Artillery Row

I think, therefore I’m right

We need a “Philosophy SAGE” to test the logic behind Covid policies

On Saturday, the editor of The Spectator Fraser Nelson, opened a can of worms on Twitter when he asked Graham Medley, chair of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), whether its members had included “a scenario of low [Coronavirus] virulence” in their models. “What would be the point of that?” Medley replied, to the confusion of many people watching the exchange.

While the Government is in the midst of weighing up whether to introduce new restrictions over the Christmas period, Medley’s response will merely add to growing concerns about SAGE’s modelling. Some are questioning whether its assumptions have been dangerously pessimistic in the war against Coronavirus, leading ministers to play it “too safe” around public health — while greatly harming the nation’s finances and mental state.

Philosophy shapes the scholar so that their arguments become watertight

Perhaps a greater omission than SAGE’s not modelling “positive” outcomes, though, is the lack of other expert groups in the Government’s ear. Political pundits have repeatedly asked ministers to produce a cost-benefit ratio of lockdown. Maybe what they’re most after is an Economic SAGE, whose advisers could stand next to the Prime Minister in alternate press conferences, pointing to graphs about GDP.

In a dream world, Economic SAGE would be just the start when it comes to understanding whether the Government’s Coronavirus strategy has been a sound one, and if the UK should continue on its current trajectory. In fact, we could do with a panel of experts who raise more existential questions about the way forward — a body we might best describe as “Philosopher SAGE”.

That I would advocate for philosophers on Downing Street surprises no one more than myself, after my ill-fated attempt to study this subject. I gave up on the course in my first year after a particularly painful seminar on “the mind”, in which we were asked to decipher the difference between “a bit of egg on our arm” and “a bit of yellow”. I still haven’t a clue what this was about — hence why I had to leave, you see.

During these Covid times, the practical uses of this academic discipline have now become obvious, however. When my class learnt, for example, about the “trolley dilemma”(an exercise that asks, “would you kill one person to save five?”), it forced us to refine our thinking to deal with the most difficult of dilemmas. Philosophy shapes the scholar so that their arguments become watertight and consistently applied; it aims to create near-perfect logic for imperfect situations.

Much of the Government’s strategy is about immediate threats; decisions are made hastily, around what sounds like the most benevolent policy in the moment. Philosophers would remind us to take into account the harms that will come later down the line: the casualties of lockdown, economic chaos and so forth. They might change the Government’s assumptions about what constitutes the “greater good”.

Even with respect to the unvaccinated, philosophers could offer a much-needed injection of logic. What principle, for instance, should mean that a low risk, unvaccinated person has to take a jab? Is this putting the theory of utilitarianism, that actions are right if they tend to promote the maximum happiness and well-being, into practice? And why should the unjabbed have their freedoms confiscated (by way of vaccine passport) if they do not adhere to this societal demand? Philosophers would pull apart many of the assumptions about what constitutes a moral Covid strategy, forcing ministers to tighten their arguments.

Who’s ever needed a medical procedure to buy dinner?

During the debates about vaccine passports, it became particularly clear that MPs aren’t being tested enough on their logic. One Conservative, for instance, justified vaccine passports on the grounds that he must present his ID in the supermarket. But this analogy is one that most people, let alone a philosopher, could dismantle in two seconds. Who’s ever had to get a medical procedure to be able to buy dinner?

This “Philosopher SAGE” prospect would never happen don’t expect a pipe-wielding troop to rush into Number 10 any time soon. But you get the point. Desperate to take swift intervention in the Covid wars, and emboldened by the Emergency Powers Act, politicians increasingly use policies and reasoning that lack intellectual rigour.

As with climate change, it seems that a huge amount of policies can now be justified, so long as they are linked to a crisis. The danger is that we may have to introduce new restrictions to combat Coronavirus, but we lack clear logic around what criteria should inform our decisions. A philosophical reckoning may be long and painful — as with my seminars on eggs/yellow — but “I think, therefore I’m right” cannot be our attitude towards vaccine passports and other such measures.

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