The Role of Philosophy & Philosophers In The Coronavirus Pandemic (guest post)

In a previous post, I asked for suggestions from readers for topics related to the pandemic to post about and discuss here. One suggestion, from Jonathan Fuller (Pittsburgh), was the role of philosophy and philosophers during the pandemic. In the following guest post*, Alex Broadbent, Dean of Faculty of the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg gives his take on that subject. 

A version of the post originally appeared at his blog, Philosepi.

The Role of Philosophy & Philosophers In The Coronavirus Pandemic
by Alex Broadbent

What is the point of philosophy? That’s a question many philosophers struggle with, not just because it is difficult to answer. That goes for many academic disciplines, including “hard” sciences and applied disciplines like economics. However, unlike physicists and economists, philosophers ought to be able to answer this question, in the perception of many. And many of us can’t, at least to our own satisfaction.

I’ve written some opinion pieces (1,2) and given some interviews during this period, and I know of a handful of other philosophers who have done so (3,4). However, I also know of philosophers who have expressed frustration at the “uselessness” of philosophy in times like these. At the same time, I’ve seen an opinion piece by a computer scientist, whose expert contribution is confined to the nature of exponential growth: something that all of us with a basic mathematical education have studied, and which anyone subject to a compound interest rate, for example through a mortgage, will have directly experienced.

Yet computer science hasn’t covered itself in glory in this epidemic. Machine learning publications claiming to be able to arrive at predictive models in a matter of weeks have been notably lacking in this episode, confirming, for me, the view that machine learning and epidemiology have yet to interact meaningfully. Why do computer scientists (only one, admittedly; most of them are surely more sensible) and philosophers have such different levels of confidence at pronouncing on matters beyond their expertise?

There are no experts on the COVID-19 pandemic

This pandemic is subject to nobody’s expertise. It’s a novel situation, and expertise is remarkably useless when things change, as economists discovered in 2008 and pollsters in 2016.

Of course, parts of the current situation fall within the domains of various experts. Infectious disease epidemiologists can predict its spread. But there is considerably more to this pandemic than predicting its spread. In particular, the prediction of the difference that interventions make requires a grasp of causal inference that is a distinct skill set from that of the prediction of a trend, as proponents of the potential outcomes approach have correctly pointed out. Likewise, the attribution, after the fact, of a certain outcome to an intervention only makes good sense when we know what course of action we are comparing that intervention with; and this may be underspecified, because the “would have died otherwise” trend is so hard to establish.

Non-infectious-disease epidemiologists may understand the conceptual framework, methodology, terminology and pitfalls of the current research on the pandemic, but they do not necessarily have better subject-specific expertise than many in public health, the medical field, or others with a grasp on epidemiological principles. Scientists from other disciplines may be worse than the layperson because, like the computer scientist just mentioned, they wrongly assume that their expertise is relevant, and in doing so either simplify the issue to a childish extent, or make pronouncements that are plain wrong. (Epidemiology is, in my view, widely under-respected by other scientists.)

Turning to economics and politics, economists can predict the outcome of a pandemic or of measures to control it only if they have input from infectious disease epidemiologists on the predictive claims whose impacts they are seeking to assess.

Moreover, the health impact of economic policies are well-studied by epidemiologists, and to some extent by health economists; but these are not typically knowledgeable about the epidemiology of infectious disease outbreaks of this nature.

Jobs for philosophers

In this situation, my opinion is that philosophers can contribute substantially. My own thinking has been around cost-benefit analysis of public health interventions, and especially the neglect of the health impact – especially in very different global locations – of boilerplate measures being recommended to combat the health impact of the virus. This is obviously a lacuna, and especially pressing for me as I sit writing this in my nice study in Johannesburg, where most people do not have a nice study. Africa is always flirting with famine (there are people who will regard this as an insult; it is not). Goldman Sachs is predicting a 24% decline in US GDP next quarter.

If this does not cost lives in Africa, that would be remarkable. It might even cost more lives than the virus would, in a region where only 3% are over 65 (and there’s no evidence that HIV status makes a difference to outcomes of COVID-19). South Africa is weeks into the epidemic and saw its first two deaths just today.

Yet the epidemiological community (at least on my Twitter feed) has entirely ignored either the consequences of interventions on health (merely pointing out that the virus will have its own economic impact even without interventions, which is like justifying the Bay of Pigs by pointing out that Castro would have killed people even without the attempted invasion. And context is nearly totally ignored. The discipline appears mostly to have fallen behind the view that the stronger the measure, the more laudable. Weirdly, those who usually press for more consideration of social angles seem no less in favour, despite the fact that they spend most of the rest of their time arguing that poverty is wrongly neglected as a cause of ill-health. Do I sound disappointed in the science that I’m usually so enthusiastic about, and that shares with philosophy the critical study of the unknown? Here we have a virus that may well claim a larger death toll in richer countries with older populations, and a set of measures that are designed by and for those countries, and a total lack of consideration of local context. Isn’t this remarkable?

There is more to say, and many objections; I’ll write this up in an academically rigorous way as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to publish opinion pieces, where I think it’s useful. Right now, my point is that there’s a lot for philosophers to dissect here. I don’t mean in this particular problem, but in the pandemic as a whole. And the points don’t have to be rocket science. They can be as simple as recommending that a ban on sale of cigarettes be lifted.

What is required for us to be useful, however, is that we apply our critical thinking skills to the issue at hand. Falling in with common political groupings adds nothing unique and requires the suspension of the same critical faculties that we philosophers pride ourselves on in other contexts. This is a situation where nearly all the information on which decisions are being made is publicly available, where none of it is the exclusive preserve of a single discipline, and where fear clouds rational thought. Expert analyses of specific technical problems are also readily available. These are ideal conditions for someone trained to apply analytic skills in a relatively domain-free manner to contribute usefully.

Off the top of my head, here are a handful topic ideas:

  • How to circumscribe the consequences of COVID-19 that we are interested in when devising our measures of intervention (this is an ethical spin on the issue I’m interested in above)
  • The nature of good prediction (which I’ve worked on in the public health context – but there is so much more to say)
  • The epistemology of testimony, especially concerning expertise, in a context of minimal information (to get us past the “trust the scientists FFS” dogma – that’s an actual quote from Twitter)
  • The weighing of the rights of different groups, given the trade off between young and old deaths (COVID-19 kills almost no children, while they will die in droves in a famine)

One’s own expertise will suggest other topics, provided that the effort is to think critically rather than simply identify people with whom one agrees. I very much hope that we will not see a straightforward application of existing topics: inductive risk and coronavirus; definition of health and coronavirus; rights and coronavirus; etc. To be clear, I’m not saying that no treatment of coronavirus can mention inductive risk, definition of health, or rights; just that the treatment must start with Coronavirus. My motto in working on the philosophy of epidemiology is that my work is philosophical in character but epidemiological in subject: it is philosophical work about epidemiology. Where it suggests modifications to existing debates in philosophy, as does happen, that is great, but it’s not the purpose. The idea is to identify new problems, not to cast old ones in a new light. Perhaps there are no such thing as the latter, but then again, perhaps it’s only by trying to do the former that we can ever achieve the latter.

Call to arms

The skill of philosophers, and the value in philosophy, does not lie in our knowledge of debates that we have had with each other. It lies in our ability to think fruitfully about the unfamiliar, the disturbing, the challenging, and even the abhorrent. The coronavirus pandemic is all these things. Let’s get stuck in.

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Eric Steinhart
4 years ago

I like your last paragraph a lot. I hope we start to do this kind of thinking.

4 years ago

A historical question. The Academy went through a lot of wars and a lot of pandemics. How did they deal?

Reply to  TJB
4 years ago

Philosophy is still coming to terms with the Plague of Justinian

Tom Cochrane
4 years ago

Aestheticians always have to face the charge of uselessness, so nothing new there. Of course the arts should have no trouble proving their worth when all over the world they are stopping people stuck at home from going mad, but the study of aesthetic values or experience??

Aesthetics won’t help to combat the disease, but it will point out that there is considerable final value to be found in simply observing what is happening, for its own sake. Whatever else it is, the coronavirus is incredibly interesting. A great big rock has been dropped into the pool of human society and we are witnessing a million different effects that even the best fiction writers would have found hard to anticipate (who would have anticipated the creative response of putting different song lyrics to hand-washing instructions? and also how this is now *so* last week?)

So all I’m saying is that, like everything else, there is intense drama, and beauty, and sublimity and tragedy and comedy in this event. And it will no doubt stimulate the creative responses of human beings for years to come. And perhaps in recognizing- and embracing this, we can be less fearful or depressed.

Reply to  Tom Cochrane
4 years ago

Perhaps you’ve hit upon the justification right there: If the arts stop people from “going mad” — that is, provide some kind of solace or other psychological, social, even spiritual value — then there is value in understanding those arts. Any such attempt at understanding art, if it aims for completeness, must surely entail grappling with aesthetics, that is, with philosophy.

Such study offers both purely theoretical results, understanding aesthetics at the highest levels of generality and abstraction; I believe it also has practical benefits, as both creators and experiencers of art (and indeed, of any potentially aesthetic experience) can apply such understanding, respectively, in the creation and appreciation thereof.

4 years ago

Good thoughts on this; thank you for writing. I have also been thinking of philosophy’s proper role now; I’ve spoken with many recently who are experiencing crises of motivation and conscience (and am experiencing such myself), unsure if such intellectual labors are trivial or pointless in the face of this “real-world” crisis. My perhaps naive suggestion would be: If one harbors such doubts, then act on them, take this as opportunity to focus (or re-focus) your philosophical work, if possible, or at least in part, to address life “on the ground”, as it were.

Even after this crisis has passed, there will be more crises in the future; thus many philosophical questions arise to challenge us: What kind of world, society, and individuals do we wish to be on the other side of this particular crisis? What can we learn from this dark experience? What can we improve?

Of course, there is a crucial place for purely theoretical work, just as there is need for such in science; but philosophy in its more applied aspects, like science in its applications, must also confront (and dare I say, attempt to improve, with that fraught term defined as we will) life and lives, in the here and now, and into the future.

On that note, we may remind ourselves that human lives are not the only ones on this pale blue dot, nor are they they only ones involved in this crisis.

What of the proverbial elephant (or creature of any other non-human species) in the room? That is: The human exploitation of other animals. This seems to me a massive ethical, and thus philosophical, challenge.

Epidemiology relates to non-human animals in at least two ways: Human exploitation of animals (e.g. the euphemistically named “wet markets”) is implicated as causal factor in this and many other “zoonotic” diseases; as we once again are “using” and killing countless animals in research, seeking to understand the disease and to develop a vaccine.

We are part of nature. Perfectionism in our relationship to the rest of the natural world is probably a fool’s errand, and we may never succeed in eradicating all suffering, but surely it is incumbent upon us to continually evaluate and improve that relationship, practically, ethically, and morally.

Alternative view
Alternative view
4 years ago

Honestly, the answer is very simple:


Forget our “expertise”, the most effective thing you can do now is ease the burden of health providers like any other citizen. I’m reminded of this:

4 years ago

I appreciate the basic sentiment behind the article. However, without disrespect to the author and without truly wishing to engage in petty polemics, I cannot but admit that the article lacks basic vision. This lack of vision is partly brought about by the perverse institutionalisation of the discipline. However, the main culprit is more basic: it is the usual unwillingness of academics to engage with topics of genuinely wide import. The author thinks that we do not need discussions such as “inductive risk and coronavirus; definition of health and coronavirus; rights and coronavirus;”. However, some of the ‘ideas’ put forth are “the nature of good prediction”, “the epistemology of testimony”, and “the weighing of the rights of different groups given the trade-off between young and old deaths”. The sad truth is that anyone except philosophers (and, perhaps, a few fringe ‘non-philosophers’ academics) really cares, or can begin to care about any of these ideas. Of course, I do not examine whether anyone should care, or should try to understand these topics. But, for an article that tries to offer a sketch regarding the import of philosophers for a perplexed civilization, I personally think that such ‘worries’ risk baffling us even more.

Tentatively, here are a few very basic alternatives that seem much more pertinent. Notably, these alternatives do not form the purview of ‘philosophers’, but rather the purview of all thinking beings. Situations like the one we are facing now are bigger than one’s narrow specialisation. Philosophers (who I do think are smart people after all) could begin discussing one, or all of the following:

1) The fragility of modern industrialised societies
2) The clear need to devise, or, at least, start thinking about, alternative socio-economic systems that do not risk collapsing because most people took a ‘break’. This is not a goofy call to ‘socialism’, nor an equally goofy demand to abandon a market economy.
3) The gradual realisation that scientists are not superhumans and their expert judgements are not value-free. Scientists’ impact on policy is not solely based on data. It is also based on the scientists’ own values. And these values can often be quite abhorrent.
4) The realisation that everyone (including myself) should have some basic knowledge of policy-making.
5) The need to safeguard that the politicians of the (presently justified) authoritarian states we inhabit do not create dangerous precedents

Alistair Wardrope
Alistair Wardrope
4 years ago

While I have occasional interest in philosophy (phil med and bioethics, a little environmental ethics), I’m mainly a (medical) doctor. From that perspective, what it seems like philosophers could offer – and have so far failed to do in any substantive way – is to step up and shoulder some of the burden of making the impossible decisions clinicians face in the face of this pandemic. There are plenty willing to opine on the sorts of reasons that should be guiding decisions re: e.g. resource allocation, end-of-life decision making, limiting interventions with increased risk of spreading contagion, but none offering practical explicit decision procedures, instead leaving the moral responsibility for performing this reasoning – and the moral injury of the consequences, to clinicians already suffering overwhelming decision fatigue.

Put another way, we could do with a few more rule utilitarians (or concrete rule-based formulations of other ethical frameworks). Philosophers could work to create explicit decision procedures for e.g. who gets priority for ITU care, or when to perform (aerosol-generating and thus infection-risking) CPR. Because without philosophical expertise, clinicians are doing that for one another, on the fly, presumably with ethically suboptimal results.

Luke Gelinas
Luke Gelinas
Reply to  Alistair Wardrope
4 years ago

There are large groups of clinical ethicists and others (many, though not all, formally trained in philosophy) working basically around the clock to put together evidence-based, ethically sophisticated guidelines and tools for assisting in triage decisions. Not only that, they are also engaged in serious reflection on psycho-social issues with ethical overtones and implications, such as how to minimize the moral distress of caregivers, comfort families unable to be present with dying loved ones (due to isolation requirements and lack of PPE), and communicate tragic allocation and re-allocation decisions, many of which will likely conflict with the preferences of patients and families. If such reflection is not happening at your institution and you need resources, I am happy to point you in the right direction. Please feel free to email me: [email protected].

I would suggest that the work these folks are engaged in is exemplary Covid philosophical work. It is not the only type of Covid philosophical work, and may not be new. But it requires knowledge that spans multiple disciplines, innovation and rigor, and sympathetic understanding to do well. And the conditions under which it is being done–the pressures and time-constraints–are arguably unprecedented. I was disappointed not to see the work of clinical ethicists mentioned in the main post.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
4 years ago

To the extent that philosophers are (or might be) more than specialists in their respective areas of professional training and expertise, that is, able to exercise capabilities to act as morally and politically responsible intellectuals in various public fora of society, they should be able to stand back, as it were, and provide us with the proverbial big picture in order to help people make sense of and think critically about existential questions and psychological conditions, as well as the socio-economic and political contexts and circumstances that confront us; situations, contexts, and circumstances marked by differing degrees and kinds of urgency and history. These conditions, situations, contexts and circumstances are also, in principle, susceptible to various forms and measures of transcendence: now, in the short term, and in the future. While I am not a philosopher, it was with this in mind that I earlier shared (in the comments to ‘Posting About/During The Pandemic’) a list of readings about health, public health, and infectious diseases. And now I ‘d like to share a list of works I’ve found germane to making sense of and thinking critically about the “big picture” in which this pandemic and the federal government’s response to same can be framed and thus in conjunction with our individual and collective endeavor to address and make sense of the aforementioned questions, conditions, contexts, and circumstances (this compilation is biased toward the U.S.):

• Alford, Ryan. Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).
• Auestad, Lene, ed. Nationalism and the Body Politic: Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Ethnocentrism and Xenophobia (London: Karnac Books, 2014).
• Dahl, Robert A. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (Yale University Press, 2nd ed., 2003).
• Fontana, Benedetto, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer, eds. Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).
• Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press, 2006).
• Gilbert, Alan. Democratic Individuality (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
• Goldberg, Michelle. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006).
• Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
• Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press, 2016).
• Greenberg, Karen J. Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (Crown, 2016).
• Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009).
• Johnston, David Cay. The Making of Donald Trump (Melville House, 2016).
• Klein, Naomi. On The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
• Lee, Brandy X., ed. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
• Lin, Ken-Hou and Megan Tobias Neely. Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance (Oxford University Press, 2020).
• MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains (Viking, 2017).
• Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Anchor Books, 2017).
• Pettigrew, Thomas F. “Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters,” Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2017): 107-116.
• Piketty, Thomas (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.) Capital and Ideology (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020).
• Seidel, Andrew L. The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (Sterling, 2019).
• Therborn, Göran. The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity Press, 2013).
• Urbinati, Nadia. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, 2014).
• Wills, Garry. Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (Penguin Press, 2010).

4 years ago

The metaphorical “Trolley Problem” now suddenly arises as a very real challenge with painful real-world consequences, and no mere intellectual exercise. In a scenario of unfortunately limited health and medical resources, how to distribute those? Whom to help, whom to save or not? At whose cost? Who (human and non-human) will be harmed in order to save others? What constitutes “fairness” here?

The medical practitioners at the front lines are now forced into such tragic scenarios, where imperfect decisions must be made, often under intense time pressure. Our governments are also making such societal resource allocation decisions on a broader scale. Even the economic shutdown requires such ethical judgments. What will be the benefits vs costs, including lives lost worldwide, in various economic slowdown or shutdown scenarios, in extent and duration? How do we judge and evaluate such potential costs and benefits?

As I see it, these problems are both practical and philosophical.

David Gagne
David Gagne
4 years ago

Excellent piece. I only wish the author had given us a dose of what he’s asking of his readers, i.e., a paragraph or two doing philosophy of an aspect of the coronavirus pandemic that is not taking an old topic and then simply ‘add philosophy and stir.’

Jonathan Surovell
4 years ago

Dear professor Broadbent,

If you get the chance, could you elaborate on your claim that the coming recession is likely to cause more deaths than the virus in South African? I understand that long-term economic growth has driven impressive reductions in global hunger. But is hunger highly sensitive to short-term changes in growth? This graph, and others like it that I’ve seen, suggest not, but I’m not an expert on this:

It’s also worth noting that in advanced countries, mortality declines significantly during recessions, due primarily to fewer traffic fatalities and less air pollution (fewer murders too, interestingly). Do you know whether this holds for South Africa?


Jonathan Surovell
Reply to  Jonathan Surovell
4 years ago

Here’s a graph of global hunger over time:

It is surprising that there’s no apparent association between the Great Recession and the rate of decline of hunger (and that global hunger increased during good times, globally). I have seen evidence that food insecurity (access to healthy food) increases in the US during recessions. But this is, of course, not a careful way to isolate the effects of the economic downturns.

Jonathan Surovell
4 years ago

On last thing: I see that in your “Why a One-Size-Fits-All” article, you’re discussing the consequences of social distancing policies adopted by the South African government. I interpreted your point in the OP, about the economic downturn causing more deaths than the virus, to concern the estimated 24% quarterly decline in the US. My previous posts are about the effects of the US downturn on global hunger. If that’s not what you meant, my bad!

4 years ago

Great article.

Here is a short piece I would recommend, written by an epidemiologist in Australia

It distinguishes social distancing policies aimed at *flattening* as opposed to *squashing* the curve; and calls for “economists, ethicists and philosophers” to help assess the social and economic costs attached to each goal.

According to Professor Tony Blakely, flattening aims at keeping hospitals busy but not overwhelmed, while letting the virus run its course steadily through the population, until ‘herd immunity’ is achieved. Squashing aims to minimise infection to a point that is lower than ICU capacity, but probably not high enough to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine arrives.

Reply to  Jack
4 years ago

Also this piece, ‘The Maths and Ethics of Minimising Covid-19 Deaths’ (March 23).

Context of analysis is Australia, but the framework for discussion is universal. I am not suggesting that Blakely has any answers (neither is he) but that he raises many useful and, as yet, under-explored ethical questions about societal responses.