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Gerard Delanty surveys recent contentions in political philosophy over safety, liberty, and democracy during the global health crisis.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses interesting questions for social and political thought. These include the nature and limits of the ethical responsibility of the state, the extent of personal liberty and human dignity, and how the common good can be achieved. As many countries have declared states of emergency, some of the major questions in moral and political philosophy have suddenly become highly relevant. Michel Foucault’s writings on biopolitical securitization and Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception have taken on a new reality as the spectre of state surveillance looms over democracies. With that in mind, it is about time to review six main philosophical responses to the pandemic and the governance of life and death, including provocative interventions made by classical utilitarianism, Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jürgen Habermas, Slavoj Žižek and Bruno Latour.

Karen Ducey / Getty Images

The initial response of the UK government to the outbreak of coronavirus reflected classical utilitarianism: how to maximise the collective interest even if it is based on the necessary deaths of a large population. While the now notorious doctrine of “herd immunity” could be mistaken for social Darwinism, it is a variant of utilitarianism. Now, while this has been much ridiculed and government policy on the matter has shifted (once it became apparent that the scale of deaths would be greater than the health system could accommodate), utilitarian political theory has a persuasive appeal. It is not to be equated with material gain, as is often thought. Its basic premise is that the greatest good should always be pursued. This may demand that the ends justify the means, but it is generally understood, as in the writings of Peter Singer, that one’s interest is not greater than the interest of the greatest number. However, as a practical philosophy, it needs to be in possession of the required means to achieve the desired end. This is where things get complicated. Is the desired end the elimination of the disease (which is impossible in the absence of a vaccine) or the best possible outcome for most people, i.e. natural immunity? It quickly became clear that herd immunity could be both a means and an end. Yet, the reality is that it does not work as a means, due to the extent of the death rate entailed.

Utilitarianism always leads to disadvantages for some. If these disadvantages are not great, it may be the only way to achieve a desirable societal goal. Apart from “herd immunity,” lockdown, self-isolation and social distancing are other possible means to counter the pandemic. The end is now generally agreed to be delaying the spread of the disease. However, this “end” is less a normative end than it is a goal for a purpose that remains unclear. Utilitarianism works well when the collective good is easily identifiable and can be achieved by a means that does not produce major disadvantages. It also requires what is not available in many instances: complete knowledge of the relevant facts. The failure of utilitarianism in the UK in March 2020 was less a failure of utilitarian philosophy than a failure of politics and science.

What then is the alternative to utilitarianism? An influential body of thought that goes back to Immanuel Kant would posit the centrality of human dignity instead of the elusive common good. In a recent interview, Jürgen Habermas, the leading political philosopher in the world today, asserted the Kantian principle that “the efforts of the state to save every single human life must have absolute priority over a utilitarian offsetting of the undesirable economic costs” (Frankfurter Rundschau). The dignity of the individual person is the overriding normative force in determining concrete policies, even if in this case it is very unclear what these might be. The Kantian standpoint, which is also reflected in the philosophy of John Rawls, opposes the utilitarian position by not appealing to the common interest. The maxim that the end justifies the means might not be compatible with respect for the individual. To take an extreme scenario, the Kantian position would require the state to save the lives of those who may be too ill to be saved, even if this meant resources may be unavailable to those who could be saved. But it must try, even if treatment for those who are less infirm and hold a greater chance of recovery would therefore be declined on the grounds of what can only be a first-in-the-queue solution. In other words, the ethical obligation of the state is to save all lives and not to distinguish which ones are of greater value.

There is then a clear difference between the utilitarian and the Kantian responses. Both are indirectly operative in current responses to the coronavirus outbreak and have their compelling arguments. Perhaps the advantage of the Kantian position is that it does not put a price on the life of a person or seek to give it a weighting in order to reach the higher goal of the common interest. In contrast, for the utilitarian, saving some lives may not be enough, so why not try to save as many as possible.

The appeal to human dignity on its own is also not enough. The current approach to the pandemic, insofar as it is guided by the preservation of human dignity, does not give sufficient recognition to the questions of livelihoods and other problems that lockdown presents. Dignity without security is not a solution, as is evidenced by the shocking death rate in care homes, quite aside from other problems such as the rise in domestic abuse and mental health problems that lockdown has created. These problems are especially acute in countries such as Spain, where confinement has been taken to an extreme.

From a libertarian perspective, measures employed by many governments to combat the pandemic encroach excessively on personal freedom. For libertarians, there is nothing more sacred than the liberty of the individual. Enforced social distancing might be accommodated in this worldview but lockdown is a remedy worse than the disease. From even a moderate libertarian perspective, the reduction of the death rate does not justify extreme restrictions on the freedom of the individual, as these restrictions entail the removal of rights previously enjoyed. Libertarians, not too surprisingly, feel uncomfortable with the current situation, which also forces them to face some of the unpalatable implications of their philosophy. In practical terms, their position is not much different than what radical right-wing populism in the US propagates. The demand for cessation of all kinds of confinement is reflected in the growing number of “anti-stay-at-home” protests across the US.

The current pandemic has generated great interest in the writings of Michel Foucault on the surveillance of space that arose with modernity. The Foucauldian theme of biopolitics and security has been taken up by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the context of the state of emergency. This has led to an interesting debate among Italian and French philosophers (see the debate here ). For Agamben, the use of a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government is deeply worrying.  It leads to the militarisation of the polity and an indefinite extension of the state of exception. It also leads to a generalised condition of fear and anxiety among individuals.

Responses to Agamben, whose contribution is in some ways less than serious, have been quick to point out that this interpretation amounts to a conspiracy theory. Is the state really using the pandemic to create a permanent state of exception? (see Agamben State of Exception, 2005). Probably not. The Italian state seems incapable of even basic governance, let alone organizing a sanitary dictatorship. Yet, there are clear trends that point to the rapid expansion of militarised forms of surveillance that cannot be fully accounted for as necessary measures of pandemic control. While Agamben may have exaggerated the political instrumentalisation of the pandemic, the important point he makes is that the state of exception is now becoming the new normal in the art of governance. In Hungary, Viktor Orban now rules by decree (Institut Montaigne). The UK government has been given exceptional powers. In the US, Donald Trump claims to have “total control.” The constant renewal of states of emergency with enforced lockdowns is unprecedented in modern democratic history. It is difficult to account for such decrees in terms of utilitarianism or in terms of the Kantian concern with human dignity. The implications also go beyond the concerns of libertarians with espousing unrestricted personal liberty, for the state of emergency measures run against the core of democracy, and libertarians are not normally concerned about democracy, only their own liberty.

Until recently, the state has been widely seen as impotent in the face of globalisation, and the pandemic underscores this. But in fact, the state now holds near total control over populations thanks to the virus. Unlike Muslims, this is the Other that is potentially within everyone. It presents the perfect opportunity for a new kind of securitisation: biosecurity. As Agamben says in a clarification to his original intervention: “A society that lives in a permanent state of emergency cannot be a free one. We effectively live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called ‘security reasons’ and as a consequence has condemned itself to living in a permanent state of fear and insecurity.” This condition will outlive the state of emergency.

I do believe Agamben has an important critical point to make, even if he has no concrete proposal on what an appropriate response to the pandemic should be. There is certainly an excess of control. Governments are now employing digital surveillance programmes for mobile data tracking, apps to record personal contacts and CCTV networks equipped with facial recognition. The UK government has proposed to use “back-end” access to Bluetooth connections in order to enable contact tracing. These new technologies are creating lucrative new markets for the extraction, sale and analysis of private data (see The Guardian). The states of emergency will come to an end, we can assume, but these technologies will continue and state surveillance will also be given a tremendous boost by the current crisis. But what is the alternative? Hardly the proposal of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right President of Brazil: do nothing and see the pandemic as a hoax. Although this is effectively what Agamben himself has said, in what was perhaps an infelicitous formulation, when he called the pandemic “an invention.”

In addition to surveillance administered by the state, there are also the societal implications of social distancing. In another contribution, Agamben refers to social distancing as a new kind of social order: “The current health emergency can be considered as the laboratory in which the new political and social devices that await humanity are prepared” (Ficcion de la Razon). In sum, Agamben draws attention to a range of issues that the current crisis raises for democracy. Many of these go back to Foucault’s notion of the self as constructed in relations of power, such as those that are now evidenced in the new technologies of subjectification, namely social distancing, face masks and self-isolation. The desire for safety creates even greater dangers that are internalised as freedom and perpetuated by fear. While Agamben underplays the need to find solutions to the pandemic, he offers a compelling account of the implications for democracy and social life of some of the measures being taken to deal with the pandemic. Agamben’s account is perhaps more compelling when applied to non-Western contexts. For example, at the time of writing, more people have been killed by police violence in Nigeria in the enforcement of lockdown than have been killed by coronavirus itself.

Reading Agamben’s reflections, one is struck by the realisation that what we are witnessing is an anti-liberal pathogen eating through the fabric of democracy. The social bond itself is the endangered party. Habermas’s Kantian appeal to human dignity offers little respite, not least as it is fully compatible with state of exception if that is what is required to protect life itself. Is there an alternative position that might see something positive emerging out of the current crisis?

Slavoj Žižek, the prominent Slovenian Lacanian philosopher, offers a different and more radical response. In a recent book, Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, he argues that the choice after the pandemic is between “barbarism or some form of reinvented communism” (See also the debate with contributions by Judith Butler and Byung-Chul Han in La Haine). Žižek sees the global health crisis as an opportunity for the reinvention of communism. The pandemic reveals the virus of capitalism. The crisis is a call to free ourselves from the tyranny of the market. Governments are suddenly engaging in what looks like a major attack on capitalism with state sponsored employment for millions of people and a worldwide suspension of consumerism. In the UK, the hard-right-wing government of Boris Johnson that brought us Brexit had to commit to state spending on a scale unimaginable by any left-wing government. Capitalism seems to be on hold for now. But for how long? And who will benefit in the end? While there is much that Žižek agrees on with Agamben, his conclusions are different. The desire for survival will create new bonds of solidarity. However, it is very unclear how this will happen. As the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has commented, the nature of a virus is to separate people. This, after all, is what social distancing and self-isolation is supposed to do. It is difficult to see in these developments signs of an alternative political order based on solidarity. It is true that in the past, major pandemics did lead to progressive change. The 1918 influenza pandemic led to the creation of national health care systems. The Black Death, which reduced the supply of labour, led to improved conditions for workers, at least in Europe. It is therefore not impossible that out of the current crisis will come some improvements in public policy. However, it is unlikely that something like communism will emerge.

This scepticism is also expressed by Alain Badiou – generally identified as a Maoist philosopher – in an inspiring essay, “On the Epidemic Situation” (Verso Books website). Badiou argues that self-isolation offers a moment for reflection on the future:

As for those of us who desire a real change in the political conditions of this country, we must take advantage of this epidemic interlude, and even of the – entirely necessary – isolation, to work on new figures of politics, on the project of new political sites, and on the trans-national progress of a third stage of communism after the brilliant one of its invention and the – interesting but ultimately defeated – stage of its statist experimentation.

A possibly more pertinent interpretation on the post-capitalist position is Bruno Latour’s suggestion that the health crisis may be an early sign of a new age of Anthropocene politics: the current biopolitical securitisation that we are witnessing is a dress rehearsal for climate change (Critical Inquiry website). It cannot be a coincidence that the health crisis is occurring at the same time as the ecological crisis has taken on a new urgency. As he also argued in another recent essay, “the time to fight is now so that the economic recovery, once the crisis is over, does not bring back the same old climate regime that we have been trying, quite vainly, to fight against so far” (Opinion, 30 March, 2020).

There is perhaps another position, which is less a political philosophy than a very recent development in behavioural science: nudge theory. The UK was briefly also the laboratory for this new social philosophy, following on from the failure of what I characterised as the utilitarian philosophy of herd immunity. According to this new and influential school of thought, people do not act rationally (Brexit is ample proof of this). What we need to understand is the nature of irrationality, in order that it can be controlled (The Conversation). Now, such methods of control are not authoritarian, but are rather “nudges” and can be done with the support of people who believe that they are making their own choices. The interesting thing is that in the case of pandemic control, nudge theory has been deemed to have not worked. It did not bring about major changes to behaviour within the time frame required, and was abandoned in favour of more stringent and fast-acting measures that do not rely on voluntary actions of self-isolation and frequent hand-washing. However, nudge theory does remain as an additional technique of governance and we are likely to hear more of it.

All six political philosophy positions which I have all too briefly characterised have something to offer on the current situation. While Žižek sees in the present predicament the seeds of progressive change, Agamben draws attention to declarations of emergency as anti-democratic attempts to render populations docile and obedient. These theorists bring important critical perspectives to bear on the older political philosophies that are reflected in utilitarianism, Kantianism and libertarianism. Clearly, governments need to control the spread of the virus. But more reflection is needed on the degree of militarisation that is required to do this successfully and what is acceptable to a democracy. Simple appeals to liberty are not enough for an alternative to lockdowns. Perhaps the more serious question is about democracy rather than liberty, which is almost always a question of individual liberty. In any case, as Foucault was well aware of, capitalism needs liberty and cannot function in total disciplinary societies.

If there is a single conclusion to be drawn from these contrasting philosophies, it is that the coronavirus is more than a pathogen that threatens the lives of many people, but democracy is also in danger.  What is more significant in the long-term will be new technologies of governance that are now taking shape in large-scale societal experimentations with the management of populations.


Gerard Delanty is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. His most recent publication is Critical Theory and Social Transformation (Routledge 2020).

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