Philosophy and Ethics in the Age of Corona Virus

It has been interesting to see how many news outlets and broadcasters ask for angles and insights these days from what we can broadly call a philosophical perspective. As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, I am one of those to be asked, and I humbly try to contribute.

So, what is philosophy good for now?

Empty shelves at a store in Arizona, USA. Photo: Dagny Gromer via Flickr.

One particular reason I have been asked is my background in the ethics of war, that is, the ethics and culture that we need when we face extreme, life-changing situations. It is a topic I have worked on with my good colleague Greg Reichberg and several others at PRIO.

The question is: Can this really be compared to a war? Are we mustering many of the same resources, and experiencing much of the same fear and hardship, as we do when we are at war?

The comparison has both strengths and weaknesses. This is certainly akin to a war when it comes to much of the drama of what is happening and what is required of us. Like many of my generation – born in the 1960s – I grew up with parents and friends who had experienced the occupation of Norway first-hand. Their stories of hardship, fear, togetherness, and a deep sense of uncertainty made a real impression. And I do realize that we find ourselves now at a similar watershed moment, even if it is by no means identical.

The similarity with war does not end there. Decisions out of the ordinary have to be made, not least when it comes to priorities in health care. Admittedly, these are ethical dilemmas that many health workers face every day, but they become more dramatic and frequent now. In medical parlance this is called “triage,” namely, that which happens – not least in war – when, say, 40 people have been wounded and you have resources to treat only 10 of them. COVID-19 already does – and most likely increasingly will – force us to face such challenges.

On the other hand, this is not war. No one is attacking us with weapons. No hidden or known enemy is doing their best to disrupt our lives or destroy our communities. This is a natural phenomenon, spurred on by the way in which we communicate and move in this globalized world. It has not been imposed on us by fanatic or power-hungry ideologues and leaders, nor by armed groups fighting against severe oppression. That fact does make a difference, not least since it should enable us to work better together and maybe even see this as “a great leveler,” as a friend of mine said: It is something we all face as a community, and thus something we have to solve as a community, not with weapons, but with goodwill and common efforts.

And also, unlike in war, we can meet these challenges with the best resources available to us in our societies at peace. Hopefully, we can do this in solidarity with those nations and affected peoples around the world who do not experience the benefits and strengths of peace. We may not be well enough prepared, by any means, but compared to nations depleted, physically and mentally, by war, we are much better situated.

This is a time for medical interventions, for strict hygiene, for research, and not least for tough, but necessary political decisions and regulations. But it is also, just as in war, a time when we sorely need love, hope, and care. It is a time when we should tap into the philosophical and spiritual resources of our traditions, and to show, with good will, togetherness, faith, hope, charity, and even humor and smiles that this crisis – and it is a crisis – will not get the better of us.

  • Henrik Syse is a Research Professor at PRIO and a Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjørknes University College.
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17 Comments

Kokomaung

Every individual must keep their morals concerned with the health of COVID 19 in this world.

Godwin Adahada

COVID-19 as you rightly described can be likened to a war situation but that will depend highly on the perspective of one’s examination. I think from the angle of destruction of life and stagnation of economic activities, fear, panic, unsuspecting nature it is worse than war. War situation would have some safe places but corona virus has not. The precautions are not absolute and difficult to keep. It’s adverse effects is more critical than war situations.

aibhlis ni mheachair

Which philosophy school would you recommend reading for practical guidance? The Stoics?

Henrik Syse

Comment to “Which philosophy school would you recommend reading for practical guidance? The Stoics?”

Excellent question, thank you so much — please forgive me my late reply. The Stoics represent a school that teaches us much that is truly valuable about confronting crises, with an emphasis on learning how to tackle and sometimes even suppress one’s emotions and on maintaining mental balance. Many schools within Buddhist thought represent some of the same. The weakness of such approaches is arguably that they can come to underestimate the actual importance of emotions, of empathy, and maybe even of compassion. I would thus recommend reading what a thinker such as Thomas Aquinas writes on what he calls the cardinal and theological virtues. He shows us in a good way — inspired by both Aristotle and various strands of Christian thought — how a true education of the soul also has to include engagement and compassion. A classical virtue such as courage, as well as a theological virtue such as charity, presupposes (and aims to teach us how to realize) engagement and compassion with the world around us. That is important as we struggle to face covid-19, and I think that can complement the teachings of the Stoics. Thanks again for the question!

Harsha

People must careful when they buy food. they should not buy all the food which is in the supermarket. need to left food to others

HERNAN MANUEL de PABLO

If we compared the situación with war? The only one that can be de winner or loosers is the humankind…

Stanley Nkemnole

But I think you are begging the question. What is the contribution of the Philosophical Enterprise to the fight against the COVID-19?

Henrik Syse

Reply to: “But I think you are begging the question. What is the contribution of the Philosophical Enterprise to the fight against the COVID-19?”

Good comment! And sorry — the short confines of a blog post do not allow for the fullest of explanations, obviously. The terminological and ethical clarification I sought to bring to bear on this situation hopefully represents a philosophical clarification in itself. More generally: I believe that philosophy, not only as an academic field but as a way of thinking, helps us view the immediate problems we are faced with from wider perspectives, such as the perspectives of meaning, morality, and existence. By this I mean that immediate questions of, for instance, difficult priorities and dilemmas and more generally the ethics of the choices we make faced with covid-19 can be tackled more fruitfully when we also employ such philosophical modes of thinking.

Ndemi

According to me, this COVID-19 is an enemy because it has brought the whole world to a stand still.We must all rise and fight it with every fiber we own.

Phoebe

It’s not really a war, but it’s our enemy. Each individual is one soldier. Hope everyone only going out when neccessary and do not store too much food.

sumit

Covid 19, can be a wake up call, a global lockdown is mandatory and a way to look into the state of affairs, nature is getting renovated, humans are getting cleansed from within.

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