The question of how we should respond to the current virus crisis, as in other matters, is too important to be left to experts.
We need expertise, of course, but what we crucially need from our decisionmakers is wisdom.
Expertise, by definition, is narrowness of knowledge. To become truly expert in anything one must focus on a narrow slice of human knowledge and experience.
Wise decisionmaking, on the other hand, requires breadth of knowledge and experience. Wisdom is understanding what is true and good, and the relative importance of often competing truths and goods, and then acting accordingly.
A wise leader is an embodiment of virtues rather than a master of specialized knowledge. The traditional seven cardinal virtues are a combination of the classical virtues — courage, prudence, justice and temperance — and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Each is needed in this time of threat.
Wisdom itself is one of the virtues — prudence — but each of the virtues requires the support of the other virtues. Courage without temperance, for instance, is simply foolhardiness. In a time of pandemic, a decisionmaker must exercise all the cardinal virtues in concert, not one or two.
Therefore a decisionmaker in time of crisis — a president, governor, business manager, individual — cannot afford to turn decisions over to experts or to listen to only one set of experts. Epidemiologists, for instance, are professionally required to answer the question of how to stop the virus in absolutist terms — as if the only issue to be considered is maximally minimized deaths, with worst-case scenarios taking priority.
Even the more-flexible-than-most Dr. Anthony Fauci, to whom the nation owes a great debt, urges us to stop shaking hands — forever. Never mind that it follows from that bit of expertise that we must never again touch any surface in public — from subway straps to table tops to handrails. Never.
Compare the weather forecaster. Over-predict the amount of snow that will fall and you will hear grumbles. Under-predict and you will get anger and accusations. Lesson? Aim high.
Same with virus. Those who speak most grimly — whether expert, commentator, or political leader — have gotten the most attention and, initially, the most credibility. If you overstate and things turn out better, you can simply claim your strict measures caused the better outcome. If you understate, kiss your career goodbye.
The epidemiologist says never again shake hands. Wise deciders have to ignore such advice, because they must ponder broader considerations — including human nature. How long and to what degree will human beings live under certain decrees without rebelling and thereby rendering those decrees ineffectual? Absolutists say it doesn’t matter — force them to obey. The wise say that human nature is as pertinent a variable in decisionmaking as infection data.
A decision that is technically correct but not workable in the real world of human behavior is not a wise decision.
I crossed paths with just such an absolutist a few days ago. My wife and I had arranged to walk with another couple. My wife and the other couple were standing across the street; I was about to join them. The couple stood next to each other, as most do who share the same house. My wife stood apart from them, but apparently not far enough apart to suit a woman driving by.
Wearing both a mask and gloves while driving alone, she spotted the trio, slowed, blasted her horn and gave the most aggressive finger gesture I’ve seen since high school, then sped away.
Hostility as the cure for COVID-19, who would have guessed?
This woman undoubtedly would say, “Listen to the experts!” But of course that begs the questions everyone is now asking: which experts and at which times and to the exclusion of what other experts in different fields?
Moralistic outrage is not useful. The “you’re willing to kill people and I’m not” declaration is its own kind of virus, as is the equally moralistic pushback “you’re willing to destroy lives economically and end freedom.”
Experts are best at description — this is what is happening and, physically speaking, why. They haven’t been so good at prediction, not just revising past predictions but junking them for radically new ones. And proscription — the banning of normal activities and aggressive rule making — should not be left solely to experts at all. Their expertise is simply too narrow to qualify them as broad social policymakers.
Which means, like it or not, that public policy has to be made by nonexperts.
No decisionmaker is an expert in what to do in our current situation, because every crisis like this is unique. This is not the same as the aftermath of Pearl Harbor or Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. So we have to settle for wisdom instead of expertise. In other words, the virtues. And of course, all wisdom is contestable.
I am not arguing for any particular strategy of response to COVID-19. Nor am I attacking experts, who we need more than ever. I am arguing for thinking holistically — considering much competing information and multiple competing goods. The experts will speak, our leaders will make rules and guidelines, but ultimately each of us will decide. May all of us seek wisdom.
Daniel Taylor is a writer in Arden Hills (wordtaylor.com).