Flat White

Resurrecting philosophy to answer Covid's moral questions

12 January 2022

2:00 PM

12 January 2022

2:00 PM

In 2020, the Morrison government introduced a plan to slash funding to university arts degrees, effectively doubling the cost for students. As a philosophy student, the message was clear: the degree I have spent four years studying is not ‘job relevant’, nor worth investing in for the future.

We live in a paradigm where it is thought philosophy has nothing left to give, where philosophy has been forced to the shameful periphery of public discourse. The Government’s dismissing of arts is a symptom of a far more widespread aesthetic.

Yet our contemporary society is underpinned by by-gone philosophers. We are, as it were, standing on the shoulders of giants. We have buried Uncle Aristotle in the backyard and run off with the inheritance. The Bible tells a powerful parable about a son running off with the inheritance – he squanders it; living salaciously, amorally, eating with pigs. Maybe such a warning is equally apt here.

Philosophy must play a role in dictating our future. Philosophy is no corpse. It should not be buried; Covid has revealed within society a smorgasbord of philosophical dilemmas.

Philosophy has often been accused of living in an intellectual ivory high-tower, out of touch with reality and practicality. Historically, such criticism is founded. Yes, philosophy is interested in fun thought experiments: Is it possible for an artwork to be racist and yet beautiful? If a person is teleported, dismantled cell by cell, and recreated elsewhere, have they died? Such thought experiments are entertaining to ponder, but philosophy offers moral judgements, too; what is right and what is wrong, and how should I act? What is good and what is bad, and can such judgements change? When philosophy delves into moral issues, it quickly walks alongside society, offering guidance and direction.

Covid draws philosophy out of the abstract and into the real world. Philosophy must remain here – speaking into tangible problems with practical solutions – if it is to demand a place in public discourse.

Before writing this piece, I considered writing an article on how disobeying lockdown restrictions makes you morally complicit in any deaths resulting from the virus. It’s already been written. I wanted to write an article about the moral justification of mandatory vaccinations. It too, has already been written. When lockdowns were announced, and we saw the animalistic panic buying in supermarkets all around the city, I wanted to write about the immorality of stockpiling. Such a piece already exists. And what about the dilemma facing front-line workers around the globe: who should be saved when the sick outnumber available ventilators, when there are fewer vaccines than those wanting to be vaccinated? It too, has already been written. I could go on.

What is left then? What more is there to write for philosophy to show its value?

As we see the global enforcing of border restrictions once again, new variants arising, protests, lockdowns, and cases increasing in largely unvaccinated countries while Australians line up for their third dose – where is philosophy in the public discourse?

The question is more aptly, who will listen to what philosophy has to say?

The conversations are happening, but on the outskirts of society, while debates from the House of Parliament have oozed out, into our communities, onto our televisions, into every corner of our lives. Politics is the water we swim in, and yet maybe we need a gulp of fresh air. We listen to politicians, and health advisers, but there is no space for philosophy among the decision-making experts. Instead, we cut the funding to such degrees.

If you were to go and get your Covid vaccine, you would be horrified to look over and see an untrained layperson about to measure out your dose. You would be outraged if it were a politician, and not a nurse administering your vaccine. When in crisis, we turn to those who are trained in the field.

What then of the future, when philosophy is left crippled by cut funding, neglected, and squeezed from the mainstream? When we want to answer philosophical questions, we need the trained philosophers in place to address these issues. To claim politicians can do this is to reduce the lessons philosophy offers.

As Covid has shown us some weaknesses of our society – our social-care infrastructure, our healthcare system – maybe too, it has demonstrated our weaknesses in ethical and moral decision making. Maybe it has highlighted we need to dig up the philosophy we buried and take another look. Just as our healthcare system was ill-prepared to deal with Covid, so we were ethically and morally ill-prepared.

The philosophy of the past – the crutch that upholds society – has itself been crippled. Cutting funding to arts degrees will not help. We need to rebuild the place of philosophy within society; celebrate its lessons, debate its outcomes. Listen.

The lessons are there, if only philosophy were offered a place at the table.

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