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“Tragedies that no ethics can prevent”

Is it ethically justified to make allowances for more coronavirus deaths in order to cap the long-term consequences? And does a virus that makes everyone a potential health risk for others require social isolation? German philosopher Berthold Wald speaks about virtue ethics in the age of COVID-19.

Professor Berthold Wald (Image: Zukunft CH)

Interview by Dominik Lusser for Zukunft CH, a non-profit foundation that promotes respect for human rights and the free, democratic legal order of Switzerland, and intends to convey perennial values and to strengthen the family as the fundamental pillar of society.

Catholic World Report publishes this English translation of the interview with Prof. Wald with the kind permission of Zukunft CH. The original German text can be found here.

Zukunft CH: Professor Wald, in order to prevent any possible misunderstandings: Can you sketch briefly what is meant by virtue ethics and name the virtues that are significant in the present context?

Wald: It is not always easy to know what is good and right in a concrete instance and then also to do what is known as good despite external and internal resistance. Normative convictions alone are not enough. Acting in a morally good way is above all a question of character or, as it was once called, of virtue. This means that the human being is correct in his knowledge and will, in his fear and desire. The correct person is one who allows himself to be determined by the matter for the sake of justice alone. Virtues such as prudence, justice, fortitude and self-control [= moderation] are character traits that require us to judge correctly and to act well. One cannot be just and act rightly without first being prudent.

Zukunft CH: Prudence is described as the mother of the moral virtues. To what extent is it indispensable in dealing correctly with COVID-19 also?

Wald: Well, currently the principal concern is to anticipate major [natural] evil and to avoid it, which is not easy an easy thing to judge; therefore it takes extensive information and prudent deliberation of the consequences of a course of action. We have to ask, then: Which protective measures are objectively called for and responsible? And here, contrary to the impression produced by politics and the media, there is great uncertainty and also well-founded doubts, if we take seriously the reservations about the methods of collecting, interpreting and correlating data. Leading epidemiologists like John Ionnadis (Stanford University) speak about an evidence fiasco. Both palliative physicians and pulmonary specialists criticize the sometimes senseless practice of intubation in the case of usually older patients with serious preexisting conditions, and forensic physicians in Hamburg, Germany, point out that significant co-morbidities can be noted regularly in cases of “COVID-19 deaths”. There are many indications that such patients did die with a coronavirus infection but not solely because of the coronavirus. The prognosis of the death-rate, which in the beginning was raised almost daily in order to gain acceptance of the drastic restrictions on fundamental rights, was certainly wrong even back then, and the absence of mass fatalities was not the result of efficient COVID prevention. Part of the virtue of prudence is to get a complete picture of the situation despite the shortage of time before one acts, by not ignoring well-founded judgments in advance and also by revising decisions when there are objective reasons to do so.

Zukunft CH: If the ethically correct thing to do is the appropriate thing, then doesn’t this urgently raise the question of what is appropriate to a human being?

Wald: Morally right action is about justice, without which no peaceful human coexistence is possible. The virtue of justice concerns what is due to the other person, in other words, what we owe it to him to do or to allow. That is a wide field, ranging from mere moral decency to the inalienable rights of the human person. With the restriction, or to put it more precisely, the temporary suspension of elementary fundamental rights by the government nowadays, the foundations of our social life are really at stake. This is true also for a temporally limited suspension of fundamental rights when it runs contrary to the protection of human dignity. The question of what justly belongs to someone or what he should be allowed to do cannot be answered without a prior understanding of the human being. The highest legal good, which the state and the international community are obliged to protect, is according to the United Nations Charter and Constitution: “human dignity” and not the preservation of life at any cost. Measures which disregard and violate this dignity are inexcusably unconstitutional and therefore unjust—above all the complete social and pastoral isolation of seriously ill and dying persons. A human being is a person and not merely a biological substrate that poses a risk for itself and for others. It contradicts human dignity to reduce him to being a potential carrier of a virus or a victim of a viral infection who must be isolated for his own protection as well as for the protection of others. Much of what is ordered along these lines by the government and was accepted without contradiction by the churches is a serious injustice.

Zukunft CH: Can the political position of weighing alternatives, which allows more COVID-19 fatalities in order to limit the long-term consequences for society, the economy and public health, be justified from the perspective of virtue ethics? Or is that a utilitarian calculation?

Wald: On the question about limits in weighing alternatives for governmental interventions, we should consider first the fact that, until the coronavirus crisis, the government for good reasons refrained from intervening with prohibitions in risks to the lives of private individuals who endanger themselves through an unhealthy and dangerous way of life. Every year there are hundreds of thousands (with coronary-circulatory problems, diabetes, pulmonary diseases) who did not have to die so young. Granted, they infect no one, but they do cause very considerable political-economic and social harms which also affect those who are not involved. Yet we put up with the death of these people, and we rightly refrain from taking compulsory measures, because human dignity does not allow it.

Zukunft CH: And what must the government take into consideration if it does intervene in a particular situation?

Wald: Naturally there is a duty to weigh alternatives, which is the moral norm in the case of most actions, even governmental ones. Within what is morally allowed, the requisite weighing of alternatives may be more or less far-reaching, depending on the competence of the individual who is responsible. In the case of governmentally ordered COVID-19 restrictions, however, this duty to weigh alternatives thoroughly has been ignored to a great extent, after the avoidance of infection fatalities and the interruption of chains of infection was declared the principal goal of political action, to which all other spheres of human social life are to be subordinated. Anyone can tell as a matter of principle that the far-reaching and ongoing disturbance of people’s economic and social interrelations on the family, local, national and global level will cause damages that will far exceed the benefit of the protective measures. Here weighing alternatives does not mean placing the happiness of a larger number above the suffering of a lower number in a utilitarian way, if it is true that through a one-sided failure to weigh alternatives the life and the future of all are endangered. A functioning, efficacious healthcare system exists only as long as it can be financed, not to mention the other social insurance systems financed by taxes and contributions. Anyone can tell that, too.

Zukunft CH: Must citizens accept it if a state acts imprudently and unjustly on a massive scale?

Wald: That leads to the delicate question of whether there is a duty to resist an evil that is ordered by the State (and tolerated by the Church). Posed from the perspective of virtue ethics, the question is: If resistance to presently practiced governmental (and ecclesiastical!) injustices against helpless human beings (the sick who are being denied pastoral care) seems called for, isn’t the attitude of fortitude and courage demanded? My impression has been that in recent month an incredible silence has prevailed among those who, given the selective transmission of information by the media and politicians, were supposedly called to advocate for the common good by their words—which they otherwise feel called to do. Isn’t such silence ultimately cowardice?

Zukunft CH: The outcome of a crisis thus does not depend only on the State. Every citizen can—even without knowing it—infect others with the virus and perhaps at the end of a shorter or longer chain of infections also cause the death of a human being (which of course is true of any flu, also). Can we derive from this the ethical obligation to suspend all social contacts?

Wald: This question is of great significance, yet is relatively easy to answer. First: Actions are human acts only if they are based on knowledge and intention. They are culpable then if injustice is done to someone knowingly and intentionally. Not every harm that I cause to others unwittingly and unintentionally is an injustice and culpable. I can never survey all the consequences of my actions; to do that I would have to be in God’s position. Therefore in the world of human beings there are genuine tragedies that no ethics can prevent. Anyone who tries to extend ethics to those matters destroys his life, as Sophocles’ King Oedipus already shows.

Zukunft CH: Are you advocating an ethics that is proportioned to the human ability to know?

Wald: The moral efforts to put the world in order, which are demanded in particular by intellectuals, should not blind us to the fact that the moral order of action at its edges borders on the darkness of an unforeseeable future. In this regard, Ralph McInerny makes an illuminating remark about the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas in the introduction to Ethica Thomistica: “The moral order … can come to seem as a small area of illumination within a circumambient darkness. The moral order is not so wide as human life…. [Although] Thomas quite sensibly concentrates on human action, … he is fully aware that there are more things in heaven and earth, and in our lives, than are dreamt of in philosophy.”

Zukunft CH: The fact that we do not have a grip on our own life is for many people existentially difficult to bear. Do other virtues then come into play here?

Wald: Every human being sooner or later faces the question: What does death mean for him and for others whom he loves? One can try to avoid this question as long as possible. But one can also admit the experience, if one has been fortunate enough to have had it, that there are human beings whose hope is directed beyond death to a life that will no longer be taken from us and that unimaginably surpasses all human desire for happiness. Human beings who live with such a hope and act on the basis of such hope are the way they are because they believe and because they love: God first, and with Him every human being to whom He gave life. Faith, hope and love are Christian virtues that go beyond the natural virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and moderation/self-control. Christians above all were the ones who in the recurrent times of plague risked their own lives to assist the ill and the dying and through the witness of their hope and love kept faith in Christ alive and spread it among the people.

Dr. Berthold is Professor Emeritus for Systematic Philosophy on the Theological Faculty of the University of Paderborn.

(Translated from German by Michael J. Miller.)

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  1. “Whether there is a duty to resist an evil that is ordered by the State and tolerated by the Church” that refuses pastoral care of the sick and dying – is the moral dilemma addressed by Prof Delbert Wald. His suggested response couched in the virtue ethics of Aquinas is the option of resistance. That which existentially impacts myself and other priests. He analyzes how we came to this dilemma referencing the virtue prudence, the deliberation of the conditions of an act. That required a wide spectrum inspection of all the data prior to the State enacting the draconian Lockdown of society. Consequently he seeks a congruence between science and Aquinas’ virtue ethics. A clear definition of the latter is given by Ana Marta Gonzalez U Navarre Spain, That the supreme good is the object of the will as it is judged by reason. It requires moral virtue as Wald notes to pursue what is best. This is where it gets complex. If we’re dealing with science the ultimate end is containment and eradication of a disease. Whereas in virtue ethics the ultimate end [of a human act] is the supreme good, who is God. All acts must be ordered to God [also see John Paul II Veritatis Splendor]. Wald summarizes with a quote from Ralph McInerny that “The moral order is not so wide as human life” implying dilemmas are bound to occur such as the current State imposed restrictions. As a response to Prof Wald’s exceptional critique this last remark also suggests even with deliberation of conditions, these are the prevailing ‘known’ conditions as always in science. New conditions constantly emerge. If we consider as our end for ethics the supreme good, as when all human acts are ordered to God that good is what must ultimately bend conscience in its direction. It spells that while God would expect us to obey the State as the Apostle teaches, there may come a point when a well informed conscience, in support of Prof Wald’s earlier suggestion, compels us to act otherwise.

    • I wish to add that in this life the faithful in Christ are due to suffer, though ever radiant the Morning Star’s effulgence calms.

  2. I hope in a year or two we’ll be able to look back at this epidemic & understand what actually happened & how we might better handle things in the future.
    I don’t doubt for a minute that there’s been govt. overreach. Giving politicians additional powers during a crisis becomes a temptation for them to hold on to those longer than what’s appropriate. I agree we need to be very cautious about this.

    But some of this interview disturbs me. I realize there are demographic differences between Western Europe & the US & this article is European based, but Covid has not just killed the infirm elderly, though they do make up a significant percentage of deaths.
    The co-morbidities mentioned in this interview are found at younger ages in Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, & people of African descent. There are suggestions of genetic predispositions. Additionally African & Middle Eastern men have a much higher incidence of inherited G6PD deficiency which may have played a part in Covid deaths.
    Young people managing their diabetes or hypertension would normally have looked forward to many more years of life. In my state, folks have been dying in their 30’s.
    Two of my young daughter in law’s medical school classmates died of Covid recently after treating patients.
    I’m unsettled at how quickly we can devalue certain lives. I’m also concerned that our churches have been singled out & our freedom of worship is undermined.
    There’s got to be the hope that we’ll learn something from this & do better going forward.

  3. More than a month ago an Asian-Indian-American doctor wrote an op-ed piece for the WSJ explaining that dark-skinned persons are more prone to vitamin D deficiency (which can impair immune responses), and that he routinely takes a vitamin D supplement during flu season. Differences in genotypes are ethically neutral: no human being is responsible for them. Learning from experience and sharing best practices widely can help in the future those who are at a disadvantage.

    • Michael Miller,
      Yes, I think I’ve read that also about Vit.D.
      Thank you for your comments. I also hope we can share what we’ve learned from this virus outbreak. It’s definitely shown the strengths and weaknesses in our society.
      I heard an otherwise decent Catholic say that the virus is simply weeding out the unfit. “Unfit” often translates into those who don’t resemble us. It’s terribly sad when we see others as expendable.

  4. This is compelling reading for many reasons – the polarization of American society views information about COVID19 and the interpretation of that information as political; news channels and reporters are seen as being either Republican or Democrat. Professor Wald’s interview would generally be interpreted as a pro Trump stance rather than taken as a basis for open discussion of the measures taken to prevent spread, or the procedures necessary to treat the virus, or the societal fallout from a threatened economy. He does point out that
    ‘A functioning, efficacious healthcare system exists only as long as it can be financed …’
    It is customary to cut services to the most vulnerable (elderly) and to those considered not to have an immediate product (education) when the coffers are inadequate to the demand …
    The sweeping powers enabled by the lockdown have raised many questions with which we would rather not be troubled in these uncertain times. These questions will not disappear and some of today’s measures will create precedent for future political powers, enabling questionable restriction of lawful freedom of society. Today’s ills should be addressed today.
    While I do not have a PhD, I do have life experience enough to make me very uncomfortable with the lack of engagement on an intellectual level as opposed to the locked-in positions of the two parties.
    Given the State of the Union, I wonder whether the Churches will ever again acquiesce in a complete shutdown. At the time, and in the general panic, it looked expedient, prudent, moral. I do not seek to place blame; rather I ask for deep reflection, open discussion where the PhD’s and the Church leaders engage in a genuine exchange.

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