On disease and "rights"

Some questions also in this piece - I don't have all the answers, maybe you do.

One of the new talking points of our poor-thinking leadership class I’ve seen proliferating these last few days is that of course the state should have the power to force you to be vaccinated (or bar you from basically every human activity if you won’t), or force you to wear a mask, because “you don’t have a right to infect other people”. Let me give you just a few recent examples of comments like this:

Now there is much that could be said here, but most importantly, this is a totalizing health religion. There is no limiting principle to arguments like this, the people making them do not indicate there should be any limiting principle. Since “getting someone else sick” is a possible result of literally any human interaction, arguments that you don’t have a “right” to take that chance are arguments that could be used to destroy literally every human right and all human interaction.

Oh for those heady times of “15 days to flatten the curve so we don’t overwhelm hospitals”, now we’re down to “of course the state should have to power to control your life if what you’re doing might get someone sick”… which is literally everything you do. Go read Agamben’s piece (the link above), this is a god that will never be satisfied.

If until now this cultic practice was, like every other liturgy, episodic and limited in time, the unexpected phenomenon which we are at present witnessing is that it has become permanent and ubiquitous. The cultic practice no longer concerns taking medications, being visited by a doctor, or undergoing surgery. Rather, the entire life of human beings must become, at every instant, the site of an uninterrupted cultic celebration. The enemy (the virus) is omnipresent and must be fought constantly and ceaselessly.

So there is every reason for the Church to speak out against this mindset - and here, I might appreciate help from some of you who know the theology better than me. But it seems to me that various Christian thinkers have long made a sort of prioritization of the natural world, which God of course controls, over human choices that might be made to change those natural outcomes. That’s vague, but it means that suicide, for example, the human choice to end your life, is always wrong. In fact most Christian thinkers would say that even if you have a terminal disease that is apt to end your life in a month, suicide right now is wrong. However, it does not follow that you are obliged to do everything you possibly can to extend your life. If you have $200,000 in your bank account and you could pay $100,000 for a treatment that would probably extend your life by one month, Christianity places no moral requirement upon you to pay that $100,000. It is morally fine to allow your life to come to its natural end.

Now there are elements of degree here (the Bible does at times indicate you must take actions to protect other people), but it seems to me that this is a sort of moral reasoning that might be helpful in the present moment. Yes, if I actually went out there with the intention of infecting you with a disease, that would usually be immoral (though even here we might except things like the “chickenpox parties” some of your grandparents apparently had). But it does not follow that I am required to do everything I possibly can to prevent you from getting sick. If that was a requirement, presumably I should teach online and get groceries via Instacart and never see any of you again in person for the rest of my life, because there is always a chance! No, to place the health concern predominant like that really is a different conception of what human life should be about - it’s a different religion.

We need to get back to a recognition that disease is just a part of life. Thankfully almost always outcomes are not serious, and with COVID there are ways for those who wish enhanced protection for themselves to get it. Someone somewhere getting sick does not automatically represent a failure for which we need to go looking for someone to blame.

I do especially welcome your thoughts and comments on this piece.