Liberty and Uncertainty

Recently, on social media, I posted a link to a news article which discussed the decision by Grace Community Church to refuse to obey California's ban on indoor worship services.

Almost any time I post about the issue of doing church in a time of Covid, the ensuing discussion becomes a veritable petri dish of psychology.

On one side are those who take the position, best articulated by Admiral Farragut with his memorable command, "damn the torpedos, full speed ahead." On the other side are those who believe that gathering together reflects reckless indifference to the lives and well-being of others.

Here is a pretty good example of the latter. In response to my posting the above link, one person in a closed forum on Facebook responded:

I guess MacArthur would have left the lights on during WWII blackouts because Japanese were flying over It is hard to defend this to my non-Christian friends. Is this the right sword to fall on?

This is an example, IMO, of turning your preference into a virtue. He's arguing that by exercising their freedom to gather together, the Grace Community Church is being either foolish, or intentionally harmful to their neighbors. Of course, one of multiple problems with this argument is that church attendance is not compulsory.

No one is forced to come.

But the other problem is that everyone on all sides is operating with a gigantic gob of uncertainty. That uncertainty is related to the elevated risk imposed by Covid. It is a fact that no one knows precisely what that elevated risk actually is. The best estimates right now are that, compared to the flu, it carries an incremental increase in mortality of .3 - .4%.  If .1 - .2% of people who catch the flu die, then .4 - .6% of people who catch Covid die.

Let us all agree that this number is not zero. But we should also agree that the risk of dying from Covid is small.

We all, whether we're conscious of it or not, accept that we must live our lives with some level of risk. Even my interlocutor, who thinks that meeting during Covid is immoral and foolish, drives his car to go from here to there. Every time he does so he is elevating the risks to himself and everyone around him. The risk level is never zero. But it can be acceptable. Though what constitutes acceptable risk varies between individuals. The extreme ends of the risk acceptance continuum can be pathological. Utter indifference to personal risk is suicidal, and extreme avoidance of risk can result in isolation and ruin (e.g. Agoraphobia). As in most things, a balance is required.

Part of the problem with public policy in the age of Covid is that almost everywhere the political class has shown a bias against liberty. Almost everywhere (South Dakota is a notable exception) politicians and bureaucrats have sought to impose a top-down comprehensive policy rather than taking an approach that presupposes people, when given information, will act on it in their own best interests.  Rather than telling churches they can't meet, an alternative would be to let people know the facts and risks and then stand back and let them decide for themselves what level of elevated risk they're willing to accept.

My friend, who worries about MacArthur and Japanese bombs, has framed his argument in a way that turns his own response to the current risk level into a moral imperative that should be imposed on everyone else. In a time of uncertainty, things would be a lot less complicated if people on all sides of this discussion would assume that grown adults, with information in hand, can and should make their own decisions about the level of risk they're willing to accept, and what precautions those risks require.

A bias toward liberty can diffuse the complexity of uncertainty rather the concentrating it by expecting some exceptionally enlightened decisions from the most unlikely source imaginable: politicians and bureaucrats.

The abiding presence of uncertainty, however, also suggests that we would be wise to offer a lot more grace in those moments when we encounter someone whose comfort level is different than our own.

Written by

Keith Lowery

Follower of Christ. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Maker. Consumer of Data. Reader of Books. Writer of Code.