JAMES G. HANINK. Formerly Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles), he is an Independent Scholar. He is president of the American Maritain Association. Long associated with the New Oxford Review, he is also active in the American Solidarity Party.


Pandemia and the Common Good: State, Science, and Conscience. 

The COVID19 pandemic is lethally invasive. We weep for its victims, but that’s not enough. We need to counter it. Allow me, if you will, to offer four principles for doing so, together with some of their implications. After that, comes a test of conscience. Nowhere, do I offer proofs; I do encourage keeping faith across the generations.

First, in responding to the pandemic, our touchstone is the common good. We should always protect and advance the common good, and by this I mean our integral flourishing. This shared flourishing ranges across the continuum of our communities. It comes to life in our families. Our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our schools nurture it. We honor it in our houses of worship.

Second, science, the primary resource for public health initiatives, is an indispensable ally in countering the pandemic. Nonetheless, science is limited. Why so? Because science itself neither identifies nor understands the common good. Science is descriptive and predictive rather than normative. Moreover the prejudice that science is the only source of knowledge, that is, scientism, is itself not scientific. We need to distinguish, as well, between science and scientists. Like all us, scientists can misuse their skills. When they do so, we should sharply challenge them.

Third, the state is also an essential ally in countering the pandemic. It rightly functions as the topmost agency of the people. But the state itself does not determine the common good. Indeed, its authority depends on its service to the common good. We need to distinguish, as well, between the authority of the state and the behavior of government officials. Like all of us, they sometimes abuse their positions. When they do, and thereby forfeit their authority, we should sharply challenge them.

Fourth, the intelligible and normative structure of the common good points beyond itself for its transcendent source. We find, as well, that nature gives evidence of a metaphysical order, and history reveals that our knowledge of it is progressive. Again and again, our saints and heroes speak of the human person’s capacity for transcendence. Their witness involves the wrestling with conscience. Perhaps, too, it invites the wrestling with angels.

Now comes our own test of conscience. Where are we to wrestle with our own consciences? At a generallevel, we can ask ourselves—we who might ourselves scientists and officials—whether we do not often confuse the common good with the utilitarian good. The common good excludes no one, not ever. The utilitarian good, in contrast, is maximizing and consequentialist. Its efficiency can demand that we exclude some in order to pursue a quantitative “greater good.”

But we if we are to give content to the general, we need to engage theparticular. Here I can only draw attention to a single particular. Nowhere has the pandemic been more lethal than in our nursing homes. The sick and the elderly who live in them are often isolated and at grave risk. Indeed, they have long been at risk for serious infection, and we have long known this to be so. We have long known of their isolation. We should ask ourselves, then, why so many of them are in nursing homes and why, especially now, when they are so vulnerable.

Sometimes we hear, or ourselves give, the cost/benefit answer of a bystander. Efficiency, it is said, requires that we maintain nursing homes; efficiency populates our “care facilities.” But the calculus of such efficiency is short term and suspect. In any case, we are not bystanders. We are the sons and daughters of the people in nursing homes, and we are the sisters and brothers of the people in care facilities.

How then are we to answer our question? No doubt sometimes we can say, and truly, that we are unable to care for our sick and elderly in our homes. Yet sometimes we must admit that, yes, we could care for them. But doing so would make us uncomfortable. It would be too taxing, too messy. So then we say that we are sorry, so very sorry. And we are.

But this answer, however sincere, is deficient in justice. To be more specific, it denies the connaturality of the family; it ignores the virtue of filial piety. And when we deny one virtue, we easily move to the denial of others. We lose sight of the piety of place and the fatherhood of God. We see enough of these denials.

Still, the landscape need not be so bleak. If one vice unravels virtue, the recovery of one virtue can revive others. Suppose we kept faith with our family members and that we pledged filial piety. Our elderly and infirm would be safer; we would be more faithful. Justice could grow stronger.

We might even see that in wrestling with our consciences we can learn from angels!