The corona crisis and our personal situation

How am I able to follow a rule? ” – If this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my acting in this way in complying with the rule. Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”

(Remember that we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one; the explanation a kind of sham corbel that supports nothing.)1

While the corona pandemic continues to sweep across the face of the Earth (the global infection rate is still increasing), the situation is changing for the better in some countries, such as in The Netherlands. The crisis is not over, but its status has changed since the first of June. Cafés, bars and restaurants reopened for the thirsty and the lonely, some people are more inclined to head out for social visits or simply to “shop till they drop”, while others go out unto the streets and parks to protest against social and racial injustice. Some are still only mildly irritated by the fact that they have to pick up a grocery basket at the local supermarket for just one loaf of bread and we all probably still find it mildly awkward not to shake hands when we introduce ourselves or not to hug when we meet a friend. A guess, while we all sanitize our hands more regularly then we used to, the situation is more or less getting back to “normal”, whatever this “normal” may be. The only new ‘rule’ we have to follow as an individual in the public sphere is the one and a half meter distance rule. And this is becoming a controversial rule. That the government at the moment is willing to implement this rule as law, is met with a lot of resistance, perhaps rightly so.

We are all relieved to regain much of our freedom after many of the restrictive measures were lifted at the beginning of this month. And while ‘freedom’ is a very important value, that the status of the corona situation is changing towards one of more freedom does not entail that we can therefore be more careless. With more freedom comes more responsibility, because the responsibility is shifting from political and governmental institutions towards civilians themselves. The ‘I cannot do this, otherwise I’ll get a fine’ becomes: ‘I am allowed to do this, but should I do this?’ We should keep in mind our less fortunate, less healthy fellow human beings. It is precisely because we are more free and more willing to implement our freedom by going out more into public places that we can be a threat to others who have a less healthy constitution. Our freedom can therefore cause others to feel less free than before to go out into the public sphere. And in a way, because they feel less free, they are less free. But it also goes the other way around. Freedom to move is beneficiary for your physical health and the feeling of freedom is beneficiary for your mental health. The absence of physical contact or at least the continued absence of social situations where your loved ones are in close proximity to you can cause emotional damage in the end. Therefore there is also a lot to say for the decision that has been made, the decision that people should now finally be more free to move around, not for economical reasons or for freedom itself, but precisely for health reasons.

Freedom and health are fundamental moral values. But there are other, equally important ones. Take for example the recent Black Lives Matter protests, supposedly endangering public health. In the course of history many people gave their lives for the value of equality and the idea of a just society and were willing to risk the lives of other people in their pursuit for attaining it. Can we blame them for taking such risks? If we do blame them, does the source of this blame and misunderstanding not simply lie in the fact that we are at liberty to not value those ideas as much as they do? If we do not feel injustice, if we do feel free, it makes sense to value health. Its the same mechanism of reasoning which underlies why the oppressed value justice and the unfree value freedom. For them, those values represent their most pressing concerns. We should not simply judge other people actions in the light of our own high held moral values.

But the problem is, of course, we see the world through our own perspective. I am even willing to say that we can never see the world in any other way. My situation is the only way through which I can (hope to) understand the situation of other people. We should be honest about this problem of subjectivity and accept the moral responsibility it entails. In this way, being responsible is something personal. We should ask ourselves a personal question when we are faced with the different reality the (post)coronacrisis creates: ‘How do I go about it?’

Wittgenstein says that any philosophical question is of this form: “I do not know my way about.2

The question of how we should continue going forward is exactly the kind of philosophical problem Wittgenstein is referring to. It is that do not know my way about it. Because our situation is our situation and we cannot, and should not (even if this was possible) generalize it. The feeling of needing to explain and justify your own actions in a certain moral situation comes from the generalization of your own situation. Most of the time we do this, because we are unaware of the fact that other people can have totally different fundamental moral values. We think we are getting somewhere by justifying our actions, while in fact we are creating a sham corbel. In the end, explanations and moral justifications stop, simply because they are based upon our values. If we’re honest we then acknowledge that we have reached bedrock, and can only say: ‘This is what I do.’

But does this really mean that the question: How can I go about it? with respect to discussions with other people is meaningless? I don’t think so. We should begin with the acceptance that it is necessarily our own situation that creates our perspective on the corona crisis and accept the limits of our own understanding of other people’s situation. Furthermore, I think the only way of going forward is to search for common ground, the same bedrock. Try to see if you could justify (only for yourself), your own actions based upon a different moral value. For instance, the fundamental value of the person who’s acting in a totally different way than you do. Because different kind of values are not mutually exclusive. Most of the time they represent merely a different perspective on the same problem. This can be a problem we all want to see fixed or go away: corona.

I am not advocating relativism here, but activism. I do not mean to say: we can never truly understand another’s perspective, another’s situation, therefore we should simply do as we think is best. It is meant as an honest acceptance of the situation the way only you can experience it. Based upon such acceptance we should take action. Not the action of discussion, but the action of trying to honestly understand one another. Not by being simply empathical without understanding. Understanding is a kind of rational empathy. It is an appeal to those fortunate to not just mindlessly indulge in their own privileged situation and withhold from such privilige to care for and try to better the situation of others. We have to understand each other, or at least try as hard as we can. Public debate can only go forward and be helpful if we do. Understanding can only be created, I think, when we are honest with ourselves. Acknowledge the fact of your own situation, that you are a worry-less teenager, the financial risk-taker, the entrepreneur, the sickly elder or their caretaker. Acknowledge the fact that you are just one citizen amongst millions.

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Corona statistics and reality

The more closely we examine actual language, the greater becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not something I had discovered; it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming vacuous. – We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction, and so, in a certain sense, the conditions are ideal; but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to rough ground!’ 1

Since the beginning of the corona crisis, mathematics, especially statistical modeling, seems to have caught the public interest like never before. Talk of ‘flattening the curve’ probably made a lot of people reminisce what they did in high school during those lovely mathematics class hours. Perhaps it even made some people wish they had paid more attention to their teachers. 2 As a teacher of mathematics myself, I encourage any interest in mathematics and like the fact that more people are being remembered of mathematics and the value it has for society, but we need to be cautious. Mathematics can give us a false sense of security. The clarity of numbers and graphs can offer us a feeling of safety and hope. Currently, the corona-infection graphs show us that we are over the top of the bell-curve and on the downward slope towards an ever-declining daily infection-rate. We should, however, not blindly put our faith in those graphs that represent the amount of corona-infections. Neither in their power to be genuinely representative, nor in their predictive power. We have to understand the limits of those statistical models and the limits of mathematics as a whole.

A plethora of problems arises when relating mathematics to the natural world; imperfect models, observational noise, false negatives and positives, uncertainty of the initial condition, etc. All those problems allow for uncertainty and an exponential growth of that uncertainty over time, debilitating any predictive power. However, the most important problem is not one regarding prediction but one about representing reality. It is not the problem that when viewing reality from a mathematical perspective we are in danger of disregarding the complexity of the situation of corona in the natural world and the empirical reality it creates. To be considered is a fundamental problem, a problem impossible to solve or overcome, even in theory. It is the fact that any model, even if it is a perfect model, is merely a model.

Mathematical models are either an abstract interpretation of empirical reality, distilling certain structures out of it, or they are coherent systems with structures that may reflect those of the empirical reality they are meant to describe. Applicable to it, but independent from it. They are not the structures of empirical reality itself. Making the mistake that they are, creates the illusion that reality should follow those mathematical models and that we can therefore know the present and predict the future.

Confusion in this demarcation of mathematics as it relates to empirical reality, is the same kind of confusion that was being made in the first decades of twentieth century philosophy of language: confusion of how logic relates to language. The “crystalline purity of logic” represents Wittgenstein’s belief in the possibility of a normative reformation of language as a meaningful endeavor. This normative reformation of language was what he was trying to accomplish with his first masterpiece: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, written during World War One. In this work, he develops a logical system which tries to mirror the structures of meaningful language and, parallel to it, the structures of empirical reality. Wittgenstein believed at that time that he was truly describing, analyzing the structures of meaningful language. However, what he was doing was creating a normative framework for language in order to be meaningful. His logical system was therefore a requirement, not a description of actual language. Actual language is much more complex, it does not follow one logical structure and sometimes the logic is very difficult to see or understand, if it is there at all. Think of poetry, prayers, emotive utterances, i.e. all instances of language that convey meaning in their own way. And even in those parts of language where the grammar’s logic is clear, we should not have the illusion that the logical structure trying to describe the grammatical structure are one and the same.

Statistical models that try to describe corona-infections create “conditions that are ideal”, in the sense that they create a clear picture and a path out of the current crisis. But we should be weary that those models don’t become vacuous so that we will be unable to walk on that path. If we have the illusion that they really are the descriptions of empirical reality and are not aware of the normative framework they place on that reality, we will create a dangerous dynamic. If we believe empirical reality corresponds to statistical models we could take measures and actions entirely based on them. Those actions will alter the empirical reality that corona creates itself and thereby change the correctness of the predictions those models offer for the worse. Human agency has the potential to be very disruptive for correctness of statistical models. If we all decide to stay at home tomorrow, we can. If we all decide to go to a party tomorrow, we can. We should keep our eyes open to the reality around us. Even if the numbers of the daily corona-infection are low, we should still wash our hands. Turn away when someone sneezes. Back to rough ground!

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The problematic concept of the “new normal”

“The ideal, as we conceive of it, is unshakable. You can’t step outside it. You must always turn back. There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe. – How come? The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off. “‘ 1

A few weeks ago, our prime minister, Mark Rutte, addressed the nation in his weekly Tuesday coronacrisis press conference.In his message he spoke about the ‘new normal’. While we all probably have a pretty decent intuitive grasp of what he means with the concept, it gives rise to some philosophical questions. Putting any interpretation of his intention with the concept aside,neither assuming he invented it, nor that hethought the concept through regarding its implications or its consistency, the idea itself is anyhow nothing short of pragmatic.2

The ‘new normal’ is about a new set of social contact norms, such as maintaining a one and a half meter distance from all strangers in any public space at all times. The concept seems to imply a certain (future) acceptance of anew situation. A situation which at the same is meant to be created by the new social contact norms.They are new rules meant for coping with a new reality.

However, Rutte also spoke about his hope of eventually returning to a state of a ‘somewhat more normal than the new normal’. Which gives rise to certain conceptual problems and contradictions: How do we determine what is ‘normal’ and how can it differ from a ‘new normal’? And, if ever, when does it transform from an ‘old normal’ into a ‘new normal’? Does it even make sense to speak of how often and how quickly a ‘normal’ situation may change?

There are also certain social philosophical questions about the concept of the ‘new normal’ which can, and should be, asked. Is the ‘new normal’ a progressive concept, opposing the conservation of the the status quo, the ‘old normal’? Can we change our ways? Can we use the coronacrisis to propel forward into a better, cleaner future? Or is the ‘new normal’ an attempt to conserve the status quo as much as possible? The concept of ‘normal’ itself, echoing Rutte’s hope of eventually returning to a ‘somewhat more normal than the new normal’ unfortunately seems to imply this direction. Does a certain social ‘normal’ exist? We often speak of as if there being certain social habits of Dutch culture. And with regard to the new norms of the ‘new normal’, those relevant are a certain spatial distance between conversating persons, the shaking of hands and our famous three kisses on the cheeks. Those are to be abolished or changed in the new normal. The obvious objection to this idea of Dutch culture is that we live in a multicultural society, with a lot of different social contact norms. Regardless this objection whether a ‘normal’ even exists, we should ask ourselves whether we want there to be a ‘normal’ or a ‘new normal’ at all. The idea actually seems to be a pretty dangerous idea and it is exactly such a misguided perspective that Wittgenstein is referring to in the above aphorism.

Wittgenstein’s ‘ideal’, in the first sentence of the aphorism, refers to his own logical theory as developed in the Tractatus. In this work he decribes the normative framework for language: all the logical rules and structures and the fact that language should refer to situations which are empirically verifiable. If language does not meet these requirements, it does not qualify as being meaningful. Years later however, Wittgenstein realizes this is simply not how it is, or not how we should want language to be. There are a lot of instances of language that are valuable in their own right, communicating other types of meaning, not describing matters of fact: e.g poetry, prayers, jokes, oaths, swears. We should not disregard these instances of language, nor judge them as meaningless.

If we should reject a normative simplification of language we must also be aware of the dangers of a normative simplification of society and its social norms. A society that longs for or tries to implement social simplicity is a society dangerously unaware of its own situation. It stagnates, desperately trying to maintain the status quo, because it does not know how to adapt to emerging new problems. It is in a complex society, where different people think differently, that they can learn from one another precisely because of their conflicting perspectives. In the context of the coronacrisis this is perhaps peripheral criticism. The ‘new normal’ after all primarily relates to a set of new public health norms. But we should ask ourselves: How will the resulting change in social behavior affect our mutual social connection?

What we regard as normal is nothing but a pair of glasses on our nose through which we interpret reality. And the problem is, we cannot see clearly without them. We must maintain a certain grasp of our own idea of reality because it is a psychological necessity. It never really occurs to take them off. And if we do or try, it’s not for long anyways. It seems to me that this is not a problem per se, as long as we are aware that they are mere glasses, fit for our eyes. And for those who think alike, who see the world the same way. Now it’s time to take my glasses off.

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Saving as many human lives as possible?

‘This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule. The answer was: if every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule, then it can also be brought into conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.‘ 1

In the Netherlands, just as in other countries, several measures are taken for preventing rapid growth of corona infections. These measures can take different forms (e.g. Keeping 1,5 metres distance from other people, a ban on meetings, closing down cafés, restaurants, hairdressers, schools etc. or even a total lockdown), but they all have a similar goal: saving as many human lives as possible. However, there is also opposition, claiming that these measures have the opposite effect. There are two main arguments for this point of view, both of which focus on the economic decline resulting from these measures. According to one line of argumentation, this economic decline will lead to a lower life standard that in turn will lead to a lower life expectancy. The second is that the actions that will be undertaken for a recovery of the economy will have negative ecological effects like an increase in air pollution compared to prior states (no more funding relatively expensive green energy), and will therefore be detrimental for future generations. Bluntly said, both lines of argumentation claim that the corona measures may save lives on the short term but will only cost more lives in the long run.

To connect this current situation with Wittgensteins aphorism: there is a rule (saving as many human lives as possible) and there are several actions based on this rule (social distancing, lockdown). On the one hand, these actions seem in accord with the rule, because on the short term less people will die because of a decrease in daily corona infections. On the other hand, they seem in conflict with the rule, because in the long run many human lives will be shortened by it. From this point of view, the opposing action of letting the virus run its course will ultimately be more in accord with the rule, because it will improve future lives.

How can we escape this apparent contradiction? According to Wittgenstein the paradox mentioned n the aphorism rests on a misconception. This misconception has to do with interpreting the rules. Rules aren’t meant for interpretation and should therefore simply be followed. Both points of view regarding the measures taken in the coronacrisis are based on interpreting the rule: What should we do to save as many human lives as possible? Both are a rational cost-effect evaluation of the situation that ignores an important ethical aspect. By focusing on what to do to save as many human lives as possible, whether on the short or long term, we leave out the straightforward ethical appeal: Do we really want to have it on our conscience that a large group of people is facing a slow death by suffocation?

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