Imagine you are hiking along a trail that you know eventually loops back to your car. Without realizing, you go off-route and are soon ascending a mountainside—maybe because you were texting and walking!
You’re not too bothered and decide that you may get a nice view of the valley with a little more effort, and hiking on the mostly smooth (water-polished) granite surface of the trail makes it feel like you’re a proper climber. Unbeknownst to you, the weather atop the mountain is very unpredictable—like a mini Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Sure enough, a raging cold front is descending. You are not equipped to handle the plummeting temperatures, and you notice that the precipitation is a mixture of rain and sleet.
In this scenario, the immediate threat is the known danger that is present—the storm. The imminent threat is the one that is likely to happen in a matter of time—hypothermia and a descent on slippery rock made treacherous by the sleet.
The situating presented by COVID-19 is somewhat like this scenario, but with some interesting differences. These differences have to do with perspective, as we will see. Running through different perspectives is what a lot of philosophers find to be both meaningful and necessary when attempting to understand the phenomenon in question.
So how can this method help here? Applying the hiking scenario to the COVID-19 pandemic helps to identify an underlying confusion about conflicts between health and economic livelihood.
There are at least two threats that are making the news on a daily basis. Obviously, there is the threat of being infected by the virus. Then, there is the threat of individual and collective economic collapse.
But which one is immediate, and which one is imminent?
The Global Perspective
From one perspective, the threat of the virus is immediate because it is happening now. At the same time, economic collapse has not yet happened to most of us because governments are trying to introduce schemes to mitigate the loss of jobs, etc. But we know these schemes cannot be permanent and collapse will occur if the current lockdown conditions do not let up, either naturally or by government policy.
On this view, the immediate threat is the virus; and the imminent threat is economic collapse. Call this perspective a global one, because it takes the view of what is happening globally and not necessarily to any one individual.
The Individual Perspective
There is another perspective: an individual’s view. Understanding this view relies on determining which factors are relevant to that individual. So there is no typical individual in this sense because each individual will have a unique set of factors relevant to him or her (family relations, job situation, living situation, underlying health conditions, support network, etc.).
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume what some of these basic factors are in order to see how the individual perspective can differ from the global. Our individual person is out of work due to the pandemic, has a family to support, and has not yet been infected. Let’s call this person “Dickie”.
From Dickie’s view, the immediate threat is his being unemployed and being unable to provide a living for himself. The imminent threat is infection; it has not yet happened, but is likely to given how prevalent the virus is.
It would not be too far of a stretch for Dickie to believe that rectifying the immediate threat is more pressing, and that either he thinks the imminent threat may not last too much longer due to the development of a vaccine or that he may get lucky and not catch the disease until there is a vaccine.
Whose Rights? Which Rationality?
Given how the global and individual views differ in how they interpret what is an immediate and imminent threat, one can see how this conflict might generate a lot of political heat when citizens and politicians come to express their ideas about what we ought to do—i.e. remain in lockdown or get back to work.
Furthermore, one can see how different political concepts can be enlisted to justify the respective views—e.g. the right to protection or the right to work.
I have no solution to this problem, at least not in this blog. But I think what is important for us to recognize first (before we can consider a response) is how the threats of the virus and economic ruin need to be clearly delineated so that we can see how the global and individual perspectives are at play in public discussion and when they are relevant.
Otherwise, our capacity to reason and debate will be severely diminished. And that is an additional threat. When reasoned discussion cannot occur, modes of inarticulacy will take its place—from yelling to weapon-wielding.
As the once-successful “entrepreneur”, Johnny Caspar, often pondered during such times of danger (immediate and imminent):
When that happens . . . “where's it all end? An interesting ethical question?”
Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.