Coronavirus: How can philosophy help us in this time of crisis?

Unthinkable: Philosophers might not be on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic but they have a role to play

There is a philosophical saying for every occasion, and right now a bit of Stoicism seems apt.

“Cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will,” said Seneca in an aphorism with echoes of the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

The coronavirus pandemic throws up fundamental political, ethical and existential questions. How can philosophers help in this hour of need?

For this week’s Unthinkable column, The Irish Times put the question to a number of active thinkers.


Charlotte Blease

A founder of Philosophy Ireland and currently interdisciplinary researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston

“Amid the panic and fear of the pandemic it is fair to say that few decry a lack of doctors of philosophy on the scene. Just as well: philosophers are perhaps the most practiced of any social group when it comes to self-isolation.

Doctors of philosophy cannot offer cures.

“With a predilection for flamboyant nose-holding in all hands-on matters, academic philosophers have – not unjustifiably – gained a reputation for chronic unworldliness. But philosophy, like the invisible bug, already infests and stealthily effects the practicalities and decisions being played out in the Covid-19 crisis. Here are a few:

“With finite medical resources, who do we save, and why? What are the responsibilities of health organisations to clinicians, and of clinicians to their families? How should we distribute financial aid? Who is an expert, and why? What constitutes evidence in modelling the new virus? Is it acceptable to track pandemics with personal data from electronic devices?

“Doctors of philosophy cannot offer cures. Philosophy works best in a reciprocal relationship with evidence and the real world – the latter, often embarrassed to be seen without scare quotes. A shot of philosophy among our teams of medics, scientists, and civil servants, might offer immunity from rash political, healthcare, and personal decisions. To that extent philosophy can make a real difference.”

Vittorio Bufacchi

Department of philosophy, University College Cork

“There is an important debate in social epistemology regarding experts, testimony, and trust pertinent to the Covid-19 crisis: how laypersons should evaluate the testimony of experts and decide which of two or more rival experts is most credible.

“The trust we have on experts is based on a second-level trust: we trust experts because other people we trust tell us that we can trust the experts in question: namely, our government. But our trust in politicians is not the same as our trust in scientists. It wouldn’t be the first time that politicians distort the advice they get from experts for political gain or convenience. So who are we to trust?

“Here’s a possible answer, perhaps the most important lesson philosophy can teach us in this time of crisis. Each and every individual has a moral responsibility to do what’s right, notwithstanding what our government tells us, or fails to tell us. The Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere (first, do no harm), does not apply exclusively to the medical establishment, it is a moral principle that everyone must follow, to the best of our ability, even if the personal costs are high, and that includes losing money on a holiday or missing out on the Cheltenham Festival.”

Skye Cleary

Philosophy writer and co-editor, with Massimo Pigliucci and Daniel Kaufman, of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage)

“For many, this pandemic is a new kind of ambiguity and being anxious about it is understandable: millions of lives are being unexpectedly disrupted; disinformation, disbelief, and denial are rife; and the death toll is rising. Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy can help because she points out that to be human is to live in ambiguity and the solution isn’t to eliminate uncertainly, but to recognise it as the condition of existence.

“Although it might feel like we’re isolated, especially in quarantine, it can be helpful to know that each of us faces the human condition together. And since we are all a fact of each other’s reality, we share responsibility for one another. Refusing to act to prevent the spread of the virus makes us responsible for worsening the situation – not just for other people, but for ourselves, because being interconnected means that our well-being is linked too.

“Even if we’re not infected, the crisis is affecting our lives and loved ones in other ways such as connectivity, work, or physical and mental health. Beauvoir describes humanity as like stones in an arch: the healthier the stones, the healthier the arch. While our global arch is compromised by pandemics, it is strengthened by being generous, caring for the vulnerable, and supporting one another.”

Paul O’Grady

Head of department of philosophy, Trinity College Dublin

“Socrates is famous for his statement ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. This might sound pompous or removed from reality, but Socrates carried out his questioning in the market place, the gym, the courts. It wasn’t a merely academic task but vital to living well. He wanted to know what’s valuable, what’s important, how to live a good life, what’s the right thing to do?

The tools of reflection and self-awareness are supportive when everything about is shifting.

“A student once asked me whether philosophers are all depressed. I wondered why he asked and he replied, ‘all this ruminating happens only when you’re low’. Maybe, but this questioning also happens in times of crisis such as the present. The tools of reflection and self-awareness are supportive when everything about is shifting.

“Realising what’s important and what’s not helps shape our response to circumstances. Getting perspective, re-evaluating what our real needs are is supportive. Using our critical faculties helps, eg being skeptical about information, testing it, checking its provenance.

“Socrates found that his philosophical way of life gave him courage. Philosophy is not a body of knowledge, but a mindset, a questioning. It is a love of wisdom, a way of linking reason with values and emotions, with the goal of living and dying well.”