The Social Philosophy of Ireland’s Covid-19 Response

elderly couple walking in a park


Last Autumn, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice published an issue of Working Notes built around the theme of “risk”.

Those essays have continued relevance, but none of them mention pandemics. This is not an oversight on our part. We understood risk as a compound concept. It isn’t simply a function of unexpected events but the unpredictable consequences that arise as unexpected events interact.

In this era of Coronatide, it is important to recognise that a global pandemic was never a risk, but an eventuality. The only unknown was when it would arise. Risk, as we interpreted it, came into play when we were dealing with unknown unknowns. We knew new viruses were making homes in human populations and we knew eventually one would grab hold globally. Risk applies when we don’t know what happens then.

The spread of the virus in Europe is so accelerated that any words written about it and its effects are likely to be redundant by the time they are published. But it is worthwhile considering the reaction of governments to the threat posed by Covid-19 because the contrast between how Ireland (and the EU generally) have operated and the approach taken by the UK illuminates what risks are being faced.

Both the EU and the UK grounded their response on expert scientific advice. But while the EU largely followed the guidance of the World Health Organisation, the UK pursued leads suggested by research at Imperial College. We ought not to read too much too soon into a divergence in policy, but it is reasonable to conclude that cultural priorities are at play in the EU going one way, while the UK goes another.

The EU response has been driven by a concern to “flatten the curve” so as to protect the most vulnerable in our societies. The elderly and those with underlying conditions are most affected by this disease. By issuing prompt directives to socially distance, supported by the closure of public institutions, backed up (to varying degrees) by economic protections for those who must self-isolate, the hope is that the many will support the few.

(It cannot be forgotten that more needs to be said about the vulnerable populations who are not sufficiently protected – and what that reveals about whether we consider them part of our society. People who are in prison, in Direct Provision, homeless or living with drug addiction are arguably not being supported so that they can socially distance.)

The British response was not dismissive of the need to flatten the curve and in recent days seem to have adopted some version of that strategy. But they initially appeared to have shaped their response around an idea of “herd immunity”. The reticence about closing schools can be understood in this light: if Covid-19 does not pose a serious threat to the health of young people, might it be wise to let young, healthy people contract it early so that they are removed as potential vectors of infection?

Both policies are scientifically-informed by world-class expert advice. Both policies are aiming at serving the public good. But one block of nations commits to closing its schools, emptying its pubs, and moving a huge proportion of labour to domestic settings while the other block of nations tries to continue with business as usual.

Our hope is that both approaches work. We suspect that the British will rue the weeks spent maintaining a version of the stiff upper lip and pretending that Covid-19 is not that serious. But we cannot begin to speculate on how different populations will respond to the virus and to the measures suggested for combatting it.

What we can do is explore the philosophical differences that motivate these two policy trajectories. The European response was grounded in a concern to care for the weak and was willing to impose huge inconvenience on the strong to achieve it. The British response was grounded in a concern to protect the wider population and was willing to risk huge fatalities among the elderly and vulnerable to achieve it.

The European response might be classified in technical terms as deontological . It sees the crisis as an event demanding dutiful response. We ought to care for the weak and what we ought to do is what we must do, regardless of the cost. Considering the theological heritage that informs much of continental European political thinking, it is not too much to suggest that their response (and Ireland’s response by extension) to Covid-19 is a preferential option for the weak. Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon commitment to keeping life as normal as possible and to maximise outcomes over the long-term is a reflection of their utilitarian public philosophy. Some portions of the population are going to suffer disproportionately – even unto death – in the midst of this crisis, but the Government tried to set a course that sought the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

When we consider the response to Covid-19 in this light, we see that the difference is much more than two different policy options being selected. The motivating philosophy of societies (or at least, the leadership of these societies) is laid bare by this crisis. The European commitment to protect the weak at the cost of a potentially epoch-defining economic recession suggests that their understanding of society is wrapped up in ideas about what life is for that goes beyond bottom-line thinking. Some things just are too valuable to put a price on.

The British tried to veer away from passing laws and issuing edicts and instead used the “nudge” techniques to herd the wider population towards courses of action that were less disruptive. In the current issue of Working Notes, we offer an argument that the “nudge” approach to politics is attractive to people because it promises (falsely) that we can avoid the bigger questions about what life is for, what is right, what is wrong, and how we ought to treat one another and instead offer technical solutions. Such approaches always generate risks – the unknown unknowns that arise when politicians shirk their responsibility to care for the common good and imagine instead that they are technical masters of policy, abstractly solving problems on a whiteboard or through a white paper.

It remains to be seen whether the EU approach has better numerical outcomes than a nudge-based response. Ironically, their focus on the weak individuals in society has generated a much more thoroughly communal response. Ultimately, this crisis will only be immediately resolved through vaccination. But between now and then, I know which kind of society I would prefer to be a part of: one which looks first to those who are in need, one which expects those who are strong to shoulder all they can carry, and one which never forgets that there are treasures we possess in common that cannot be transacted for economic value. A society built from a preferential option for the weak is a stronger society by far.