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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.
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 I 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.
Text: Pieter Booij en Heleen Janssens.
Edit: Kees Muller.