Talmud's Solution to the Coronavirus Dilemma: Save Lives, or the Economy?

Jewish tradition has brilliant suggestions about economics. Those making the decisions during this crisis should take note of them

Uri Weiss
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A city-sanctioned homeless encampment in San Francisco.
A city-sanctioned homeless encampment in San Francisco. Credit: Noah Berger/AP
Uri Weiss

Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics, recently wrote that President Donald Trump’s policy is “Let’s die for the Dow!” Not long afterward, when Columbia University researchers estimated that an earlier lockdown would have saved the lives of 36,000 people, Krugman criticized the administration for its dumb decision – to move to open up for business as usual – which was based on cost-benefit considerations.

Krugman is not suggesting that saving lives must always be the top priority. In his view, it is even silly to say that we can’t put a price on human life. What’s absurd about Trump’s approach, he believes, lies in the president’s refusal to save lives even when the cost-benefit calculation tilts clearly in the direction of life. He notes that economists estimate the “value of a statistical life” at $10 million, so the economic calculation should have directed that lives be saved.

Krugman is a utilitarian. The utilitarian approach argues that moral action accords the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. The moral principle that derives from this is the maximalization of happiness. The mainstream economists have adopted utilitarian theory. Another economics Nobel laureate, Kenneth Arrow, has criticized those colleagues for adopting it as an exclusive philosophy.

Utilitarianism in the service of economics has undergone a number of vulgarizations, such as a transition to monetary indices and an aspiration to maximize the national interest, instead of taking a universal human approach. The height of utilitarianism lies in the economic approach to tort law, which recommends coming to terms with damage to body and life, arguing that the goal is not to minimize damages but to arrive at an optimal number of damages.

I would like to point out two additional approaches to this moral dispute. The first is that of philosopher Karl Popper: Instead of asking how to maximize happiness, one can ask how to minimize suffering. Popper’s students, in looking at the coronavirus, will therefore seek to minimize both the physical, bodily suffering and the economic suffering – that is, mainly the suffering of the individuals who have been afflicted by the virus and its economical consequences.

The second – talmudic – approach is the polar opposite of Trump’s preferring the Dow to human life. It is also very different from the utilitarian-economic approach. According to the Talmud, pikuah nefesh – regard for human life – must override matters of Mammon. Setting forth the laws of damages, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) states: “Let his money not be dearer to him than his body.”

Exegetes of the Talmud argued over how to interpret the discussion about whether one is permitted to save oneself by using another person’s money. The Tosafists – 2nd century C.E. commentators on the Talmud – note that it’s clear that a person is permitted to save his life with another’s money, as theft is not one of the three violations of religious law in which a Jew must give his own life rather than commit the violation (yehareg ve’al ya’avor). The question is only whether he is required to compensate the other.

Of course, contradictions can arise between several situations involving pikuah nefesh. The talmudic approach is that the saving of a “close” life takes priority over the saving of a “distant” life. That is a sensible demand: It is difficult to know what will lead to what, and therefore it is important to avert danger to life that is immediate – known in legal terminology as “clear and present danger.”

It’s true that the methods being used to cope with the coronavirus epidemic can break people economically. But citizens who suffer financial losses as a result of the public’s self-defense measures can be compensated.

In terms of the competition between Trump’s approach and the utilitarian approach, we should also include in the discussion the talmudic approach of “choose life.” Unlike Krugman and other economists who aspire to come up with an arithmetic formula to solve this problem, the Talmud will not quantify life in terms of money. It perhaps rejects certain approaches – such as those that do not respect human life sufficiently – but leaves the discussion open.

At the start of the coronavirus crisis, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said that it is better to die on your feet than on your knees. For the macho dictator, caution means a loss of honor, whereas for the Talmud, the choice of life is honor itself.

The Talmud contains brilliant advice about economics. The most important piece of advice is to beware of the human tendency to sometimes prefer money over life – and our decision makers should be guided by that humanistic outlook.

The approach favored by Trump and Lukashenko, who have scorned human life, is the outright opposite of the Talmud’s approach – as opposed to the policy followed by Sweden and Britain, which initially tried to carry on as usual, ostensibly to achieve herd immunity. Surprisingly, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist said recently that this was not the goal, that the policy had been aimed only at preventing the collapse of hospitals. The Swedes viewed lockdown as an unrealistic policy, because it cannot be extended indefinitely. Strict lockdowns may temporarily contain the virus but won’t prevent it from returning, whereas people may suffer and die just from sheer seclusion. The Swedes were not indifferent to human life, but gambled on a different way to protect people, drawing on medical experts. It seems that, for its part, Britain denied that it aimed to achieve herd immunity, even though its prime minister discussed that policy publicly.

The rule in Jewish tradition is that on medical questions, one asks the physicians, and if there is disagreement between them – i.e., “If, however, two doctors state that the patient must eat [on Yom Kippur], then even if a hundred doctors say that he does not have to eat, and even if the patient himself says that he does not have to eat, he should be given food” – regard for life is preferred (Shulhan Arukh, Chapter 618).

It’s worth bearing that in mind when making decisions about the coronavirus pandemic, which is rife with conflicts between money and life.

Moreover, we need to beware of the influence of Trumpism on Israel, especially when we see Israel adopting a similar policy in other places in connection with the coronavirus crisis (such as by transferring money from the general public to the stockholders). The physicians who specialize in dealing with COVID-19 should be the ones to decide factually, on the ground, what the dangers are and what measures are needed to mitigate them. Society, for its part, needs to be ready to pay – with money – in order to save lives and not have people die for the stock market. In the long term, societies that respect human life are those where the quality of life will soar.

Dr. Uri Weiss, a scholar of law, economics and rationality, is a fellow of the Polonsky Academy at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.