A hard-worn habit of modernity is reducing questions of ethics to science and to the utilitarian logic of risk management. This habit has shone conspicuously in pandemic polemics, where data is plunked down as a trump card—by voices on all sides. That, of course, is the problem. Successes of science and abacuses of utility cannot tell us what we ought to do.
Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, pressed this insight when he articulated his decision for the school to resume in-person classes this fall, doing so in an op-ed piece in The New York Times on May 26. Appealing to a tradition that spans from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to contemporary pastor Rick Warren, he argued that moral decisions must be driven first and foremost by our purposes: “For questions about moral value—how we ought to decide and act—science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.”
Successes of science and abacuses of utility cannot tell us what we ought to do.
What are Notre Dame’s ends, according to Father Jenkins? First, protecting the health of everyone in the community; second, educating the whole person—body, mind and spirit—for which being in person is critical; and third, pursuing knowledge through research and the arts. To pursue these ends despite dangers, but not rashly or recklessly, defines courage. Science helps us determine the risks of different courses of action but is a handmaiden to our ends, not the reverse.
In deciding to have Notre Dame teach in person, Father Jenkins took the lead among U.S. universities. He mobilized the university against Covid-19. The semester has been revamped, and—among many other measures—50,000 safety signs and 14,000 surface-cleaning bottles have been deployed around campus. Ballrooms and auditoriums have been refitted as classrooms allowing for social distancing. In close consultation with Johns Hopkins University and the Cleveland Clinic, the university developed plans to test and protect students, faculty and staff, granting many the opportunity to teach, learn or work from home.
The first week of classes went fine. Then, following the first weekend, daily positive tests jumped from 16 to 102 and continued at 86 and 83 over the next two days. Along with the spike in nausea and fever came an upsurge of bile directed at the university by a coalition of faculty, staff, students and alumni who claimed that the administration had been naïve and irresponsible and who urged a retreat to online teaching for the remainder of the semester. The student newspaper featured an above-the-fold, front-page editorial headlined “Don’t make us write obituaries.” All cited relentless data.
Science helps us determine the risks of different courses of action but is a handmaiden to our ends, not the reverse.
On Aug. 18, Father Jenkins announced that instruction would go online for undergraduates for two weeks as the university monitored developments, and that a worsening of the situation would result in sending students home. Testing would increase and accommodations would be improved.
Should Notre Dame shut one down for the Gipper? No. The data do not deliver that case and still less do the university’s ends.
Advocates of going online point to the spike and high rates of positive testing. But for the past six days, as of this writing, the curve has flattened considerably to an average of 26 cases per day and a low 6.3 percent rate of positive testing.
Numbers and data fail to secure the case for urgent departure from the classroom.
Contact tracing connected the spike to two off-campus gatherings. No question, if students continue to party in packs, efforts to contain the virus will fail. Yet the same pattern evinces the success of Notre Dame’s mobilization efforts. The positive cases by and large did not originate in classrooms, faculty offices, dining halls, dormitories, gyms or locker rooms. Of the 496 positive cases as of Aug. 26, only five are employees, 24 are graduate students, and the rest are undergraduates. Of course, we must continue to protect everyone whose age or condition places them at increased risk.
Proponents of retreating from in-person teaching likewise claim that the students are living in fear and cite a petition, now numbering about 1,000 signers, calling for students to be allowed to leave campus and study online for the rest of the semester. The petition, however, includes not only students, faculty and staff, but also alumni and even members of other universities, a pool whose size dwarfs the number of signers. Meanwhile, a rival petition that expresses gratitude and support for the university’s efforts now numbers about 3,100 signers, about 1,800 of whom are students.
In other respects, too, numbers and data fail to secure the case for urgent departure from the classroom. The critics claim to protect the vulnerable but ignore the economic costs of shutdown, denominated in furloughs and layoffs for workers. For many smaller colleges and schools that followed Notre Dame’s lead, foregone revenues will mean insolvency.
The cold inevitability of data is belied by a possibility for choice that has not yet vanished. Whether students choose to contain Covid-19 will depend on how strongly they are committed to the purposes that Father Jenkins identified: learning, the development of knowledge, growing in character, friendship and protecting the vulnerable. Last week’s setback does not force surrender but rather affords an opportunity to ask how much we love these ends. Let us not give up on them.
Editor’s note: For a student’s account of in-person classes this fall at Notre Dame, see “My first week at Notre Dame—where Covid-19 cases are rising,” by Flora x. Tang, published on Aug. 18.