The World and Its Lockdowns

The world was the world before the coronavirus, and we have no reason to believe it is not the world still.  If we consider what the world cared about, say, last December, would we have reasons to wonder if the world’s decision (yes, we can say that) to lock everyone in their homes, shut down business activity, and close churches – with no clear cut-off – is prudentially sound?  By prudentially sound, I mean: practical judgments that are based on a true appraisal of basic goods and the human condition.

Reasonable alternatives to a complete lockdown have been proposed for weeks.  All combine different approaches for those differently at risk. They all give ample scope for high-risk persons to isolate themselves without penalty or difficulty.

Let’s wonder out loud.  Last December, the world believed humankind was a blight on the earth, like a pest, in competition with the environment.  The world said it was wrong to look for GDP to increase year after year.  The world said people were too busy, flying too many places, impressing huge carbon footprints on the earth.  Would someone like that welcome or lament the shutdown of human activity?  Would a massive drop in GDP be a concern, or a relief?

Last December, the world said that business activity (a.k.a. working for one’s daily bread) was motivated by greed.  The marketplace, it said, was sheer “unbridled capitalism.” But, of course, it’s good if greediness comes to an end.  There’s no need even to wonder about that.  Maybe if it ever returns, it will be changed, and its motives will have been purged.

Last December, the world was veering towards socialism. These are some things that socialists tend to hold:  persons belong to and are dependents of the state; economic activity should take place at the command of central authorities for the common good, as those authorities assess it; and crises in free societies are good, because they force a necessary redistribution.  Would a person like that be deeply concerned by, or complacent about, the current lockdown and its effects?

Last December, the world supported contraception and endorsed the falling birthrate, which leads to a society’s extinction. Whatever else it does, contraception changes the outlook of a generation, from looking forward, to the young and their hopes and dreams, stretching forward into the future, back to the elderly.  There is no story of civilization which one enters into.  It fosters a selfishness of the present. It rejects risks, and wants safety now, in the status quo.   Would someone, from this outlook, say that it’s a good bet for some to accept risks, especially the elderly, to carry forward a common activity of life, or rather for that activity to cease, to extend the lives of a few?

It will be objected that money cannot be measured against life, as they are incommensurable.  Life must always trump business.  It is a false dichotomy.  Even “mere money” is usually our labor, and therefore our use of life and freedom, often many hours’ worth, in another form.  To make a business go bankrupt is to take away that life from those who gave it up, to found and build the business.   Moreover, work and, perhaps especially, small enterprises, represent someone’s personality and career, the narrative of that person’s life.  For most of us, work is our principal mode of serving others, and therefore of showing charity, for the largest number of hours of the day.  For man, to live is to be at work.


But what else has the world thought? Last December, the world denied the reality of sin. (This has been bound up with socialism, too, in the doctrine of the “perfectibility of man.”)  A common way to deny sin is to say that evil comes from lack of control and that private actors, acting in freedom, will inevitably act from bad motives. But public actors, which is to say politicians,  in theory ordering the actions of others rationally with a view to equality, will act from good motives.

It is unfathomable, on this view, that the prudent course of action would be to relinquish control, if that leads to a greater risk of evil.  Of course, once sin is denied, it is unfathomable, too, that we are right to accept the risk of a foreseen, even mortal, evil as the price of ordinary life.

Last December, the world was broadly utilitarian.  It did not believe that we act well by following the law of God, and that, if we do so, then evil consequences, foreseen but not intended, are not attributable to us.  Would someone like that be disposed to hold that anyone, including himself, who relaxes the lock-down, becomes responsible for all the deaths that foreseeably will follow?  Will he block others and be prepared to blame them if they prevail?

Last December, the world insisted that the public space was secular.  It is a neutral space, the world said, into which “comprehensive conceptions” such as religions can enter only insofar as these religions do not insist on policies that others may reasonably reject.

The world denies that there is transcendence, that there are supernatural goods, that there are goods higher than life, worth taking even significant risks for.  It says it reasonably denies these things.  Someone who believed these things would say that believers must conform to its strictures and, in a public space, act just as if life were the highest good.  If someone holds this viewpoint, instead of a proper conception of the common good of a free society, would he be inclined to reject the closure of churches, or be complacent about it?

Prudence is a matter of pursuing a correct ordering while avoiding pitfalls.  Whatever the motives of public actors now, the principles of the world of last December all point to shutting down economic life with no resolution in view – which is actually not an ordering.  What the better and genuinely prudent alternative is, I leave to you and your freedom.


*Image: Subway by Lily Furedi, 1934 [Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.