To Mitigate or to Resign?

Matt Bai has an excellent column at The Washington Post on the dilemma Dr. Deborah Birx faced during the Trump Administration, especially in the early days of the pandemic: Unvarnished truth would have made her unable to mitigate the worst impulses of the president and his yes-men, while her participation gave a scientific veneer to policies she now says may have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The dilemma is genuinely difficult, and casual condemnation of Birx is a bit too easy. But I think Bai (who treats the dilemma seriously) ultimately has it right: Birx should have resigned. The Hippocratic oath, applied to all public officials, helps clarify the situation: While public officials can mitigate harm, they should. When mitigating harm also involves participating in inflicting it, resignation requires more serious consideration. That is not a matter of self-indulgence. Political leaders often find themselves in situations in which no clear moral choice presents itself and in which, as Edmund Burke put it, “some evil for the sake of some benefit is to be tolerated.” Burke said there could be no abstract philosophical principle that resolved such dilemmas absent attention to circumstances. Perhaps, then, what can most accurately be said of Birx is that she lacked the paramount political virtue, the one capable of reconciling abstract principle with facts on the ground: prudence.

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