The Financial Express

Philosophising on a pandemic

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Published: April 29, 2020 21:15:39 | Updated: April 30, 2020 22:53:08

Philosophising on a pandemic

As noted by Warwick Anderson, a University of Sydney professor of ethics, in a recent article titled 'Epidemic Philosophy', the Covid-19 pndemic galvanised many Western philosophers to philosophise about its meaning and significance within weeks of its becoming a global menace.

As early as in late-February, the 77-year old Italian social theorist Giorgio Agamben condemned the 'frenetic, irrational, and entirely unfounded emergency measures against an alleged epidemic'. He deemed the scourge to be no worse than seasonal flu, termed social distancing as a deep-state conspiracy and charged that a 'state of exception' has reduced lives to a purely biological condition bereft of social, political or emotional dimensions. However, Agamben was less sceptical by mid-March when he was more concerned about the state of human relations, regretting that humans have been reduced to mere 'potential contaminators' to be avoided at any cost.

Jean-Luc Nancy, a 79-year-old French philosopher, countered Agamben by suggesting that the pandemic responses could generate new social solidarities and the resulting viral magnifying glass could even enlarge human contradictions and limitations. The 71-year old Slovenian Slavoj Zizek - deemed to be the wild man of European philosophy - then feared that barbarism with a human face might emerge through 'ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimised by expert opinions'. He also hoped that the new forms of social connection might lead to the Phoenix rising from the ashes, even breeding a new version of communism.

The 72-year old French philosopher Bruno Latour wrote soon afterwards urging 'a more thorough ecological analysis of the outbreak, one less focused on contagion' so that the health crisis prepares, induces and incites mankind to get ready for climate change. He was succeeded by his octogenarian countryman Alain Badiou who felt in late-March that the pandemic was 'obliging subjects to those sad effects - mysticism, fabulation, prayer, prophecy and malediction' as were seen during the Middle-Ages when plagues swept the earth.

Then on 16 April, a philosophy professor of Chicago's Columbia College Stephen T Asma made a succinct assessment of pandemic-based philosophies through an opinion-piece titled 'Does the Pandemic Have a Purpose' in The New York Times. He differentiated two distinct philosophical features of the ongoing pandemic. One claimed organisms like coronavirus were neither evil nor noble; they were simply doing what came naturally - surviving and reproducing. And this natural phenomenon was completely value-neutral from an evolutionary perspective. Diseases and deaths are not bugs but features in the system, and natural selection works because of the need to survive and procreate by innumerable organisms.

In the backdrop of this frightening neutrality of nature, the humans marshal powerful imaginations that give rise to the second phenomenon - a mytho-poetic view of nature. As Asma explains, this paradigm lays bare the universal human instinct that forever seeks to find a plot in nature and primarily sees the world as a dramatic narrative of competing personal intentions instead of a system of objective and impersonal laws.

When this framework is applied, the political left appears as much mytho-poetic as the political right. Many liberal commentators blame human encroachments on pristine nature and resultant environmental sins for nature's reprisal through this viral invasion. On the other hand, the left claims mankind facilitated its emergence through rampant profligacy. As for religionists like the Pope, pandemics were nature's retribution for the human abuses. But Asma contends that zoonotic diseases, parasitism, predation and extinctions are not punishments, but are 'business as usual', as they have existed all along. 'Most of the known pathogens that infect humans have zoonotic origins, and human abuse of the environment is not their principal cause'.

But although considered factually absurd, mytho-poetic views like 'we are at war against an invisible enemy' can help humans make difficult personal sacrifices like 'social distancing' by overcoming their hedonistic ego. Imagining that the sins of failed environmentalism have brought nature's reprisal can help humans to better prepare for the future by mending the environmental policies.

Earlier, in an opinion piece published on 29 March, titled 'How Coronavirus is shaking up the Moral Universe', the Bloomberg editor John Authers shed light on four distinct philosophical approaches to tackling the pandemic. These approaches are called 'Rawlsian', 'Utilitarian', 'Libertarian' and 'Communitarian'. The Harvard philosopher John Rawls was the proponent of Rawlsianism, which advocated that the 'assurance of basic necessities and the opportunity to do better' should form the foundation of social and political justice. Rawls was not a religionist, but his philosophy conformed to the Biblical 'golden rule': 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. Consequently, the Rawlsians have taken the treatment of the worst-off as the benchmark for social action. By following this principle, many Western governments have clamped lockdowns in a bid to minimise the sufferings of the weakest.

Originally enunciated by the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, 'Utilitarianism' urges authorities to strive for enhancing overall happiness of all people and secure 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. This approach posits that if a recession could lead to shorter lives and widespread misery, then making less of an attempt to save every last life from the pandemic could lead to greater total happiness. On the other hand, 'Libertarianism' owes its origin to the 17th century English philosopher John Locke. It opines that man has a right to 'live for himself' and the individual's happiness 'cannot be prescribed by another man or any number of other men'. The Covid-19 responses in the West have expanded the role of the state, curtailed individual rights and forced people into privations, which would not have been supported by the adherents of Libertarianism.

Linked to the ancient Greeks as well as modern philosophers like Karl Marx, Amitai Etzioni and Michael Sandel, the 'Communitarian' approach in contrast asserts that humans derive their identity from the broader community; therefore, community norms should hold sway over individual rights. Some Asian nations including China have demonstrated the benefits of a Communitarian approach while tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.



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