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The current pandemic makes us feel helpless. We can respond to its predation pragmatically but its silent march through the population promotes dread. Our helplessness undermines our belief in our culture as the source of our self-esteem and felt significance. One response to our experience of helplessness is the omnipotent stance, the idea that we can master the virus, stop it in its tracks, command one another to comply with injunctions and wreak a path of destruction by devastating the economy. Omnipotence promotes magical thinking. In the service of defeating death, we ignore actual suffering; deaths of despair and deaths in nursing homes. There is an antidote to omnipotence: Look at our situation objectively, acknowledge its gravity, use our moral compass to assess impossible choices, and the tradeoffs they impose, and draw on our pragmatism and inventiveness to relax the tradeoffs.

A model that Wharton school researchers developed provides a framework for looking at our situation objectively. It posits a tradeoff between deaths and livelihoods should we fully reopen the economy. Three estimates of the value of lives- the value of a “statistical life,” the value of a statistical life-year and the value of a life based on highway fatalities,--together suggest to this author that we should fully reopen, with the precondition that we take six steps to protect seniors and hospital surge capacity. To arrive at such a choice we must navigate the moral terrain of sacrificing lives so that others may flourish. This entails examining our thoughts and feelings in response to the moral dilemmas we encounter.

The paper is divided into five sections. The first introduces the paper. The second explores the theme of omnipotence. The third examines the role of culture in our battle against the death. The fourth takes us "beyond omnipotence." It does this by calculating life and death so that we can ground our moral reasoning and feeling in an objective understanding of our situation. The fifth section is an appendix that provides additional information.