Is the closedown of the country, and the introduction of authoritarian powers for the Government, the right answer to the coronavirus? Regular contributor Sean Walsh discusses.

Epidemiology is not settled science for the simple reason that, with the possible exception of mathematical physics, there is no such thing as “settled science”. Science is a dynamic human enterprise and is fluid both in terms of its “conclusions” and its methods.  Furthermore, epidemiological models necessarily make assumptions about human behaviour, which will involve presuppositions concerning the nature of the human person. From the outset, then, the modelling will be what philosophers of science call theory laden.

There is therefore good reason to be sceptical about the government’s predictions concerning the infection rates of coronavirus, and that scepticism becomes almost a moral imperative as government advice gradually morphs into government instruction as it “follows the science”. Wherever the science takes it.

Here’s a mischievous thought: could it be that the government scientists are pressing that we dissolve our normal habits of existence in order to remove the human element from the modelling? Are they trying to put us in service of the epidemiology, rather than vice versa?

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s agree that their numbers are correct and that the increasingly draconian response will ultimately prove to be effective; that it will save lives. Will it have been worth it if the price is the dissolution of the social order?

The government approach is consequentialist: the correct strategy, on this assumption, is to minimise infections and to reduce the eventual death toll. But consequentialism is never a substitute for a genuinely rich moral system. The government approach is predicated on a grim calculus of mortality. Excluded from the calculation, it seems to me, are the less quantifiable consequences in terms of the moral and spiritual health of all of us: those who become sick and those who don’t.

There is more to life than being alive.  Aristotle wrote that “Man is a social animal; he who lives without society is either a beast or God”. When we “self-isolate” we go against our essential nature, we fail to flourish as Aristotle would put it. To instruct someone to self-isolate is to commit a form of spiritual violence. Violence is sometimes justifiable, but is this form of harm being adequately factored in? The answer is that it cannot be, because this is a version of harm that will be invisible to any quantified, mathematical model.

When the elderly, the vulnerable and the sick are robbed of their normal rhythms of human association death might come to seem preferable to a life robbed of value.

We are fighting a physical threat by the imposition of a spiritual crisis. And I don’t just blame the government for this. My own church has given up the Mass for Lent (and beyond), having decided that in times of crisis the temporal must take precedence over the eternal. The Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous has decided that the spiritual principles on which it is founded are neutralised by the advice of NHS England and has suspended its meetings (the pubs are not even available to absorb the consequences of the inevitable relapses). Our local drop-in centre for the homeless is struggling to keep going, as if the rough sleeper has the possibility to self-isolate.

Our secular culture, which now apparently includes the churches, encourages the view that we are entitled to a risk-free existence and so when confronted by an existential crisis we allow ourselves to become infantilised. We therefore acquiesce when governments arrogate to themselves greater and more draconian powers. But an existential crisis is also an existential opportunity. A pandemic which forces us to confront our own mortality performs an important moral function. When we reflect on our finite selves, we find better and more satisfying ways of life. Awareness of death, for some philosophers, is the starting point of moral philosophy.

This awful situation therefore offers us the opportunity to change, and one way in which we could change would be to grow up and push back against a government which is gathering an increasingly authoritarian momentum. Powers seized are only reluctantly returned, and this is perhaps more the case when a government takes itself to be acting benignly. As I write this the House of Commons is about to give the government powers that Vladimir Putin might be envious of – justified by that grubby calculus of mortality mentioned above. The danger for the Prime Minister is that might preserve lives by making them not worth living.

Boris Johnson seems to think that society is like a machine – that it can be switched off and then switched back on again when he eventually decides the danger has passed.  This is a depressingly un-Tory view (which perhaps should not surprise us). Our civil society is an organic system of allegiances and small institutions, requiring nourishment from moment to moment. I don’t expect the Chief Scientific Officer to appreciate this. But it would be of some comfort if a recently elected “Conservative” PM did. It may be that when Johnson finally decides to flick the switch back to “on” that there is nothing left to come back alive.

But at least, I suppose, he’ll have saved lives.

3.59 avg. rating (72% score) - 32 votes