HOW much should I be prepared to pay not to die? The question is easy to ask, but hard to answer.
It is hard to answer partly because it is the most momentous of questions. But also because there are lots of variables.
For instance, are we talking about evading a death sentence that might be commuted in exchange for payment?
Or are we talking about mortality in general, in which case the question might better be put as: ‘How much are you prepared to pay to have the chance of some kind of resurrected existence, such as that promised by cryonics?’
Again, are we talking about surviving one kind of potentially fatal disease in order to face the possibility of contracting another in the future?
Or are we talking about surviving an accident where the outcome is straightforwardly binary?
Then there is the question of age. If I was a wealthy 99-year-old great-grandparent, might I not prefer to leave something to my family rather than blow my fortune on another year or two of presumably quite constrained existence?
And again, how much of a Mephistophelian bargain is this to be? Must I pay in blood as well as treasure? Must there be a sacrifice and, if so, whose? Can I send a slave to pay the price on my behalf?
What about the moral cost? That is, how should one answer if it turned out that the Emperor would relent if one were to be stripped of all dignity and compelled to copulate publicly with a wild animal before being thrown into a rat-infested jail? How far should, or would, one go?
The current Covid-19 pandemic raises very similar questions, albeit that they are couched in far more general – and more genteel – terms.
They are more general because they are being asked of me neither personally, nor in such a way that my answer would make all the difference. The question is more like: ‘How much should society be prepared to pay for its citizens not to die from Covid 19?’
Should it be prepared to pay everything it has, or just some of it? Is it willing to spend its children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance and, if so, how much? Is there a sacrifice to be paid and, if so, who must pay it?
The answer we in the (still at least nominally) United Kingdom have given is that we are prepared to pay a great deal, with one proviso. The cost should be borne principally by others and should affect us individually as little as possible.
If this means spending the kids’ inheritance, or paying a moral price, or even sending in a scapegoat, so be it.
The moral price we have thus far consented to pay is principally at cost to our dignity and self-respect. By consenting to wear face masks, for example, we disguise our humanity. We hide from others the imago dei, the likeness to God in which, many think, we are made.
This is not to say that, unmasked, we look like God, rather that in covering our faces, we signal our moral and spiritual distance from the one in whose image we are made. This is an unfashionable concept but one which, if correct, points to the enormity of what we are doing.
In other respects too, we have shown ourselves willing to pay a considerable moral price: We have shown we are not only lacking in courage – whatever happened to ‘keep calm and carry on’? – but are also intemperate in our allocation of resources to one thing at the expense of many others (think cancer screenings and treatments missed).
Rather than take a step back to analyse the situation dispassionately, we have reacted violently to it and, in so doing, have shown ourselves to be imprudent in the extreme.
As to the matter of a scapegoat, it is worth reminding ourselves what a scapegoat is: Not just a person who is made to take the blame, but a third party who pays a price on behalf of another or others.
In some cultures, where an individual falls ill, an innocent bystander can be contracted or compelled to ‘take on’ the malady by means of magical transference.
In the present case, the scapegoat is a collective one, rather than an individual. It is the poor – not just of this country, but of other countries – and the children of the poor who are to be sacrificed.
This sacrifice is not literal, of course, but will be exacted through loss of livelihood and loss of security.
We could call it 21st century colonialism, the genius of which is that it exploits the poor not only of other countries (principally through loss of trade and tourism), but also of the indigenous population.
How so? By transferring resources to the rich. This is happening already through the negative impact our reaction to the pandemic is having on the education of children in low-income families – families who haven’t the intellectual, financial or social resources to make up for the disruption to schooling.
The one big difference between ‘How much should I be prepared to pay not to die?’ and ‘How much should society be prepared to pay?’ is that in the second question, the financial cost of my answer will be borne mainly by others (give or take a penny or two on my income tax).
Yet this apparent shift of the burden on to others is a red herring. It is not even that. It is a piece of deceit.
In the case of the pandemic, we will all pay (no matter how well we shield our wealth in property and other investments), by being members of a morally feeble society where the poor are made poorer; where the educational and health and economic prospects of the majority is massively reduced; where individuals have been rendered suspicious of one another because their faces are concealed; where bitterness at having allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by a power-crazed bureaucracy (albeit encouraged by most of us) fuels first the anger, then the despair, then the violence that seems all too likely to ensue.
The question of how much society should be prepared to pay for its members not to die today but tomorrow (or, if not tomorrow, not far in the future) turns out not to be different from the question: ‘How much am I prepared to pay not to die?’ We are fooling ourselves if we think it is.