Philosophy embraces a range of subjects relevant to COVID-19, from ethics and applied ethics to the philosophy of medicine and public health and the philosophy of science. Philosophers collectively offer specialist expertise in the critical analysis and improvement of shared beliefs and ways of thinking, aimed at improving our personal and social responses to practical problems. In the case of COVID-19, this includes:
- careful analysis of evidence and arguments according to the highest standards of clarity, rigour, and impartiality;
- systematic analysis of the ethical challenges arising from healthcare practice under pandemic conditions;
- identifying opportunities to create and sustain a more resilient, flourishing and fairer society—and one better equipped to cope with climate change—once the worst of the crisis is past.
We can also contribute to education at every level, from primary schools to our universities.
Here are some of the contributions to our national responses to COVID-19 that professional philosophers have already made:
Biomedical ethicists were quick to support clinicians and policymakers in navigating the acute ethical problems created by the global pandemic. These include allocation of scarce medical resources, clinical decision-making under crisis conditions, triage practices, and the competing demands of medical, economic, and social needs. Many of these ethicists were already closely engaged with clinicians and patients through prior projects applying our disciplinary expertise to advance healthcare outcomes. The Life of Breath project at the University of Bristol, for instance, led by philosopher Prof Havi Carel, developed strategies for coping with anxiety and breathlessness informed by philosophical investigation of the experience of illness.
The Research Team of the Essex Autonomy Project (EAP) has been involved in providing research and training support for public bodies and public officials in the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic. They have been working closely with the National Mental Capacity Forum (NMCF), which is a joint initiative of the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care. EAP and NMCF have co-organised a series of three rapid-response webinars to provide training for frontline professionals on respect for human rights and compliance with the Mental Capacity Act during the pandemic — particularly in care-home settings and in local authorities. And in collaboration with the Ethics of Powerlessness Project, the Autonomy Project Research Team has been providing research support to the Ethics Committee of the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust on difficult ethical decisions in the context of the pandemic. Here is their report on Triage in the COVID19 Pandemic: Bioethical and Human Rights Considerations. Professor Wayne Martin delivered a public online lecture on The Ethics of Triage: Philosophy in the Time of COVID19 about this work. The EAP Research Team is also providing work-force training on bioethical and human rights issues in the pandemic to Best Interests Assessors and DoLS leads in local authorities in Wakefield and Bristol.
Ethical and moral philosophy
Ethicists and moral philosophers offer practical guidance on how to understand and cope with the disruptions and uncertainties that are now built into our lives. Lockdown has forced people to think about moral problems like stockpiling and defiance of social distancing, all of which involve moral philosophising about selfishness, duties to others, and neighbourliness. In the UK, this has included articles in national newspapers explaining the moral dimensions of social distancing, understanding healthcare inequalities, and managing the risks of vaccine research.
Supporting our students
We are providing support for our thousands of students that is grounded in our pedagogical and pastoral relationships with them. We are helping them to cope with the disruptions and anxieties of lockdown and pandemic. This includes continuing our teaching duties, offering assurances and advice, and supporting our bereaved students. Alongside our existing teaching duties, we are supporting school students and teachers, such as the podcasts, video lectures, and downloadable content made available by Angie Hobbs, the UK Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy.
Philosophy of science and medicine
Philosophers of science, medicine, and healthcare have provided concise ‘explainers’ for the public about topics such as evidence and causation, epidemiological modelling, and the nature of expertise. Kings College London, for instance, offers audio lectures that explain to non-experts what epidemiological models are and how they work, and how they play a role in the Government’s COVID-19 responses. Philosopher Prof Barry Smith works with the University of London Centre for the Study of the Senses to research a commonly reported COVID-19 symptom—acute anosmia (loss of smell) and its impact on taste. Their research has provided philosophical guidance on studying the senses and a cookbook for anosmics.
The Philosophy Foundation are working to help children to develop their philosophical thinking and giving them an opportunity to talk through some of the problems we are faced with at the moment (freedom, rules, values, experiences) at home during lockdown. They have been running philosophy sessions online via Zoom, funded by the Royal Institute of Philosophy, including sessions online with Looked After Children through Brent Council and Barnardo’s. The Philosophy Foundation have also produced 110 Thought Adventures for young people to do at home, these are for children from the age of 5 up to 16 (10 for each year group) and we have made them freely available to all. All of their online work is available on their website here.
The Royal Institute of Philosophy has announced a new initiative: “Homeschooling? Have a bit more time in your armchair?” in which it is making a large number of articles from their journals Philosophy and Think available to read for free. Arranged by theme and selected by the journal editors, they will put new essays up periodically, notifications available through their twitter account: @RIPhilo.
Issue 89 (May 2020) of The Philosophers’ Magazine features philosophers thinking through the pandemic. All of the articles are available to read for free, and address questions to do with community and contagion, capitalism and crisis, migration and refugees, the ethics of social distancing, on action and doing nothing, and more.
KCL’s Centre for Philosophy and Visual Art has been working with the National Gallery to create a virtual reality app, allowing a global audience to experience its critically acclaimed Titian exhibition which closed due to Covid-19 after only its first week.
Philosophers Maria Balaska (University of Hertfordshire) and Ben Ware (KCL) have a piece in the LA Review of Books titled “Still Life”, on anxiety and mortality.
We also note many further examples of support efforts by the international philosophical community. The UK academic philosophy community is already helping the public, governmental organisations, and international organisations such as the World Economic Forum in understanding and responding to the ethical, medical, social, and practical challenges we are facing. We are committed to continuing and expanding these efforts—whether contributing to the public understanding of healthcare science and policy, offering practical guidance on the new moral demands of life under lockdown and during the lifting of lockdown, and providing expert advice to healthcare practitioners and policymakers.