Written by Thomas Klikauer and Nadine Campbell
The 2020-2021 coronavirus is by no means the first pandemic that has impacted people’s lives. Throughout history, philosophers have contributed to our understanding of what pandemics mean and how to fight them. Self-evidently, philosophers are dedicated to philosophy. Like the term pandemic originating in Greek’s pandēmos – “pan” or “all” linked to “demos”, the people – philosophy to is a Greek word. Philosophy – φιλοσοφία or philosophia – simply means the love of wisdom. Unlike all other fields of scholarly endeavour, philosophy has no other purpose than wisdom. It exists only for itself.
Philosophy does not work for pharmaceutical corporations – Big Pharma. It has no economic or political interests or value. It does not lobby politicians. It is not interested in making money. It has no privatised or private hospitals to finance, no drugs, medication and vaccination to sell, no countries to ram to the top – America First – and no clients to serve. Philosophy serves nobody and nothing except wisdom.
Some versions of philosophy like that of German philosopher Horkheimer seek to overcome suffering. Max Horkheimer was by no means the first philosopher who thought about suffering during a pandemic. To the great annoyance of free marketers and demagogues of neoliberalism, the fight against the coronavirus pandemic demands an active state. It requires solidarity and a society that works together rather than free-market competition.
For many, the unchallenged philosopher-king remains Socrates. Socrates once said it is better to suffer the wrong of others than to do wrong ourselves. In other words, it is better to suffer a little bit by, for example, staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic and not spreading the virus (even when perceived as wrong) than doing wrong by going shopping or worse attend rallies organised by people wearing tin-foil hats.
Perhaps Plato was the first who thought about fighting a pandemic. Others like Machiavelli and Hegel followed. Philosophical thought on fighting pandemics by people, the state and the government stretches to present-day philosophers like Philippa Foot and contemporary US philosopher Martha Nussbaum. These philosophers have found answers that remain significant. Starting with Plato’s experts, we shall encounter Niccolò’s insults, Hegel’s good state, Mill’s freedom, Philippa’s trolley, and finally, Nussbaum’s fear.
Socrates and Plato lived about 2,400 years ago. Plato favoured good governance and what we today call the rule of law. Plato would argue that fair laws and sensible regulations can fight the coronavirus. Both are objective. They apply to all, and they are not susceptible to arbitrariness – except when you are Boris Johnson’s advisor, etc.
On the downside, anti-coronavirus laws have the disadvantage of being rigid. Broad brush regulation is not tailored to individual cases. Set against the rampant individualism depicted by anti-government protesters worldwide, Plato would argue for an assembly embodying collective reason. Such an assembly brings together people representing the educated rather than Donald Trump’s I love the poorly educated. Plato favours expertise – not the mob.
Beyond that, Plato would advocate having a reign of experts to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and other right-wing populists, Plato tells us to trust virologists. But this also has limits. An Expertocracy, for example, would not be able to fix the coronavirus pandemic. Governmental measures need democratic legitimacy – something Joe Biden, Angela Merkel and many others offer. This combines democracy with a high degree of rationality. Plato argues that science would be above everyday thinking. Plato fancies the best advisors. Plato was no democrat. Plato did not trust the demos – the people and their power.
Yet, Plato would also reject an ideologisation of science which we are experiencing in climate science. Unlike Plato, one might argue that science is “not” ethically neutral. Science needs ethics so that its findings are less likely to be misused. In this respect, only ethical science provides standards of correct action.
Plato would argue that anti-coronavirus measures need to be explained in order to convince citizens of the correctness of such measures. Explanations remain vital for coronavirus measures. Regulations and laws are made intelligible in dialogue. For Plato, great importance needs to be attached to convincing tin-foil hat wearing doubters and anti-vaxxers. Plato would also agree that there are people who are entirely unable to grasp rational arguments. Like many in the field of right-wing populism. Donald Trump remains a good example.
Yet, resisting coronavirus measures, social distancing rules, and mask-wearing has been followed by violence. Against that, Plato suggests education enabling citizens to recognise a community as their own. As such, they should understand that damage to a common cause means self-damage. Plato demands prevention set against the storming of government buildings. Plato also says, if such things do happen, the state must react with clear penalties.
Philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli also favoured the enforcement of power. He also argued against extremists. Machiavelli advises that rulers and the rebels against rulers, want to take power for themselves – Trump and his Washington mob are examples of that.
The ultimate goal for Machiavelli is a state characterised by stability and prosperity. Only then the freedom of citizens and the common good of all is secured. Unsurprisingly, he argues against mob rule and Trumpian instabilities. Machiavelli’s goals of positive statesmanship – great stability, great prosperity, great prestige among neighbouring states – all have suffered under Trump.
Furthermore, the spread of conspiracy myths, of twisted and invented facts are dangerous working against Machiavelli’s ideas. Untrue and evil rumours in politics can lead to turmoil, he warns. For Machiavelli, slander is despicable. He takes a hard line against those who spread it, suggesting, slanderers must be severely punished.
Machiavelli repeatedly warns against an unleashed mass – Donald Trump’s Washington mob. Overthrowing the government is a horror to him. Machiavelli would reject Trump telling rioters; we love you, you’re very special. For Machiavelli, the best characteristic of a politician is the ability to win conflicts without escalation. Instead of violence, Machiavelli says, I consider it one of the greatest proofs of human wisdom to refrain from any threat or insult. Threats and insults have been the hallmarks of Donald Trump.
Hegel’s Good State
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is the last great representative of the philosophy of German idealism. Hegel too places a strong emphasis on good governance. This means taking the coronavirus seriously. It means not announcing that the coronavirus will go away – a whopping forty times as Donald Trump has done.
Instead of what Donald Trump has done, Hegel would support contact restrictions, compulsory mask-wearing and other regulations. Yet, Hegel would say these regulations must show a certain proportionality when they are restricting individual freedoms. Anti-coronavirus measures must contribute to the common good. When it comes to the question, can the state restrict individual freedom? Hegel says, yes as long as it serves the common good.
Yet, freedom occupies a central place in Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel’s thesis is that freedom is only possible in a state where the common good is paramount. Only in this context can people pursue their individual needs and realise their individual freedom. By common good, he means that the state should, for example, prevent thousands of unnecessary coronavirus deaths.
For Hegel, a functioning state is a prerequisite for freedom, demanding good institutions, a good chancellor, prime minister, or president. The task of them is to stand up and make anti-coronavirus rules transparent. Perhaps Hegel’s home country, Germany, and many others like New Zealand come closer to Hegel’s idea than the Trump administration.
Hegel considers a functioning state to be a necessity. In modern society, individual interests can be contrary to the common good. The tension between individual interests and the common good can be bridged by rational insights. The common good is not something abstract. It is our culture and our values. It can be identified. It constitutes our life.
Just like Hegel, British philosopher John Stuart Mill may also be called a philosopher of freedom. Mill examined the relationship between coercion, control, and individual freedom by scrutinising the question – when society can intervene in individual freedom. Mill would have sympathy for those who are convinced that anti-coronavirus measures can violate human rights.
Mill would listen to protestors and would say that it would be important that people take responsibility for themselves. According to Mill, rules should be questioned. Mill would be opposed to banning anti-government demonstrations. The philosopher would explain to protesters that there is indeed a purpose that entitles them to intervene in other people’s freedom.
Mill also says that the only intention for which power can be lawfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others. The coronavirus pandemic may well be such a case. The current justification of coronavirus measures corresponds exactly to Mill’s demand. Masks, social distancing rules, restrictions on visits to other people’s homes and with high-risk groups are all preventing individuals from harming fellow human beings.
Set against that, Mill argues that the goal of protecting man from himself never justifies coercion. This is true even if everyone else regards their behaviour as foolish and wrong. Finally, for Mill, good governance means the government only interferes as far as necessary. Governments should not increase its power under inappropriate pretexts.
The British moral philosopher Philippa Foot was concerned with whether behaviour could be morally justified and how it could be morally justified. The trigger for her thinking was the realisation that the Nazis felt morally justified in doing what they did. Foot introduced the famous trolley problem asking,
what should a driver of a tram (trolley) whose brake fails do – either run into a group of five workers and kill them or steer the trolley onto another track on which one worker will die?
In principle, the trolley problem can be easily transferred to the coronavirus pandemic. The tram can be replaced by the coronavirus. Without countermeasures, there would be an exponential increase in the number of infections and the death of thousands more, probably hundreds of thousands of people. Philippa Foot was also convinced that people had specific characteristics such as courage, moderation and wisdom. These are natural advantages on which human life depends.
Much of this is more complicated when it comes to economic consequences. Coronavirus expenditures by states can lead to dramatic cuts in other areas, plunging some people into despair. In addition, states face expenditures that put the breaks on other expenditures such as education but perhaps also climate protection and health care. A failure to act on these can ultimately lead to more deaths.
Unlike the trolley problem, in the reality of the pandemic, the numbers of the victims cannot be clearly identified. Governments must deal with a variety of uncertainties until an effective vaccine is available.
Yet, politics can switch between tracks which lead to more or – hopefully – less suffering. On that, many governments can expect a relatively large acceptance for coronavirus measures. Only a minority generally finds it okay to keep their hands off the switch and do nothing. The majority of people will perceive government measures as part of good governance.
The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum argues that proper ethics must include a certain level of emotions. Nussbaum also says that fear includes the idea that we are threatened with a great and decisive evil and that we cannot avert it with certainty. Fear is reasonable. In the coronavirus pandemic, this is undoubtedly the case. For Nussbaum, fear is a primal emotion.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it is one of the more primitive reactions that move us to extreme and sometimes unwise decisions. That is why we need a government that prevents unwise decisions and panicking. A good strategy would be to ease people’s feelings of helplessness by teaching them how to take control. Wearing mouth and nose protection is an excellent example of this.
Donald Trump lost the presidential election partly because he did not convey enough fear of the coronavirus. Trump did not take steps against the pandemic or recommend such steps. Instead of embracing a well-founded and rational fear of the coronavirus, he redirected people’s fear to inappropriate topics such as immigrants, China, etc.
In the end, we learn from philosophers like Plato that we should trust experts. But these experts need to work with democratically legitimised politicians in explaining what a pandemic means. Niccolò Machiavelli says, for that to work we need the state – not the mob as depicted in Washington in January 2021. Machiavelli also wants the government to act against wild rumours and conspiracy theories saying, slanderers must be severely punished.
The German philosopher Hegel agrees by emphasising that the state should uphold the common good but has a right – if need be – to restrict individual freedom. Countries like Taiwan, Germany and New Zealand come closer to Hegel’s idea than the Trump administration. British philosopher Mill provides the strongest support for protesters against governmental anti-virus measures. Yet, Mill as well argues that government force may be legitimate to prevent harm done to others. The coronavirus pandemic might be just such a case.
Finally, Philippa Foot’s trolley problem does not offer a clear guideline for governments. Even more problematic is Foot’s statement that states might put the breaks on expenditures such as education, climate protection, and health care because of anti-coronavirus measures. A failure to act on these can ultimately lead to more deaths. Ultimately, Martha C. Nussbaum puts the finger on fear arguing that fear is a valued emotion. It can be used to fight the coronavirus rather than using it for one’s own political end as Donald Trump has done for months.