Religion & Liberty Online

Scientism cannot cure COVID-19

(Photo credit: AP Photo / Hans Pennink, Archive)

On Monday, a grim milestone was passed: 500,000 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in just over a year since the arrival of the pandemic in the United States. President Joe Biden has ordered the American flag to be flown at half-staff on public buildings and grounds until sunset on Friday. This pandemic has brought forth change and sacrifice by ordinary citizens, remarkable scientific innovation, resentment and anger, and a political crisis of responsibility.

Last year, the World Health Organization told us there was “no clear evidence” of coronavirus transition between humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Surgeon General told us we should not wear face masks to prevent coronavirus. While the United States is doing better than most in administering COVID-19 vaccinations, the FDA has still not approved the AstraZenica vaccine. The undue burdens being placed on people are causing economic, social, and religious dislocation, while our institutions and elites refuse to act, mistaking the absence of evidence for the evidence of absence.

This crude scientism has thwarted not only an effective government response to COVID-19, but it has led to a failure to address the decline in social capital. A very clear outline for fostering economic opportunity and social cohesion, “the success sequence,” resulted in very little action by policymakers:

Back in 2009, the Brookings Institute’s Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins proposed what’s become widely known as “the success sequence” – a normative path to middle-class prosperity based on various trends. According to their research, young people were far more likely to avoid poverty if they (1) graduated from high school, (2) worked full-time during their 20s, and (3) waited till they were married to have children (if parenthood was in their future). If you could meet these basic metrics, the odds of escaping poverty would drastically improve.

The notion that study, work, and starting a family within the institution of marriage will lead to a successful life was once merely common sense – an intuitive wisdom won from the experience of life itself as well as a mainstay of religious teaching from a broad array of religious traditions. This is a wisdom now often lost in the currents of popular opinion and in salons of the intellectual class which form it.

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, explores the reasons offered for the rejection on the “success sequence.” He concludes, “What the success sequence means” is deeply at odds with the popular, materialist reductionism and implies both real human agency and responsibility:

The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty. It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow.

But can’t we still blame society for failing to foster the bourgeois values necessary to actually adhere to the success sequence?  Despite the popularity of this rhetorical question, my answer is an unequivocal no.  In ordinary moral reasoning, virtually no one buys such attempts to shift blame for individual misdeeds to “society.”

Suppose, for example, that your spouse cheats on you.  When caught, he objects, “I come from a broken home, so I didn’t have a good role model for fidelity, so you shouldn’t blame me.”  Not very morally convincing, is it?

Only by heeding our moral intuitions can we break free of a slavish devotion to abstract notions of “evidence” and be free to make decisions and judgement in an uncertain world. This involves taking responsibility and allowing others to take responsibility.

So what? We should place much greater confidence in our concrete moral judgments than in grand moral theories. This is moral reasoning 101. And virtually all of our concrete moral judgments say that we should blame individuals – not “society” – for their own bad behavior. When wrong-doers point to broad social forces that influenced their behavior, the right response is, “Social forces influence us all, but that’s no excuse. You can and should have done the right thing despite your upbringing, racism, love of drink, or violent circumstances.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend that individuals are morally responsible for their own actions to give better incentives. What I’m saying, rather, is that individuals really are morally responsible for their actions. Better incentives are just icing on the cake.

This sort of judgment is also an indictment of leaders who choose to outsource their own responsibilities to the judgments of “science.” As the rapper MC Hammer so eloquently tweeted, “It’s not science vs Philosophy… It’s Science + Philosophy. Elevate your Thinking and Consciousness. When you measure include the measurer.”


The hard work of making difficult, prudential judgments is precisely the stuff of which true leadership is made: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17). The abdication of the responsibility to know the good is an abdication of leadership. Mistakes have and will continue to be made in fighting this pandemic, but unless leaders locate the source of their mistakes in themselves, failures will continue and worsen.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.