German humanities scholars enlisted to end coronavirus lockdown

In contrast to other countries, philosophers, historians, theologians and jurists have played a major role advising the state as it seeks to loosen restrictions

April 22, 2020
The two female heads of a bronze figure wear a protective face mask on April 3, 2020 in Jena, Germany
Source: Getty

In the struggle against the new coronavirus, humanities academics have entered the fray – in Germany at least.

Arguably to a greater extent than has happened in the UK, France or the US, the country has enlisted the advice of philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists as it navigates the delicate ethical balancing act of reopening society while safeguarding the health of the public.

When the German federal government announced a slight loosening of restrictions on 15 April – allowing small shops to open and some children to return to school in May – it had been eagerly awaiting a report written by a 26-strong expert group containing only a minority of natural scientists and barely a handful of virologists and medical specialists.

Instead, this working group from the Leopoldina – Germany’s independent National Academy of Sciences dating back to 1652 – included historians of industrialisation and early Christianity, a specialist on the philosophy of law and several pedagogical experts.

This paucity of virologists earned the group a swipe from Markus Söder, minister-president of badly hit Bavaria, who has led calls in Germany for a tough lockdown (although earlier in the pandemic the Leopoldina did release a report written by more medically focused specialists).

But “the crisis is a complex one, it’s a systemic crisis” and so it needs to be dissected from every angle, argued Jürgen Renn, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and one of those who wrote the crucial recommendations.

Working together at an “incredibly quick” pace via Zoom, the group’s education specialists raised fears that school closures meant that children from poor families would fall further behind their wealthy peers; jurists wondered if restrictions on basic freedoms were legitimate; and ethicists and philosophers stressed that stopping the spread of the coronavirus would depend far more on public willingness to fall in line with moral norms than any coercive state action, he explained.

And Professor Renn – who earlier this year published a book on rethinking science in the Anthropocene – made the argument for green post-virus reconstruction. Urbanisation and deforestation have squashed mankind and wildlife together, making other animal-to-human disease transmissions ever more likely, he argued. “It’s not the only virus waiting out there,” he said.

Germany’s Ethics Council – which traces its roots back to the stem cell debates of the early 2000s and is composed of theologians, jurists, philosophers and other ethical thinkers – also contributed to a report at the end of March, warning that it was up to elected politicians, not scientists, to make the “painful decisions” weighing up the lockdown’s effect on health and its other side-effects.

“We have a direct line to the ministers and decision-makers in parliament,” said Joachim Vetter, the council’s director. “You can ask the virologists in the beginning; but as you go on you need jurists, people from the economy, social scientists,” he argued, as the impact of lockdown ripples through society.

Other European countries also have bioethics councils – some of which have issued their own recommendations on the coronavirus – but Dr Vetter argued that Germany had a particularly strong tradition of ethical debate. After the release of its report, the chair of the council appeared on a prime-time evening news programme. “You’re really in the main news,” Dr Vetter said.

The government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, has also called on an eclectic mix of experts for advice. Otfried Höffe, a world authority on Immanuel Kant, has sat down with telecoms executives, business representatives and legal experts to chart a lockdown exit strategy.

His role during the meetings was to ask “difficult questions” that might otherwise be overlooked, and in this, Professor Höffe said, philosophy’s “rather good experience of 2,500 years” was an asset.

For example, there is a “danger” that the executive of a government might seek to hoard power during the pandemic, he explained.

While France has a tradition of public intellectuals, Professor Höffe said, in Germany, academic philosophers have a stronger history of involvement in political discussion.

Germany’s involvement of the humanities in its coronavirus response appears to be the exception rather than the rule. In France, an 11-strong coronavirus scientific council assembled by the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, at the end of March is composed almost entirely of disease experts, epidemiologists, disease modellers and medics – it features only a single sociologist and one anthropologist.

The UK government has controversially kept the identities of experts on most of its coronavirus advisory committees secret (the Department of Health and Social Care did not respond to a Times Higher Education request for information).

According to the Institute for Government thinktank, during pandemics, the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) draws on “epidemiologists, virologists, clinicians, behavioural scientists, systems scientists and engineers”, although one advisory subcommittee that looks at how people behave in times of crisis can involve historians.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Ethicists play major part in exit strategy

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Reader's comments (3)

But one thing for sure is the UK mob will all have been to a small number of elite private schools.
Please refer to regional heads of government in Germany as state premiers. The term “minister-president“ is a one-to-one translation that makes no sense.
How to deal with the virus problem depends heavily on what is known about the transmission of the virus and that is not a problem for poets. Vaccination in rural states presents difficult and controversial problems for moral/ethical philosophers to ponder and publicly comment.

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