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More Philosophy: The Just & the Right

Following up on my philosophical follow ups of yesterday, later last night I read Judith Butler's piece on the pandemic.  She criticizes that situation because we have previously failed to create a more just health care system that would have handled this better.  Because of this systemic failure,

Social and economic inequality will make sure that the virus discriminates. The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism. It seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between grievable and ungrievable lives, that is, those who should be protected against death at all costs and those whose lives are considered not worth safeguarding against illness and death.

Alex Broadbent in his pieces has been making the point that we have to do the hard thinking to determine what criteria make these choices.  Nor is it consoling to point out that doctors make these choices all the time.  Of course Butler is also correct that we should have a better system to begin with.  I think that's also inherent in Agamben's criticisms of the response.  My own thoughts a few weeks ago were, "Why aren't we doing what South Korea did which is obviously better?"  Only to eventually realize we weren't prepared to do that.  We've inflicted social harm (and hopefully not longterm harm on the institutions of the republic) because of that.

It is the role of philosophers to conceptualize and criticize and imagine how to do better and right.  Broadbent has been insisting that there are relevant data and criteria that do not seem to be factored in to decision making.  Agamben is insisting that the decisions be broadly more and not focused solely on survival (a fair point, though I feel Agamben is functioning in some sort of fantasy).

Yesterday I was reading Leo Strauss's essay on Plato's Republic.  A most infelicitous writer Strauss.  But in that essay he makes Plato's point that the just city is impossible.  Which raises the question, what is the most just city that is possible then?  Or, given our failures to create a better system to begin with and our failures to be adequately prepared (and surprisingly so since this virus is nowhere near as fatal as Ebola or SARS and as one friend said, "this is our practice run" for the really bad pandemic) what then is right, good, and just?  Fair debate to be had there, but also not to lose site of the fact that being cornered by the failures into a series of bad choices.

While I was reading Strauss, Sebastian was re-watching Frozen 2 where Queen Elsa is told to do "the next right thing."  Sounds like sage advice.  In this moment, maybe that's all that can be settled for.  But the next right thing is often not clear and rather narrows our vision of the moral.


Philosophical Follow Ups

A couple of new links to follow-up on previous posts about the pandemic and philosophy.

Last Sunday I posted Alex Broadbent's article "Thinking Rationally About Coronavirus COVID-19," which generated some vigorous discussion on my Facebook timeline.  He's out with two more articles, becoming something of an indispensable voice in this crisis (he is a "philosopher of epidemiology").  The article "Why a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 could have lethal consequences" discusses why the measures taken in other parts of the world might have a higher mortality rate than the virus if they were taken in Africa. 

His other new post in a broader article at Daily Nous entitled "The Role of Philosophy & Philosophers In The Coronavirus Pandemic."  I particularly liked the final paragraph labeled as "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.

One of the commentors, a Tom Cochrane, writes about how aesthetics intersects with the pandemic:

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.


At Home: "It is Moral"

“'Marguerite Derrida has just left us, a whole world is leaving,' announced the Institute of Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis (IHEP) in a press release dated March 21, 2020." The widow of the acclaimed French philosopher has died of COVID-19.  

In Italy the moral, social, and human cost of no funerals is mounting.

A criticism of Giorgio Agamben published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately behind a paywall) rightly points out that writings on the pandemic have focused on the moral crisis:

Agamben correctly observes that the question of the proportionality of the response is not a scientific one; it is moral. And the answer is not obvious. Here, at least, Agamben arrives at a serious question. This is exactly the kind of question we had hoped the humanist could help us answer.

Note, if you've missed the discussion of Agamben, I've been tracking it in my recent blog posts on the pandemic.

This author zeroes in on some appropriate criticisms, but I feel as if her essay is just the beginning of a response.  I was left wanting more from the final section.  Also wanting her to grapple more fully with the story out of Italy about lack of funerals, for instance.

The intellectual response is growing this week.  Here at The Point, one can read plague journals from around the world, including a shortened version of that Chronicle of Higher Education article not behind a paywall.

And this evening I listened to a good podcast interview with the always interesting Anne Applebaum about authoritarian opportunism during the crisis and how the USA should learn from this to modernize its bureaucracy.  

Yesterday I encountered the Philosophers on Medicine podcast, which has yet to grapple fully with this crisis, but they do address some of the concerns that it raises.

An interesting Midlands Voice in our local paper wondered if the luck of the Boomers has finally come to an end as they now face their biggest challenge as a generation.

My long planned sermon theme for this coming Sunday is "To Be More . . . Hopeful."  What seemed like a serious challenge at the start of the week quickly took shape, as I will be exploring some of the things I've preached about hope before and testing them against the current crisis.

And just because this post lacked any cute Sebastian photos, here is a previously unshared one from a few days ago.

In a tree


At Home: Labyrinths

Defoe

Daniel Defoe, in A Journal of the Plague Year, which I'm currently reading having intended to read this year even before the pandemic, writes this key paragraph:

Now let any man judge from a case like this if it is possible for the regulations of magistrates, either by shutting up the sick or removing them, to stop an infection which spreads itself from man to man, even while they are perfectly well and insensible of its approach, and may be so for many days.

To that end, I recommend Thomas Pueyo's "The Hammer and the Dance," which does the best job of anything I've recently read about the best current steps and what comes next.  

Even so, there are other voices.  As with any scientific question, there are unknowns.  There's this piece I read on Towleroad entitled "What's the Best Path Forward?"

Part of the value of reading Defoe, or any of the other classic works of plague literature, is that we so often live in the fierce urgency of the now, and historical perspective gives us some sense of what has always been case and the ways our time is not unique.  Also that this too shall pass.

One of my main worries last week was that I saw so much focusing only on one dimension of the problem--the medical questions of the virus (or secondarily the economy) but less about all the other well-being and moral issues implicated.  This week there does seem to be more of that, including more articles about mental health impacts of social isolation, the rise in domestic violence that has already occurred after only one week, and this article in The Atlantic "The Kids Aren’t All Right" about the lasting effects this trauma will have upon a generation of children.  I also had an engaging conversation with a professor of gerontology on Saturday who thought that nursing homes should be providing residents a choice instead of placing them unilaterally in lockdown.  Her reasons were that lack of visits from family and friends are proven to shorten life expectancy, so residents should be offered the choice of whether they want to run the risk of the virus and still be with family and friends.  This is vividly brought to light in my own congregation by a member who was already in hospice and yet now doesn't have those visits, at a time when she would normally be surrounded by people loving her into death.

Defoe has this (among other things) to say about churches in the midst of the 1665 epidemic in London, "Indeed nothing was more strange than to see with what courage the people went to the publick service of God even at that time, when they were afraid to stir out of their own houses upon any other occasion."  He writes about the courage of ministers staying in town and ministering to the citizens.  We are, of course, doing it differently in 2020.  Most of our connections these days are virtual.  This week's staff meeting was inspiring as we now are getting a little more used to everything and are beginning to come up with more innovative and interesting ideas for what to do.  Also this week we will be rolling out more of our programming.  The staff meeting was one of the things that yesterday helped to lift my mood.

Neptune painting

At Dadda's Preschool today was about the planet Neptune, which included painting our papier mache planet.  We also spent a good hour outside with Sebastian riding his bike and walking the church's labyrinth (which I recommend if you can get over there some day on your own).  While walking and biking the labyrinth, Sebastian kept asking, "Is this the right path?"  

I kept answering, "It is.  But it tricks you."

Sebastian biking the labyrinth

I also seemed to have a lot more work to do today.  I didn't come near to completing my to do for church or here at home.

Yesterday's paper in Omaha reported that our citizens are doing a good job of following the guidelines.  Fingers crossed.

 


At Home: Difficult Night

I confess last night and this morning were rough for me.  I believe I can safely say I'm depressed.  This situation is so contrary to all my normal ways of operating and many of my normal coping mechanisms for difficult situations don't seem well-suited to this one.  I do think it would be easier if I could be at a cabin by the lake with my husband and son and we had nothing to do.  I vacation where you are completely disengaged is something many of us long for, but this situation is not that, obviously.  I'm envious of those who can be home with family reading and getting bored.  

Last night I started reading W. S. Merwin's Garden Time, one of his last volumes of poetry, with reflections on aging and growing limitations.  There is a darkness to it that seemed fitting.  This poem stood out the most to me:

Living with the News

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box
that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight.

I haven't seen much yet written by America's leading philosophers (where you Martha Nussbaum?) but there's quite a lot happening in Europe.  In Sweden philosophers have helped design the ethical protocols for triaging care.  While a great debate has been stirred in Italy about the response to the virus taken there.  The European Journal of Pscyhoanalysis invited some leading thinker to respond to what Michel Foucault had previously written about the rise of the disciplinary state in the midst of plague.  You can read there contributions here.  Giorgio Agamben has, in particular, generated much controversy and response with what he has written about it.  Here is his latest.  And an Arendtian response to these European thinkers that I wish were longer can be found here.  A different perspective from a quarantined Italian philosopher is shared here.  Slavoj Zizek seems to have taken very different positions, here in an early writing and here in a more recent oneHis most controversial claim is that he thinks the crisis will result in a return to communism.

Altar

I think our worship live stream yesterday went reasonably well.  As of this morning we've had 370 views.  Yesterday we also had Zoom Sunday School and will be rolling out some other digital services this week.

Sebastian and I continue our study of the planets.  Yesterday we papier mached two balloons for the model solar system we are building.  Sebastian didn't want to touch the paste and was ready for a break after two.  I think when these (Neptune and Saturn) dry, we'll paint them so he can see finished product.  

Papier mache planets

He really enjoys his new book The Girl Who Named Pluto and has requested that we read it every night.  So this morning for our school time we watched a video about the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet.  That occurred in 2015 when he was a newborn.  At the time the mission thrilled me--the idea that we as a species had the ability to design a spaceship that would travel that far and send back pictures, the reality that Pluto was so beautiful and sat there unobserved until that moment, the ideas that we as a species are capable of great things and that the universe is filled with beauty.  At the time I talked often to newborn Sebastian about the mission and showed him the photos NASA released.  His high chair became the "rocket chair" and as we traveled from the kitchen to the dining room we'd pass the various (newly named by humans) features of the planet such as the Sputnik Planum and the Norgay Montes.  Watching the video together this morning brought back all those lovely memories and helped my mood.

I recommend this article that I read yesterday entitled "Against Productivity in a Pandemic."


At Home: Finding a Rhythm

After my rough patches on Thursday, which I wrote about here, I feel like the last two days we've found more of a rhythm, though I've still had my moments of tiredness, lack of patience, anxiety, and irritability.  

Moon phases

First some Dadda's Preschool updates.  We learned about moon phases with Tatay using Oreos.  We figured out ways to do physical education inside on a cold day by creating obstacle courses to run.  We enjoyed the Zoom meeting that his preschool put together and will be doing every weekday morning so all the kids can see their teachers and each other.  Because the skies were going to be clear, we finally got out the telescope, which Sebastian has become very interested in.  Some new books we ordered arrived and we've enjoyed reading them.  And this morning we started our project of making a model solar system.  We blew up the balloons and cut the newspaper into strips and tomorrow will begin the papier mache.  Here are a few photos:

Telescope
Telescope

I'm really proud of the way Sebastian's holding up, though he's had his moments too.  I think he's grown up a lot in one week.  It's been particularly nice to see him helping even more with the daily chores and doing so with enthusiasm.  This morning he got his toolbox out so he could fix some broken things around the house.  His future spouse will hopefully thank me and Michael.

Yesterday I enjoyed some good cooking and baking time, a nice therapy.  

This morning I also finally found some time to catch up on reading various sites I usually follow closely.  Politico had a thorough discussion of ways that the Coronavirus may permanently change society.  I think this speculation may be a little early, but was interesting to read nonetheless.  Many thought that 0n-line education was a permanent fixture now, though one thinker thought the opposite.  An entire generation will be tired of on-line learning and will long will old fashioned human engagement.  I liked that idea.

Another article a couple of weeks old and so maybe already a little dated though still interesting, was a philosophical analysis of costs and benefits in order to evaluate what are the rational responses to the virus.  One interesting consideration discussed there--are the longterm effects to young children worth extending the lives of the elderly by a few months or years or will the current public health decisions inflict a greater longterm harm?  

In the morning I did find myself shedding a little tear at the news of Kenny Rogers's death.  Not that I was a big Kenny fan, but he was such a major star and fixture of popular culture in my early childhood, when I was the age of our son.  

Tomorrow our First Central worship service will be streamed live at this link.


A couple of philosophical responses

Finally had some time this morning to catch up on philosophical reading.  Among the philosophers responding to COVID-19, I thought these two article were interesting..

This one is somewhat predictable--Peter Singer encouraging ending forever "wet markets" like the one that passed this disease (and others to humans). Read his arguments here.

And this article by Alex Broadbent lays out the various principles and ideas involved in a rational, cost-benefit analysis of the virus and responses to it.  Most interesting are these two considerations (two of a handful he includes):

Identification of losers and winners, and weighing of their rights. Older people and those with pulmonary conditions are at greater risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 infection. The protection of these groups must be weighed against the good of the whole. Closing schools, for example, will surely reduce rates of infection; but it may harm the children’s education, to which they arguably have an important right, for the probable benefit of their grandparents. Such trade-offs are generally considered permissible, as in taxation to pay for a public service, but not unrestrictedly so. I am not commenting on any particular measure here; school closure is merely an example and may in fact benefit children significantly. I am merely trying to structure the cost-benefit analysis by pointing out that those who suffer most from the measures may not always be those who benefit the most, and their respective rights and interests must be weighed.

 Assessment of quantity of life. Delicate though it may be, the public health response needs to take seriously the extent to which those who die are sick and elderly. This is not because their lives matter less, intrinsically. It is because they have less life left. We may imagine that if COVID-19 had not killed someone this week, they would have died of some other ailment next week, or even on the same day. Such imaginary cases are the subject of study by philosophers who think about causation, but in this case they have an evaluative import. Life is a quantity rather than a binary variable, and disease reduces its quantity, both for individuals and populations. The quantity of this reduction is less for people who are going to die sooner: the sick and elderly, in other words. If the cost of a disease to a population is the quantity of life that it takes, then this can only be measured in time, because all life is a quantity of time.

Some of us have more life left than others. Thus the cost of COVID-19 to population health is not simply a function of how many it kills, but whom. This is surely not the only factor in assessing the cost of a disease or benefit of a public health measure, but, given that life comes in a finite quantity, the quantitative effect must be taken into account in assessing the benefit offered by a public health measure against the cost of the disease.

 


"Evil"

Another good essay in the Atlantic analyzed the use of the word "evil" in response to the recent weekend of mass shootings.  It found that the word was used as a way of avoiding clear and difficult thinking and action.  An excerpt:

But there is a difference between acknowledging evil and using it as a scapegoat. There is a difference between the evil that is invoked to inspire conversations and the evil that is invoked to curtail them. Many of the weekend’s political deployments of “evil” served to proclaim the innocence of the system that has allowed mass shootings to become reliably atmospheric occurrences. An unbelievable amount of evil that we cannot comprehend. It conveys an easy kind of ignorance. Crime … boy, I don’t know.

Evil, summoned in this way, is an extension of thoughts and prayers. It suggests, in the face of human-made terror, not only a kind of complacency, but also a kind of helplessness. It treats the violence of mass murder—the shock; the grief; the two-month-old baby whose fingers are broken because his mother, fatally shot, apparently fought desperately to shield him from the bullets—as an abstraction. Evil is its own explanation, the logic goes; it is not interested in causes or effects. It does not want to talk about the violent ideology of white supremacy, or the mechanics of double-drum magazines, or the fact that, in the United States, a person can go to a store and purchase a military-grade weapon with the convenience of benevolent legality. Evil does not want to talk about the National Rifle Association. It makes no room for the uncomfortable details. Evil, used as a talking point, both throws up its hands and washes them.

This is the use of bad political language that Orwell warned us about.  Or the use of cliche that shuts down thinking and empathy that Hannah Arendt warned us of in Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Thank goodness we have her analysis of the banality of evil.  Yes, these attacks are evil, but evil is not something incomprehensible about which we can do nothing effective.  Evil is banal and we can rid ourselves of it by taking the right steps.