Charlie Kirk: The Ethics of the Coronavirus Crisis Are Muddier Than You Think | Opinion

We sure could use John Stuart Mill right about now.

For anyone who doesn't recognize the name, Mill is the 19th-century British philosopher known for his study of economics, his passionate defense of liberty and, most important, his work on ethics. He's credited with what is referred to as "utilitarianism," of which he was more of a refiner than he was an originator, but I will come back to that.

Even if you have no idea what utilitarianism is, you should know it's driving our nation's response to the "Chinese Virus," and it is my concern that we are missing the mark in our "calculations," and the consequences could be catastrophic.

If J.S. Mill were around, he might be able to help. Before it's too late.

But if a 19th-century philosopher is too abstract, perhaps Star Trek is more accessible. It is in the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan that Mr. Spock famously gives his life for his friend, James T. Kirk, saying, "The needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few or the one." That, in a nutshell, is utilitarianism. The ethical choice where you calculate the amount of costs and benefits to differing possible actions, and then choose the path that has the greatest net units of benefit. Sounds simple enough? In real life, especially right now in America, it's anything but.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has been on every television news show you can name since the start of the crisis. Fauci has been a proponent of the need for extreme measures in order to blunt the growth curve of the disease. Others in the world of disease control and mathematics, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Black Swan fame), have made similar arguments.

It is impossible to dispute the math that taking extreme action now will lessen the spread of the virus. Fewer sick people should be the best ethical choice, right? The question we're not allowed to ask, however, is should the number of people who get sick be the only variable we factor into our ethical calculation? It's also impossible to dispute that the steps we are taking are destroying the American economy.

The S&P 500 is down 30 percent from its peak reached just over a month ago as just one example. The number of small, independent businesses that are going to collapse can't yet be calculated. But each and every one that goes under will potentially destroy the lives of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of owners, employees and family members who rely upon them. Homes will be foreclosed on, families thrown in turmoil, and entire futures will be irreversibly altered. Psychologists warn us that financial crises often give way to depression, alcoholism, substance abuse and other social ills, including suicide. We also risk violence and looting if and when real, meaningful shortages occur.

Finally, what will this do to our long-term relationship with government? Already mayors and governors around the country are using this pandemic as an excuse to expand government's control of our lives. Will that end when the virus ends? Perhaps, or perhaps they will tell us the risk of pandemics will be with us indefinitely and some of their controls need to remain in place permanently. After all, the history of lost liberty is marked by those who were foolish enough to trust the promises of their rulers.

California street
California Street, usually filled with cable cars, is seen empty in San Francisco on March 18. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

J.S. Mill was not the father of utilitarianism. That title goes to his own father, James Mill, and Jeremy Bentham. They saw utilitarianism as a scientific approach to ethics. Simple addition and subtraction. J.S. Mill thought otherwise. He thought there were different types of human happiness; a hierarchy. He suggested that the calculation of "utility" was a bit more complex than that of Bentham and his father.

In our current moment, our leaders are being forced to choose between two terrible decisions—either destroy the economy and save lives, or save the economy and lose lives—and I wonder if Mills would even accept this all-or-nothing premise to begin with? More likely, he would tell us that the ethical calculation is a bit more complex than that.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do anything, but both the human and financial costs are so great that we must be willing to ask the ethical questions driving our collective decisions. The future of the economy and well-being of our republic may very well depend on how we calculate the utility of the choices we make in the coming days. I only hope the "cure" doesn't do more damage than the virus ever could.

Charlie Kirk is the author of The New York Times best-seller The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future and host of The Charlie Kirk Show.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.