On the 3rd June 2020, the Academy of Ideas and the Freiblickinstitut hosted a discussion on the moral responses to the coronavirus with Frank Furedi and Susan Neiman.
Neiman image for this page courtesy of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung CC BY-SA 2.0
This debate posits that the question of how societies should respond to the challenge of Covid-19 has never simply been a medical issue, but one of morality as well. It considers that there are many considerations to be weighed and moral choices to be made. And, that, while the policy of lockdown will contain the spread of the virus and may limit deaths from it, it will also damage businesses, livelihoods and may even cost lives itself. Amidst so much uncertainty, how do we judge what is the right thing to do?
One place to begin is with economics. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) uses an economic calculation to help the NHS decide whether to invest in life-saving drugs. It assumes a year of healthy life is worth £30,000, and weighs the cost of a drug against how many extra healthy years it will give the patient. Yet this kind of utilitarianism makes many uneasy, with people criticising this practice of putting a price on a life.
Further problems arise when we try to weigh up different goods. For example, the coronavirus lockdowns aim to keep us safe, but what if someone values their freedom more than being safe? Similarly, as Wolfgang Schäuble recently argued, we can’t pursue safety at the expense of everything else, as ‘we cannot exclude the possibility that we must die’. Yet, even though we die, perhaps our struggle for life has a value of its own. Responding to Schäuble, Michel Wuliger of the Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine insisted that valuing life marks the difference between civilisation and barbarism.
More broadly, the worldwide response to the pandemic has challenged many long-cherished values. Democracy has been put on hold, with elections postponed and parliaments sent into recess. Freedoms have been curtailed, with extensive powers granted to police forces. Traditional markers of compassion, such as funerals, have been cancelled and many say that essential workers, from nurses to shop-assistants, have been put in harm’s way.
Amidst such widespread moral challenges, how are we to decide what’s right? Whilst a rich tradition of philosophy reflects on how to be moral, can it be useful in such unprecedented times? What can learn from history? When we are urged to ‘follow the science’ and obey government guidance, is there any room for individual judgement and moral autonomy?
Frank Furedi - Sociologist, Author and Social Commentator
Frank Furedi is a sociologist, author and social commentator, who grew up in Hungary and Canada before moving to England. Formerly, a professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury, Furedi has used his academic insights to produce a series of agenda-setting books that have been widely discussed in the media.
Furedi is a regular feature as a commentator on radio and television shows and has appeared on Newsnight, Sky News and BBC News. As well his extensive bibliography, Furedi also regularly publishes essays on a variety of issues.
His latest book looks at the relationship between borders and boundaries and meaningful experience and sees a cultural devaluation of the act of judgment and a loss of clarity about the moral boundaries in everyday life. Entitled Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries, this book will be in publication from the 15th June 2020.
Susan Neiman - Director, Einstein Forum
Susan Neiman is the director of the Einstein Forum. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Free University of Berlin. She was a professor of philosophy at the universities of Yale and Tel Aviv before coming to the Einstein Forum in 2000. Her publications include Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant, Evil in Modern Thought, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists and Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age.
Jacob Reynolds - Partnerships Manager, Academy of Ideas
Jacob Reynolds is a partnerships manager at the Academy of Ideas. He was previously a consultant at SHM, a strategy consultancy specialising in using insights into human motivation to help organisations solve complex human-centred problems.
Prior to joining SHM as a consultant, Jacob studied philosophy at St Cross College, Oxford, and developed a special interest in political and continental philosophy, especially in the work of Hannah Arendt. Before studying at Oxford University, Jacob also read politics and philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where he was part of a group of friends who ran the Sheffield Salon, which was modelled on the salons of Enlightenment Europe
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