Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Philosophers on COVID-19

There's lots of this stuff, e.g. here and here. But below are links to things by the kind of philosophers I like.

Niklas Forsberg says, among much else, that:
laws and rules grow out of something, and are subject to change. They are adjusted so as to fit our practices, the way we live. We may find this disconcerting or hopeful, but I think that we need to turn our attention to the slow changes of life as a whole too, and to how human actions and interactions are rooted in cultures and languages and traditions. It seems evident: presenting someone with facts about animal farming, climate change, is absolutely necessary, but not enough. Our ways of being together have roots that reach far deeper down than that. We need both the quick-fix and the long-term thinking.
This seems right, and I might add that laws and rules can themselves shape our practices and attitudes (not that they always do, but they can).

Hugo Strandberg says that:
helping each other can be done in two very different spirits. On the one hand, you can help others in order to create a sense of community. That there will be people not part of that community is then a grave risk, and these might be met with fear, avoidance and hostility. And, with a slightly different emphasis, you can help people because you want to live up to what is expected of you, explicit social expectations or expectations of a more abstract and general kind, expectations which you in any case submit to. Seen in this way, there is a connection between the two reactions, reactions that at first seemed contradictory. On the other hand, you can help others because you care for them. Seen in this way, there is a contradiction, for the first reaction is obviously not an expression of such care.
This is a nice distinction between what might be called commonsense ethics (I help for this identifiable reason, having to do with ideas about what will cause what effect) and the harder to explain caring ethic.

Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen (in Danish, but Google translate seems to do an OK job) also speaks about a contradiction, but this one is between what might be called local life versus global (or national) life. One of her points is like the one made by Thomas Hardy in his poem "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'": some things in life will always stay the same whatever wars and dynasties may come and go. Another point she makes is that it is heartening to see that:
together we have been able to create a new society. Not because our political leadership has said we should, but because we could all see the point 
It is amazing how much has changed how quickly. And even though some of it has been mandated by reluctant politicians motivated by 'commonsense' calculations, and some has been done by people thinking in commonsense terms, it has still happened, it has happened largely for the common good rather than for private profit, and it has been done, in part, voluntarily out of what looks like genuine altruism. Who knows what will happen in future, in response to other pandemics or climate change or any other potential catastrophe, but it is clear that we can make large-scale changes to how we live. And that there is a lot more human decency and intelligence in the world than you might have thought based on recent election results in English-speaking countries. 

UPDATE: Here also are Nafeez Ahmed and Rupert Read on COVID-19 and the precautionary principle.


  1. I wish I could be optimistic, but I cannot help having the experience that all the increase in fellow-feeling, while undeniable, is more than offset by the sudden renaissance of thinking of politics in terms of the nation-state, including thinking that one's moral desert is determined almost exclusively by one's membership of a nation-state or lack thereof. Sojourners are still at the very end of the queue, or often even having their hands hit with an oar as they try to cling to the lifeboat. And this is partly due precisely to a new sense of community having been created, or in the most perverse cases is even cheered as itself something that helps to create a sense of community.

    A second, almost opposite reason I find it difficult to credit all the talk of how "we're all in this together" is that my own life has hardly been affected at all yet: the worst setbacks so far have been that the jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz died, and that the National Library is closed. And I have had an excuse to put off finishing my new book even further. All the people communicating with me by phone or e-mail start by offering to commiserate, but I'm not at all miserable on a personal level.

    About "we can make large-scale changes to how we live": my own "plague reading" has been Arvojen ja välineiden maailma ('The World of Values and Means'), a work of philosophical anthropology inspired by WW1 that Erik Ahlman, the great Finnish neo-Kantian-after-a-fashion (and Olli Lagerspetz's grandfather) published exactly 100 years ago in 1920. Towards the end he writes: "When a statesman in the field of politics is weighing possibilities, he will not take into account only the objective factors that presently exist, including all the psychic factors, but also the possibilities contained within his own person: with his personal influence too he can cause changes in political currents. In a political controversy, it can never objectively be determined whether the realisation of some thing or other is possible or not, for the fact that something is forcefully claimed to be either possible or impossible, is itself one of the moments affecting the matter. (This, by the way, is something that concerns all wanting: wanting is itself a factor in the process that is wanted.) For this reason, in controversies over affairs of state it is never in fact a question of how something is and what is objectively possible, but the controversy itself is a part of politics. In other words, the object being fought over is – at least partly – dependent on the controversy." (My translation, which aims to preserve the slightly antiquated flavour.) If not anything else, the pandemic is a demonstration of how true this still is.

    The "recent election results in English-speaking countries", by the way, are of course largely an artefact of the first-past-the-post electoral system, at which most of the rest of the world shakes its head in disbelief. But its existence is itself dependent on things as disparate as the framers of the US Constitution having no idea 200+ years ago what the US would come to, and the result of the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum in the UK.

  2. Yes, there's plenty to be depressed about too. Thanks for the Ahlman quote--that's good.