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As a philosopher, Pieter Booij specializes in logic and the foundations of mathematics. In the next four short essays Pieter will interpret a selection of Wittgensteins aphorisms in the context of the Corona pandemic. Wittgensteins second masterpiece is the Philosophical Investigations, which consists of a collection of aphorisms. These aphorisms read like poetry to Pieter, and like poetry, they are not only open to interpretation, but it are intentionally meant to be interpreted.

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 in 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?

Text: Pieter Booij en Heleen Janssens.

Edit: Kees Muller.