Monday, May 25, 2020
The beginnings of Memorial Day are a bit confused. Apparently, the May holiday began as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, three years after the conclusion of the Civil War as a time to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.” Cities in both the north and the south, however, claim to have begun celebrating Memorial Day in 1866. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1966, declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday and its celebration was also moved from May 30 to the last Monday of May.
Although we decorate the graves of our deceased loved ones on Memorial Day, it is significant that this holiday was created to remember those who gave their lives protecting our nation and our freedoms. To my knowledge, I have only one relative who died during any of America’s major conflicts, but strangely he was not killed in action. My father served in World War II, arriving in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge. He, of course, survived the war unharmed, stayed for part of the occupation, then returned home to graduate from college on the GI Bill, marry, and start a family. He is now 95 years old, definitely a member of the Greatest Generation. Yesterday we visited him and took him to the North Ogden Cemetery, where we placed flowers on my mother’s grave and the graves of a few of her ancestors. It was her family that settled the rocky bench in North Ogden in the nineteenth century, the place where I grew up.
Today, my sister, who has recently retired and moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Hurricane, Utah, visited the graves of our father’s parents and a few of his siblings who are buried in southern Utah in Washington, St. George, and Enterprise. She left flowers in Enterprise on the grave of an uncle neither of us ever knew, our dad’s older brother, Amos.
In December 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Amos told his parents that he had enlisted in the military. “I joined the army to help my Country in a time of need,” he wrote to them in a letter. One thing he had said to them some time earlier troubled them greatly, however. “I feel like I will meet my death by murder.” After completing his basic training, Amos was apparently stationed near Blythe, California, in 1943. Blythe is due north of Yuma, Arizona, and east of Palm Springs. It has a hot desert climate with scorching summers and mild winters. Amos wrote to his parents regularly from Blythe, while they were serving a temple mission in the St. George Temple, until, at some unspecified time, the letters suddenly stopped. This worried his parents. In the meantime, my dad was also inducted into the army, having turned 18 in April 1943.
In summer 1943, Frank and Eunetta Terry received a letter dated July 12, 1943, from LeRoy Radford, commanding officer of Battery A in the 195th Field Artillery Battalion, informing them that their son, Private Amos F. Terry, 19011982, was “absent from his organization without proper authority.” In other words, he was AWOL. Radford assumed he had deserted while the company was on maneuvers in the desert. My grandfather wrote Lt. Radford, letting him know that Amos would have never deserted, so he must be the victim of foul play. In August, Radford responded that “your son is missing and not dead. That he has merely become divorced from the Military Service by his own action.”
My grandparents were convinced this was not the case, and, although they were very poor, they traveled to California to search the area where Amos had gone missing. They didn’t find anything. But on February 26, 1944, a young man named David Mott, who was hunting rabbits about four miles north and a little west of Blythe, found the skeleton of a soldier. The remains were identified by the tags that were still in his clothing as Pvt. Amos F. Terry. He had died from a gunshot wound that entered his skull a little above and behind the right ear and exited near his left eye. According to the coroner, his head had been beaten after he had been shot.
After much trouble, the remains were shipped by rail to Modena in Southern Utah, where they were met by my dad, who had been sent home from Ft. Riley, Kansas, to accompany his brother’s body to Enterprise, where he was buried. My dad then returned to Ft. Riley before being shipped overseas.
Some time after the funeral, my grandparents traveled to California again because the army was trying to deny them Amos’s back pay. While there, they tried to learn more about how Amos had died. They spoke with the district attorney, who told them, according to my grandfather’s account, “Mr and Mrs Terry We know enough about murder to know that your son was not killed on the spot where his remains were found and we know enough about murder to know that he was not shot from close up.” My grandfather also recorded this: “On this trip to California we had stopped for lunch at a Café[.] A Young man eating by my side upon learning the nature of my trip informed me that the day before seven soldiers (7) were brought in there that had been found in the desert all had been shot in the head I also was told of Eleven (11) others who were found on a knol almost Covered in sand all shot in the head[.] No doubt some of those branded with desertion to swell the ranks of the California armys AWOL list (Be it here known that I can only state these matters as they were told me) True or untrue I know not. but the weight of evidence and suspicion seems heavily to prove that some one was sabatogeing on our boys in the army and in the seldom traversed desert region.” Grandpa recalled hearing on the radio some time before Amos’s disappearance that more soldiers deserted in California than in the rest of the army combined. He now wondered how many of them had merely disappeared in the desert with a bullet hole in their skulls.
Grandpa’s personal history also recounts the following: “We did much correspondance with various branches of the military also with our sons Buddies in the army And this we learned from the boys who were his close chums That Amos Franks superior officers had for months heaped upon him many unreasonably difficult tasks after long days of endurance tests in the deserts and upon this particular night They had come into Camp after mid night and sargeant Chauncy B Creason ordered him to take cary a heavy machine gun and its equipment over a mountain and set it up. Amos Frank Jr Feeling this to be an unreasonable request said ‘I will take a light truck and another man and we will set it up,’ The Sargeant replied ‘No you go alone Understand. No one with you’ Did he want to get him alone to murder him or not why not be reasonable you answer? To Carry this load our son felt he could not and he replied ‘Sargeant you know that this is an unreasonable request’ The sargeant replied ‘Terry Ill deal with you’ And our son was immediately put under arrest[.]
“The next morning our son was missing and the sargeant was the first man on the ground to announce that ‘Terry was missing’ This information from one Sanford A Perry a buddy to Amos Frank Jr The two being the Champion Boxers in the army they often Put on Boxing exibitions. From appearances Amos was dealt with.”
My grandfather tried to get the military to investigate his son’s murder, but they had a war to prosecute and didn’t seem very enthused to look into incidents like these. So my grandparents never learned what had happened to their oldest son. I’m sure the heartbreak lasted until they died, Frank in 1967 and Eunetta in 1968.
So today, Memorial Day, some 77 years after Amos’s murder while serving in the U.S. Army in California, I am thinking about the uncle I never knew, the only relative I know of who died during a war, but he was not killed in action. He was murdered, perhaps by his commanding officer. His death was never investigated.
Saturday, May 16, 2020
For many years now I’ve been doing an experiment with a drug that seems to have an effect on a coronavirus. No, not that coronavirus. And no, not hydroxychloroquine. Not even remdesivir. Years ago, my dad shared with me an old home remedy to help knock out the common cold. Here’s what you do. As soon as you get that odd feeling in the back of your throat, like you’ve got a cold coming on, start taking aspirin. I’ve tried this for many years now, and I can say with complete confidence that it works—sometimes, and with varying degrees of success.
In fact, I’m doing the experiment again right now. On Wednesday of this week, my wife came down with a sore throat. No fever, just a sore throat. She went in Thursday and got tested for covid-19. The results haven’t come back yet. And on Thursday, I started feeling that slight raw feeling in the back of my throat. No pain yet, just that odd feeling that tells me I’ve got a virus trying to take up residence. So I started taking aspirin. I generally take two regular-strength tablets with each meal, sometimes just breakfast and dinner, but this time I went with two in the morning, one at lunch, and two at dinner. So far, so good.
Long experience has taught me that if this is the common cold, things could go one of three ways. Sometimes the aspirin actually knocks the cold out before it gets its claws set. At other times I still get symptoms, but they are mild and fade away after maybe three days. And then sometimes the aspirin has no effect at all, and I get the full-blown illness—a sore throat that turns into awful sinuses and finally settles in my chest as a nasty cough. But I’d say that at least half the time the aspirin regimen has a definite effect of either preventing the cold or minimizing the symptoms in both severity and duration. Of course, if what we’ve got is covid-19, then we’re in not-quite uncharted waters. More on that in a minute.
I started looking into aspirin and viruses this week, and it turns out there’s actually science to back up my experimental results. Scientists have done experiments with aspirin and have found that it has the ability to inhibit the replication of certain viruses. Here’s a link to one study. The aim of the study is summarized as follows: “Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) has been used for more than 115 years in medicine. Research exists to show that aspirin has antiviral effects in vitro, for example, by blocking influenza virus propagation . . . when used at high concentrations and short-term incubation steps. The aim of this study was to confirm the antiviral activity of aspirin against influenza virus and further elucidate the activity of aspirin against other respiratory viruses.” The results of the study are summarized here: “Aspirin was found to be highly effective against influenza H1N1 virus. The antiviral activity against further respiratory RNA viruses was less distinct. Respiratory syncytial virus was minimally inhibited. However, the activity of aspirin against rhinoviruses was more pronounced. Aspirin demonstrated antiviral activity against all human rhinoviruses (HRV), but the effect on members of the ‘major group’ viruses, namely HRV14 and HRV39, was greater than on those of the ‘minor group’ viruses, namely HRV1A and HRV2.” Again, this was an in vitro (in the test tube) study, but the study’s conclusion states: “These data demonstrate a specific antiviral activity of aspirin against influenza A virus and HRV. The mode of action against rhinoviruses is still unknown and requires further investigation, as does the possibility of aspirin being effective in vivo [in an organism] to treat the common cold.”
So there. I’m not crazy after all. But I’ve wondered why the results of my personal experiments have varied so much. I figure there are two likely reasons. First it probably depends on which virus I’m infected with. There are up to 200 viruses that cause what we commonly call the common cold, among them rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. So, I assume that some of these viruses are more susceptible to aspirin than others. Second, it probably also depends on how early I start taking aspirin. This is all about “load factor.” If I take the aspirin when there is not much virus present, then I can probably buy my body time to produce antibodies to attack the virus. If my body produces enough while I’m suppressing the virus with aspirin, it wins, either really quickly or relatively soon. If the viral load is too heavy, my body probably can’t catch up for a while.
So, does this mean that aspirin may have some positive effect in inhibiting the novel coronavirus that causes covid-19? Well, very likely. Another study (you can find it here) is underway. Results expected in June. It is exploring the potency of aspirin against the novel coronavirus. The researchers are hopeful, however, as evidenced by this summary statement: “The early use of aspirin in covid-19 patients, which has the effects of inhibiting virus replication, anti-platelet aggregation, anti-inflammatory and anti-lung injury, is expected to reduce the incidence of severe and critical patients, shorten the length of hospital duration and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular complications.” Those are pretty optimistic expectations, especially coming from scientists.
So, forget hydroxychloroquine. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is, surprisingly, a textbook: The Fundamentals of Ethics, by Russ Shafer-Landau, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In this book, the author explores a variety of moral theories―hedonism, desire theory, religion, natural law, psychological and ethical egoism, consequentialism, Kantian perspectives, social contract theory, ethical pluralism, virtue ethics, feminist ethics, ethical relativism, and moral nihilism―and examines both the appealing aspects of these theories and their inadequacies. What surprised me was that human ethicists have failed to come up with a moral theory that does not encounter dilemmas sufficient to prevent it from being universally applicable. I guess we could say that life is complicated. Moral dilemmas are everywhere, and no theory deals with them all effectively.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus has highlighted some of the moral dilemmas that undermine ethical theories. Perhaps the one theory that has been pushed to center stage more than others by COVID-19 is utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism. Utilitarianism, according to John Stuart Mill, one of its most famous proponents, requires us to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people or, conversely, to minimize suffering.
Utilitarianism is a popular framework most people use in making sometimes difficult decisions, but it does have serious drawbacks. Let me illustrate with the current predicament facing most states in America as well as the Trump administration. Both sides of the “open the economy” debate are using utilitarian arguments. On the one side, the medical professionals and those who believe them are mostly arguing that keeping social distancing in place and issuing stay-at-home orders will create the greatest long-term good for the country and prevent the most harm, epidemiologically and economically. They are arguing that opening up the economy without sufficient testing and contact tracing will not only cause a spike in deaths in the short term and may overwhelm our hospitals, but also that the economic pain will be greater in the long run. Trump, some state governors, and a smallish wave of vocal protesters are arguing that “the cure is worse than the illness,” that the greatest damage is being done by shutting down the economy. In short, the price of x number of deaths is smaller than the economic suffering of the masses.
This disagreement brings to light some of the weaknesses of utilitarianism. First, how do we measure well-being or suffering? If we cannot measure them, we cannot be sure that we are maximizing well-being or minimizing suffering. How do we compare the pain of a lost job or a lost house with the death of a loved one? Second, how can we know what the long-term results of our current actions will be? Utilitarianism defines morality by the results it produces. But if we cannot accurately know those results for many years, how can we be sure what is moral and what is not? Third, how do we define “good.” Good can have many definitions. For instance, we may consider health to be good, but we may also consider economic prosperity to be good. But what if two manifestations of good are in conflict with each other or, in present circumstances, may be mutually exclusive? There are other challenges to utilitarianism, but one problem most of us face is that we apply utilitarianism selectively.
For instance, consider one popular hypothetical dilemma for utilitarianism. Is it moral to take the life of one healthy individual to preserve the lives of five dying people who need organ transplants? This seems rather straightforward. We can come fairly close to measuring the good here. Five lives preserved versus one lost. The math seems conclusive. But how many of us would really vote to take this action? Especially if the one life to be sacrificed is the life of a family member. And yet this is quite analogous to the current “open the economy” argument. If we open the economy (or get back to normal, as Trump puts it) without sufficient testing and contact tracing (which, despite Trump’s claims, his administration has failed to produce), more people will certainly die than if we don’t open it. But the economic well-being of millions, so the argument goes, outweighs the preventable deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
This is a difficult moral dilemma. Which is why we should probably not apply utilitarian thinking to it. If it is wrong to kill one person to save the lives of five others, why should it be right to kill tens of thousands to preserve the livelihoods of millions―particularly when that outcome is far from certain? We must base our reasoning on something more ethically sound than the morally shifting foundation of consequentialism. And we can’t just choose to apply utilitarian thinking in some situations but not others. We must at least aim for consistency.
You have probably been wondering what the decision to open the economy has to do with abortion. Well, quite a lot, actually. By and large, it is the far right wing of the Republican Party that is pushing for opening the economy prematurely, and on purely utilitarian grounds. “Give me liberty or give me death” we see on protest posters. But perhaps their slogan should be “Give me liberty and give them death.” Basically, “my liberty is more important than your death.” Or “my economic prospects are more important than your death.” But this same standard is not applied by conservatives to abortion.
I have a neighbor who loves to insist that abortion is “infanticide.” Obviously, the Church offers a more nuanced view. Although Church leaders never give an example of a justified abortion, their policies indicate that certain circumstances do allow it: rape, incest, and the health of the mother, for instance. So abortion is not an absolute evil that must be shunned in every instance. It is very easy to see the Church’s position as utilitarian: sometimes greater overall damage could result from a birth than from ending the life of a fetus. Which opens the door to other potentially exculpatory circumstances. What if, for instance, a single mother with two young children is barely squeaking by. She has no health insurance. She is working at a low-paying job with no maternity leave and can barely make rent and put food on the table. Then, despite her efforts at birth control, she becomes pregnant. The father-to-be is a deadbeat and cannot provide any assistance. If she has the baby―and, of course, she can’t afford the cost of the birth itself―she will also lose her job, her apartment, and will likely end up homeless. Government assistance will be insufficient to tide her over until the baby is old enough to place into childcare, which she can’t afford anyway. If we look at this situation from a strictly utilitarian point of view, the least harm to human life (and economic survival) would arguably be accomplished by an abortion.
This hypothetical scenario is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unrealistic. In fact, it points a reproving finger at the Republican Party, which has been accused of espousing the belief that life begins at conception and ends at birth. If there were a real social safety net for such individuals, then perhaps the GOP’s rigid stand on abortion would be more palatable, but the party has fought tooth and nail for years to deny such individuals an adequate safety net. So why not apply the same utilitarian thinking to this situation that is being applied to the COVID-19 dilemma? I have no answer.
Since the Church already acknowledges a utilitarian approach to some situations regarding abortion, why not other equally compelling ones? Who is to be the arbiter of this very individualized utilitarian decision? Blanket rules simply cannot cover all the possible situations. The only reasonable answer, therefore, is to leave this awful decision in the hands of the mother (and father, if present) and the doctor. No abortion decision is an easy one, but in a utilitarian framework, at least there is some consistency between this decision and other equally perplexing judgments, such as the choice between opening the economy (and thereby causing more deaths) and keeping stay-at-home directives in place and suffering grim economic consequences.
But I am not arguing for utilitarianism to solve either the abortion dilemma or the COVID-19 quandary. Utilitarianism, as a solution to such difficult issues, is certainly a Swiss-cheese panacea. It has too many holes in it.
I am no ethicist or moral philosopher, but if I read Shafer-Landau’s exploration of ethics correctly, perhaps there is no moral theory that is expansive enough to guide us in these difficult dilemmas. But there is at least one moral philosophy that falls far short of providing ethical guidelines to almost any ethical quandary. Unfortunately, it is the moral philosophy espoused unwittingly by our floundering president, Donald Trump. It is called psychological egoism, “which tells us that there is only one thing that motivates human beings: self-interest.”1 Almost every statement Trump makes and almost every action he takes is guided by a careful calculus that determines “what’s best for Donald?” This is why the staggering number of deaths we have endured does not seem to strike any sympathetic chord in Trump’s heart. They are mere numbers to be spun in such a way as to convince Trump’s followers that his administration has handled the pandemic in an exemplary manner. The pandemic is all about Trump’s reelection possibilities, which is why he has turned pandemic news briefings into political rallies and why he is so desperate to open the economy without having provided for the testing and contact tracing that might make such a move sensible. But the numbers don’t lie. They will damn him in the history books if not in the upcoming election.
Using psychological egoism as the guiding moral philosophy for making life-and-death decisions in a time of global pandemic is as senseless as applying a football playbook to the choreographing of a ballet. But a good many of those who are protesting the stay-at-home orders are indeed following Trump’s moral theory. It’s all about self-interest. No sacrifice for the greater good. It’s all about them. And for some, it’s about the notion that the government has no right, they say, to tell them what to do with their lives. This is raw egoism, which is far inferior to even utilitarianism.
So, how have other countries dealt with this moral dilemma? The ones that have succeeded (and I highlighted a couple in my last post) have actually defused this dilemma by being competent. With timely and adequate testing and contact tracing, they have both halted the spread of the virus and minimized the damage to the economy. By being prepared, they are not faced with the moral dilemma our incompetence has created for America.
But our incompetence is not simply a product of Trump’s fragile egoism. Yes, he has contributed significantly to the problem, but a brilliant article by Ed Yong that appeared recently in The Atlantic summarizes a full range of causes eloquently: “The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.”2
If Yong is correct, our ethical and moral failings are both numerous and longstanding. And finding a solution to the coronavirus is only part of the much larger ethical reconstruction project we must undertake if we are to create a better country on the other side of this awful pandemic.
1. Russ Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 89.
2. Ed Yong, “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing,” The Atlantic, April 29, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/pandemic-confusing-uncertainty/610819/.