This is a guest post by Matthew J. Gaudet, Ph.D. Lecturer of Ethics, School of Engineering, Santa Clara University.

This past week Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia all joined the ranks of states who have ordered citizens to stay home and nonessential businesses to shutter for a designated period of time in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This now makes 34 of the 50 States (plus the District of Columbia) who have issued these “stay at home” or, more commonly, “shelter in place” orders.  Six other states have ordered nonessential businesses closed while encouraging most citizens to “social distance” and at risk populations to stay at home but not imposing the general stay at home orders.  The remaining ten states have issued only recommendations to “social distance” or nothing at all.  Even as more states and local jurisdictions move toward the more restrictive shelter-in-place orders, a growing call to end these restrictions has also emerged, citing the damage to the economy caused by these restrictions.  Responses to this view have been swift and categorical: reopening now is short sighted and callous, putting the stock market over human lives.

In short, the response to the virus has become yet another political binary dividing our nation largely along the lines of what news bubble we live in.  But this is not a decision that should be left to our political leanings alone.  What we have here is a genuine moral dilemma.  How can we as a society possibly choose between preventing the harms caused by the virus or the harms caused by the shutdown? Fortunately, Catholic social ethics already has a moral methodology which targets just such a dilemma. The just war theory (JWT) aims at determining whether a maleficent action (most typically war but also any use of coercive force) is a choice that is morally demanded, despite the violence it will inherently do. In a moment, I will examine the theory in detail with respect to a policy of shelter-in-place, but first, it is important to spell out just what is at stake on both sides of this dilemma.   

On the one hand, let us be clear: the shelter-in-place restrictions are doing fantastic harm—even violence—to our own society, and especially its most vulnerable members.  A stance that dismisses this harm by pitting the “stock market” against “real lives” is cheap ethics and can only stand by ignoring its own inherent position of privilege.  For those of us able to work from home, shelter-in-place is a mere inconvenience and one we are mostly glad to take if it means saving lives. But for those working in retail or hospitality or education or any other job that can’t be migrated to a home office, or for the small business owners who must carry overhead even when no revenue is coming in, a protracted shutdown will mean real and significant hardships. 

Shelter-in-place has done great harm to the economy. This includes the stock market collapse and its consequences for the billionaire’s investment portfolio but it also spells disaster for the average Joe or Jane’s retirement and college savings accounts. The economic consequences also hit main street in the rapidly increasing unemployment rolls. Previous highs in unemployment rolls were under 700,000 but Thursday’s unemployment report shattered that record, with over 3 million workers are now on unemployment, most in the past two weeks.  As small businesses start to go under, this will only get worse.     

Shelter-in-place has done great harm to our already taxed education system.  In some cases, already resource constrained and overburdened teachers are now being asked to somehow migrate their classes online, with little or no training, and less than adequate resources.  In other districts, education is put completely on hold, leaving students missing as much as one third of their academic program for the year.  And of course, all of this places greater burdens on parents to be professional educators, on top of either moving their own professional labor online, or worse, fretting over financial collapse due to unemployment.

Shelter-in-place has also done great harm to our social and psychological bonds. Bars, restaurants, libraries, and coffee shops are all empty.  Sports seasons, from professional to youth, have been cancelled.  Shows and concert venues are shuttered.  Weekly and daily mass has migrated online. But even beyond these formal structures of social interaction, our informal and unplanned interactions— chats at school drop-off, happenstance meetings at the grocery store, casual conversations across the backyard fence, coffee and donuts after mass–have all grinded to a screeching halt. When we do venture out for groceries, we hardly even say hello anymore, as we focus instead on maintaining our 6 foot COVID boundary. And, above all of this, the restrictions have fundamentally curtailed our personal freedom, and subjects us to the coercive power of the state.

Indeed these restrictions do great harm.  Which is why many can sympathize with the desire to get our nation back to normalcy. The problem, of course, is that these restrictions are also doing significant good, saving as many as hundreds of thousands of lives by keeping infection rates low enough that our medical systems can respond to every virus patient. The evidence is clear that strict restrictions put in place early have led to a slowing in the exponential rise of new cases, while nations and states that settled instead for half measures or dawdled in establishing restrictions suffered exponentially more cases as a result. 

So how does the JWT help us to navigate this moral dilemma? The method is simple: if the current situation meets seven criteria, then the maleficent action—normally war, but in this case economic shutdown—is justified, despite being regrettable, even tragic, and otherwise morally illicit. 

First, the JWT requires that there be a just cause, a moral reality in which an otherwise illicit action becomes necessary. Responding to genocide is one example of a just cause for going to war.  COVID-19 is the most infectious and most deadly pandemic in at least a century.  As I write this we are nearing a half million cases in the world, with over 20,000 deaths.  In this country alone, we are over 50,000 cases with nearly 1000 deaths.  And all indications are that as a country and a world, we are not even close to the peak yet. Estimates place the eventual death toll in the United States alone at somewhere between 200,000 and 1.7 million people.  The low end of that range in on the order of all casualties on both sides of the Iraq War.  The upper end is closing in on casualty estimates of the Vietnam War. Shelter-in-place is a restriction of basic freedom and a constraint on economic and social livelihood that we would ordinarily never tolerate.  However, keeping the infection rate within the capacity of our medical system, in order to save as many lives as possible, is a just cause for taking such extreme actions. 

Second, even if we have a just cause, resorting to extreme actions must be a last resort. In this case, the evidence from the worst outbreaks of this virus (i.e. Wuhan, China; Northern Italy; Madrid; Spain and New York, USA) clearly indicate that lesser measures such as mere “social distancing” are ineffective.  The only option is the shuttering of non-essential businesses and events. Third, we also must have a reasonable hope that the extreme measures will succeed.  Fortunately, cities and countries that have taken these measures (e.g. Singapore, South Korea, Ohio, and the San Francisco Bay Area) have found great success in lowering the curve.

Fourth, the JWT requires that extreme actions only be taken by legitimate authorities. For war in the modern era, that means the heads of nation-states. (We don’t want the city of Schenectady, NY declaring war on Canada!) For sheltering in place, however, legitimate authority is unclear.  I would suggest that we must utilize the Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity, which states that decisions such as these ought to be made at the lowest level possible to effect the change it seeks to accomplish. Many individuals in areas where the government has not declared shelter-in-place orders have imposed these restrictions on themselves and their loved ones. This is a virtuous approach on the part of these individuals, but this kind of voluntary sheltering will not significantly reduce cases of the virus. Even individual cities are porous enough to not be an effective level of sheltering if neighboring cities are not following suit.  On the other hand, given the size and scope of the United States (not to mention the state of its national politics), it is not clear that a nationwide shelter-in-place order (or, for that matter, a federally imposed end to shelter-in-place) would be the right choice either. More recently, President Trump has suggested the more nuanced approach of instituting a national classification system for county by county restrictions based on the local state of the virus.  As the virus ebbs and flows in different regions, it does seem wise to vary restrictions by threat level.  Subsidiarity, however, would demand that this not be nationally controlled. Rather state and regional leaders ought to make the right call for the state of their populations. Of course, effective management of the virus will require different governmental organizations to be aligned on their responses, especially in the Northeast—where states are small, and metro areas overlap each other as well as state boundaries. This kind of collective action by entire regions has proven quite possible and effective without federal oversight (e.g. the collectively announced shutdown in six counties around the San Francisco Bay on March 16th has turned the early hot zone in Silicon Valley into a relative afterthought in the American response to this crisis).

Fifth, the JWT requires that the extreme action be proportional to the threat that aims to stem and seek to do more good than the harm it will cause. In the case of war, these principles are related but distinct.  We ought not destroy an entire city in response to an enemy air force shooting down one of our drones.  Even if removing a dictator is a just action, if this leaves a power vacuum that results in worse conditions for the people, it is not justified.  In the case of sheltering in place, however, they both effectively compare the harms of shuttering the economy (listed above) to the harms the virus will do if we do not shelter-in-place.  Those who argue “I don’t want the cure to be more harmful than the disease,” are appealing to this very reasoning.  The problem—and this is really the crux of the issue here—is that this view measures “harm” in material terms rather than in human lives and livelihood.  Within the Catholic tradition, every life is precious and invaluable and thus, we cannot compare material losses themselves to the loss of life.  In short, we ought not rush out of shelter-in-place because our planes are grounded and our hotels are empty.  We should not rush out of shelter-in-place even because our retirement funds have cratered. However, as mass unemployment and economic depression rise, we must also be worried about increasing poverty, not to mention depression and suicide (especially with gun sales spiking in recent weeks.) We are not there yet, but when material losses also come to threaten lives then it is not callous to suggest that serious analysis must be aimed at predicting what actions will have the least harmful effects, especially to the most vulnerable members of our society.

Finally, the JWT requires that in our intention in taking extreme actions be solely only at resolving the threat to the community itself.  In war, this is important because it forbids us from seeking unjust ends in a war that otherwise has a just cause.  That seems less pertinent in this case, but in the JWT, right intention is the criterion for going to war that helps to shape when it is that we should end a war.  In short, war should always be oriented toward the restoration of a just peace, no more, no less.  The equivalent for shelter-in-place is that we should not exit this state of affairs until the virus spread is on the decline.  By no means have we achieved such a goal. Nor have the any of the conditions listed above changed in any significant way to question whether the analysis that lead us to take the extreme action of sheltering-in-place needs updating. 

There can be no doubt that the policy of shelter-in-place is harmful. Its disruptions affect nearly every aspect of our everyday lives. It has sent the economy into a tailspin that will take time to recover from.  It has meant the likely loss of 1/3 to 1/4 of the average school year curriculum.  And worst of all it has distanced us from each other just when we could really use a little solidarity to help us weather this storm. In any other scenario, the policy of shelter-in-place would be the last thing governmental leaders should be advocating for.  But this pandemic is a novel threat and shelter-in-place seems to be the only thing short of a vaccine that has any serious reductions to the spread of this threat.  Thus, perhaps we have to do something harmful, even something that would in all other cases be morally illicit, in order to try to get this threat under control.  The just war theory gives us a method to reason through tough cases like these.  It can be helpful here too.