Skip to content

The Finger on the Button

Who is expendable as we reopen for business?

In the recent flare-ups over when to end widespread shutdowns, you can detect a peculiar calculus: some lives seem more expendable than others. It’s the kind of concern that surfaced in the Obama years, when conservatives rallied behind Sarah Palin’s accusation that the Affordable Care Act would set up “death panels” to deny care to the elderly and the disabled. Back then, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley told a hometown crowd, “We should not have a government program that determines you’re gonna pull the plug on grandma.”

Now concern over grandma is back, but some conservatives seem to have switched sides. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, for example, created a stir back in March when he went on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News to make a plea for re-opening businesses, even if it meant older people might have to pay with their lives. Patrick, who is seventy, suggested it was a worthy trade-off:

And you know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.

Others have presented the issue in actuarial terms, comparing the relative value of those young children and grandchildren with long lives ahead of them to those apparently living on borrowed time. Curiously, despite Lt. Gov. Patrick’s claimed willingness to volunteer as tribute, most who make this argument have not offered up their own grandmothers to the Covid-19 altar; it’s usually non-specific grandmas in some nursing home somewhere—a tragedy, to be sure, but also a statistic.   

Concern over grandma is back, but some conservatives seem to have switched sides.

As all fifty states move toward reopening businesses in the weeks ahead, the fact that doing so is not just an economic question but a moral one is getting short shrift. It is tempting to think of it as a classic trolley car dilemma: if we swerve one way and pretend the pandemic is over, more will die of the virus; if we swerve another way and allow unemployment to climb and businesses to go under, more will die of all the causes related to increased economic hardship. Yet that staple of undergraduate philosophy classes and The Good Place ignores the real world complication of most moral choices we make: we know some people but not others. There are no non-specific grandmas; there is only yours and mine. If we are honest with ourselves, the choice between them is no choice at all.   

Which is why, as we contend with the moral question of who should live and who should die as the country reopens, it’s a useful exercise to imagine whom we have in mind when we talk about lives lost for the sake of the economy. 

A better parable than the trolley problem for confronting the dynamics of the reopen debate can be found in an episode of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone. “Button, Button” told the tale of a financially struggling couple, Arthur and Norma, visited by a mysterious man named Mr. Steward. He arrives to ask about “the box we left on your doorstep,” which contains what he calls the “button unit.” He explains that by pressing the button, two things will happen. “Someone whom you do not know will die.” In return they would receive enough cash to solve all their problems.

At first they’re appalled. Who would kill a stranger for money? But the more they think about it, the more they rationalize: People die every day, what’s one more?

“What if it was some old Chinese peasant or something?” Norma asks. “Or someone with cancer?”

“What if it’s somebody’s newborn baby?” Arthur replies.

“Mr. Steward made it seem so simple,” Norma says. “But it isn’t simple, is it?”

“Button, Button” was adapted from a 1970 Richard Matheson story, but it’s based on a timeless moral dilemma which was once given the unfortunate name “the Chinaman button.” That name is a bit on the nose given the racist “China virus” rhetoric surrounding the early days of Covid-19, but it stood for the idea that the person killed when pressing the button would be someone on the other side of the world—not only a stranger, but someone impossible to know. 

In slightly different form, there’s an expression of this quandary that dates to 1802. In François-René de Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, it is used not as a difficult choice but rather as proof of the existence of the conscience—evidence that we are governed by something other than reason, logic, or actuarial tables. “Conscience! Is it possible that thou canst be but a phantom of the imagination, or the fear of the punishment of men?” Chateaubriand wrote. “I put to myself this question: ‘If thou couldst by a mere wish kill a fellow-creature in China, and inherit his fortune in Europe, with the supernatural conviction that the fact would never be known, wouldst thou consent to form such a wish?’” 

Many of those arguing Covid-19’s likely mortality is a price worth paying seem to assume the dead will include mainly people other than their own families and friends.

The answer he gave was that despite every justification he might make for forming this wish, he would still know it was wrong. Appeals to personal hardship, the age or illness of the “fellow-creature” bound to die, or the philanthropic purposes to which the inherited fortune might be put—all were “useless subterfuges,” a smokescreen to obscure the essential immorality of the choice.

In 1974, CBS Radio Mystery Theater produced an audio drama called “The Chinaman Button” that put a fine point on the rationalization necessary to kill a stranger and then get on with your life. “You might call it murder before you press the button,” a character in the drama says, “but after, you’ll call it something else.” In 2020, we might call pressing the button “reopening the country.” Many of those arguing Covid-19’s likely mortality is a price worth paying seem to assume the dead will include mainly people other than their own families and friends—not only strangers but those impossible to know.

But the twist in “Button, Button” is the logic of contagion as well. After the couple presses the button and they get paid, they are told the box will now be given to “someone they do not know”—someone who will rationalize their deaths just as they have done.

To some, the current tally of nearly one hundred thousand American dead from Covid-19 may seem like only unknowable others, but they are always ourselves—maybe not immediately, maybe not our own families, but the larger community of which we’re all a part.

No doubt sooner or later we will press the button. As several states move into phased reopening, we are doing so even now. When we do, we should remember that we are all strangers to others. Our lives are always in each other’s hands.