forthcoming events

Moral responses to the pandemic: Susan Neiman and Frank Furedi

An international conversation featuring two high-profile intellectuals.

6:30pm, Wednesday 3 June, online, via Zoom

This event is hosted by Freiblickinstitut in association with the Academy of Ideas, via Zoom.

The question of how societies should respond to the challenge of Covid-19 has never been simply a medical issue, but one of morality as well. There are many considerations to be weighed, and moral choices to be made. The policy of lockdown will contain the spread of the virus and may limit deaths from it, but it will also damage businesses, livelihoods and may even cost lives of its own. Amidst so much uncertainty, how do we judge what’s the right thing to do?

One place to begin is with economics. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) uses an economic calculation to help the NHS decide whether to invest in life-saving drugs. It assumes a year of healthy life is worth £30,000, and weighs the cost of a drug against how many extra healthy years it will give the patient. But this kind of utilitarianism makes many uneasy, suggesting we can ‘put a price on a life’.

Further problems arise when we try to weigh up different goods. For example, the coronavirus lockdowns aim to keep us safe, but what if someone values their freedom more than being safe? And anyway, as Wolfgang Schäuble recently argued, we can’t pursue safety at the expense of everything else because, bluntly, ‘we cannot exclude the possibility that we must die’. But even though we die, perhaps our struggle for life has a value of its own. Responding to Schäuble, Michel Wuliger of the Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine insisted that valuing life marks the difference between civilisation and barbarism.

More broadly, the worldwide response to the pandemic has challenged many long-cherished values. Democracy was put on hold, with elections postponed and parliaments in recess. Freedoms were curtailed, with extensive powers granted to police forces. Traditional markers of compassion, like funerals, were cancelled. And many say that essential workers, from nurses to shop-assistants, were put in harm’s way.

Amidst such widespread moral challenges, how are we to decide what’s right? Whilst a rich tradition of philosophy reflects on how to be moral, can it be useful in such ‘unprecedented’ times? Is there anything we can learn from history? When we are urged to ‘follow the science’ and obey government guidance, is there any room for individual judgement and moral autonomy?

Join this discussion on how to be moral in a crisis with Susan Neiman, renowned philosopher and commentator and author most recently of Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the memory of Evil (buy it in English here and in German here), and Frank Furedi, sociologist, public intellectual and author of the forthcoming Why Borders Matter (pre-order in the UK here and in Germany here).