TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned the issue of masks, and it’s been amazing to me how emotional people are about this. Does it disturb you that there are so many of these important underlying deeper issues that this pandemic is saying about us as a country, and yet so many people seem to just gravitate toward arguing about masks.

DR. R.J. SNELL: Well, they become symbols, don’t they? I follow the law. I’m in New Jersey, where you have to wear the masks into any store, any place of business. I follow the law. I also try to follow good manners. I don’t want to make my neighbor afraid. I don’t want to make my neighbor angry, so I’ll tend to wear it if other people do. But I think what it shows is that we don’t trust each other, and we don’t know each other. That we have become isolated individuals who are not attached, who are increasingly isolated in their little groups in their backyards, and so on. And I think the mask becomes a symbol of that. You have this person out there who’s something of a vague threat. You can’t even see their face and maybe they have some terrible disease they’ll give to you, and so we better not trust them and we better control them. I don’t think we can have a sane, free, democratic life under those conditions. We have to be able to trust each other to be capable of governing ourselves in a fundamentally decent way.

TRACI GRIGGS: What can we do to mitigate this, what you call “the radical variety of individualism” that seems be a emerging during this time? Are there steps we can take?

DR. R.J. SNELL: Well, I think there’s both long and short-term steps. The long steps, the long game here I think is to continue to form stable families. You know, almost half of white working-class Americans are now born out of wedlock. In other groups the numbers are even far higher. In some groups approaching 70, 75 percent of children are born out of wedlock. Those are not the conditions for long-term stability and citizenship. We need to continue to support the family, to form families and to make sure that they work. Only in families do we have the workshops of democracy, where people learn to work and live together and to be self-governed. In the short term, I think we need to continue to demonstrate care for our neighbors. It goes a long way if one spends time with one’s own neighbors, helps them paint their fence, take over a meal. Reveal that you’re still responsible; you’re not trying to harm them or infect them, but you’re also unafraid to enter into relationship with them, to be kind with them. And I think increasingly—even though it goes against our desire to punch back when we’re punched—we need to practice the old virtue of turning the other cheek politically. When there’s one uncle at Thanksgiving who makes the crazy comments politically, and you want to fight back. Sometimes we can just let things go and learn the old virtue of tolerating each other. We don’t need to argue about everything. Some things we can’t relent on; we can’t relent on the dignity of life. Not everything has that status. Sometimes we can just let other people be as they are, and have the beliefs that we think are maybe ridiculous, but we can show the good grace of being kind.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, those are some great pointers. And thank you very much. I especially like your quote about families being “workshops of democracy.” What a great way to look at that. Well, we are about out of time but before we go, Dr. Snell, where can our listeners go to learn more about what you’re thinking on these topics?

DR. R.J. SNELL: Well, yeah, thank you so much. And I’d be delighted if anyone read what I’ve wrote. So, two main sources that you could look for arguments related to COVID from me would be the Culture of Life Foundation and that’s, and at Public Discourse, which is

TRACI GRIGGS: Sounds great. Dr. R.J. Snell, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.

DR. R.J. SNELL: It was a real treat. Thank you.

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