What the pandemic can teach us about political philosophy

Eighteen months after the arrival of Covid-19 in Europe, we can start to think about the ethical dimensions of the pandemic. Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker, co-editor of a new book, Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Routes to a More Just Future, present some of his ideas.

In April 2020, in the period that we now consider to be “the first containment”, we brought together some initial thoughts from philosophers and political theorists on the ethical dimensions of the developing Covid-19 pandemic. We published them on Justice everywhere, the blog that we help to animate. Experts from almost all academic fields – epidemiology, statistical modeling, social psychology, economics – were turning the tools of their professions towards the growing crisis. What, if anything, do we have to offer our peers?

More than enough, fortunately, to develop these first thoughts in a book, Political philosophy in times of pandemic: towards a fairer future, an edited collection of essays examining how Covid-19 has affected a range of things we value – equality, justice, democracy and social progress. Although almost a year and a half has passed since we embarked on the project, the book comes out at a particularly good time for such discussions. Obviously, being essays in ethics and political theory, most of the contributions have little to say about how to deal with the immediate emergency or how best to fend off the virus. Instead, most of our authors wanted to connect Covid-19 upstream and downstream in time. A refrain that runs through the book is the idea that while the pandemic itself is unprecedented, many of the issues it has raised relate to long-standing issues of justice and political contestation. Another is the impulse to build on these moral ideas and political debates to try to create a better society as we attempt to overcome the current crisis and envision the world beyond.

It is common to note that crisis and opportunity often go hand in hand. There’s something a little uncomfortable about this idea, in a way. This unease perhaps stems from the idea that we should not think about the opportunities offered by a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic; something in this forward-looking orientation does not seem to pay due attention to the human tragedy we are currently experiencing. And that can certainly be the case when it comes to certain types of opportunism. For example, Naomi Klein opens her book The shock doctrine (2008) by describing how entrepreneurs viewed the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as an opportunity for real estate development and the overhaul of the city’s school system. There is clearly a different attitude driving the ‘build back better’ drive, which has driven efforts across societies to define what pandemic recovery should entail and what our post-pandemic world should look like.

The dramatic break with “business as usual” produced by crises opens up a space for collective reflection, political contestation and policy change for at least the following two reasons. First, by significantly disrupting the status quo, crises invite us – individually and collectively – to take stock, to reflect and to assess our existing situation. By exposing our vulnerabilities and highlighting deep social problems (often exacerbating them), they invite us to think about how to straighten, repair and rebuild our societies. Second, crises demand that we take drastic measures. Such actions remind us or show us what we are capable of and what is politically possible. By showing that other worlds are possible, crises can reinject more agency into political discourse simply because it is much more difficult for politicians to mobilize a sense of inevitability around the issue. status quo.

Obviously, the pandemic has both of these characteristics. First, the virus attacked the wounds in society, opening them up for all to see. As many chapters in our collection detail, several pre-crisis forms of injustice have contributed to the damage caused by the virus, have been made worse by it, or both – for example, inequalities in education , intergenerational inequalities and insufficient housing. And it has also drawn attention to other ethical and political issues, such as how to tackle the problem of disinformation and disinformation that is proliferating on social media.

Second, we have seen fundamental changes and monumental achievements that could hardly have been envisaged before the pandemic. Individuals have made significant sacrifices and drastically changed their behavior, including consuming less, traveling less, working from home, home-schooling their children, and not seeing friends and family for months, even on their deathbed. At the societal level, we have seen a surge of solidarity and appreciation for “key workers” previously taken for granted. And governments quickly developed bold and sweeping policies, on a scale rarely seen outside of wartime, to ensure economic security and temporarily end homelessness. A natural question, explored in several chapters, is whether these positive trends will continue beyond the crisis. And if not, why not – since we have already seen what is achievable?

Contributions to Political philosophy in times of pandemic explore the relationship between crisis and opportunity with the aim of charting pathways to a fairer world after Covid-19. In doing so, the book examines a set of specifically politico-philosophical questions raised by the crisis. Some of them are obvious (for example, the question of what to do about the planned elections during a pandemic); some are less obvious, but not necessarily less important for this (eg how public health measures undermine our democratic culture). Thus, although the book addresses important questions in medical ethics and public health, it is primarily a collection of essays in political theory.

It is made up of five parts, each one taking up a major theme in the social and political fallout of the pandemic. The first is social well-being and vulnerability, which includes essays on the social determinants of health and the corrosive nature of disadvantage, the vulnerability of children to school closures, and the right to adequate housing. The second theme is economic justice and includes discussions on precariousness, universal basic income and intergenerational justice. The third part deals with questions relating to democratic relations, like the two mentioned above – whether and how we should hold elections during a pandemic and the pandemic’s effects on democratic living – and others regarding the discriminatory assumptions underlying the lockdown measures and of which voices should (and should not) count in legitimizing a pandemic response policy. The fourth theme is speech and (dis) information, which examines questions such as whether efforts to crack down on disinformation about Covid-19 on social media violate free speech and moral permission to shame those who flout social distancing guidelines. Finally, the essays in part five examine the relationship between crisis and justice, including essays on the pandemic as an egalitarian life experience for the middle classes and on the lessons we could learn from Covid-19 crises for climate justice. This focus on political-theoretical issues makes this book a valuable addition to other vital collections that have focused on ethical issues in public health.

The tests in Political philosophy in times of pandemic are academically rigorous but written in an accessible manner, and therefore we hope that they will be of interest not only to academic political theorists, but also to students (e.g., of politics, philosophy, public policy) and to any person with a general interest in the issues that we raise. Our volume does not claim to be exhaustive in its coverage of the moral and political philosophy of the pandemic, despite the wide range of pressing and interesting topics included. As Onora O’Neill notes in her foreword, the trials were written ‘mid-pandemic’, most before we entered the second UK lockdown. Even now, in September 2021, as Covid-19 apparently recedes in Europe and North America, considerable uncertainty remains due to low vaccination rates in some parts of the world and the persistent threat of new variants. Even where the virus itself appears to be under control, the hard work of rebuilding has only just begun. Thus, this collection is offered as the start of a crucial and continuing conversation.


Note: This article is adapted from the introduction to the book Political philosophy in times of pandemic: paths to a fairer future. You can purchase the eBook or pre-order a physical copy here. The article gives the point of view of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or of the London School of Economics. It first appeared on the LSE’s Covid-19 blog. Featured Image Credit: Giammarco on Unsplash



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