It is now common on the right to condemn those like the health official in this article saying that attending a protest is “really the worst thing they can do from the pandemic standpoint” while simultaneously saying that “protesting racism and injustice is important [my emphasis], and much of the risk of a protest can be reduced by staying 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from people and wearing a mask.”
As many have noted, we’ve spent the last two months telling people they have to put up with losing their jobs and even not going to funerals for family members; and the same public health officials who were very strict on these matters have taken a much more lax attitude towards the safety of protesting injustice. DeBlasio has openly threatened Jews for attending funerals, while giving protestors a pass, though to be fair, DeBlasio has been especially egregious. But here is Gov. Whitmer in an orchestrated protest photo-op at a protest, not socially distancing, when she was nearly as draconian in her enforcement of lockdowns.
I can’t think of any reasonable conception of justice or rights where this ranking makes sense. It seems to me like the right to be with a family member as they die is stronger than the right to protest. Indeed, this strikes me as blindingly obvious. And yet public health officials don’t seem to see things that way. I don’t know why, so I wrote up this blog post to try and see if I could come up with something that at least sort of makes sense.
To begin, the protests cannot be justified on the grounds that they’ll save enough lives from white supremacy to balance out the virus risk. It is not clear we will see big policy changes from these protests that will actually reduce deaths enough to compensate for the increased risk of virus exposure. Instead, the argument needs to point to some other good that the protests provide. So I’ll set this point aside.
Here’s the best I can do in terms of explaining the ranking. Most leading public health officials are secular egalitarians. They think there is no God or anything like God, that science tells us more or less how the world is, and that there is a prime, fundamental, transcendent moral value: human equality, and justice understood as preserving equality. Most other values are secondary to preserving egalitarian relations between persons. On this view, protesting racism and injustice is a way of realizing the value of equality, and so participates in the sublime, the highest good. The pursuit of the highest good can justify the imposition of health risks on others.
Operating your business isn’t sublime on this view. Indeed, Mill, Keynes, and Rawls all denigrated commercial activity as central to a worthwhile life, so viewing running a business as fundamental to a person’s conception of the good is in some respects uncommon on the left (though seeing being a laborer as fundamental is quite common). So keeping your small business going gets trumped by public health, but protesting inequality is holy and so trumps just about everything else, at least at some margin of health risk.
Somehow realizing equality must also be more important than being near loved ones when they die. Perhaps on the secular egalitarian worldview, maybe death is just the end of life and not something to treat as an especially sacred event? Maybe it is nice to be able to be with someone as they did, but perhaps not transcendent or sublime?
To me, this is a highly idiosyncratic and obviously mistaken ranking of values. I also don’t think it is the view held by the sincere secular egalitarians I know. But it seems to be the revealed preference ranking of many on the high-status left, including public health officials. I gather from friends that protest organizers on the ground are doing their best to implement public health guidelines, and I believe them. But the leaders seem to be failing us.
This is really the best I can do to make these seemingly inconsistent actions philosophically coherent. But you have to attribute really strange value rankings to public health officials and politicians who discouraged funeral attendance but who are actually attending the marches.
I have good friends who view the world through a darker lens. They’ll say that what egalitarian elites really value is looking good and virtuous in front of others, and protesting gives them an irresistible opportunity to do so. These aren’t people with weird value scales, they’re bad or morally mediocre people who care more about how others see them than any moral principle. I try to avoid seeing the world in this way, but my “weird value scale” explanation honestly feels like a stretch.
Perhaps you can do better.