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Can our leaders cope with freedom? Whatever the Government chooses to do next, it will be responsible for death or destruction

Few members of our cabinet have had a good Corona-war. Credit: Simon Dawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Few members of our cabinet have had a good Corona-war. Credit: Simon Dawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images


August 27, 2020   3 mins

Next week, the nation’s leaders will head back to Westminster, to put the country back together again after lockdown. In preparation, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book should our politicians bear in mind, in confronting the next term’s challenges? Timandra Harkness recommends Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean Paul Sartre.

My recommendation is a slim book that fits in a pocket, and speaks of “anguish, abandonment and despair”. It’s not exactly holiday reading, but summer’s over, and many Brits will be feeling a combination of all three as the end of the furlough scheme looms and whispers of a second wave proliferate.

In Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre’s subject is not the anguish of ordinary citizens, though, but the anguish of leadership: of taking on responsibility, in the knowledge that every choice you make will lead to suffering or death. At a time when our politicians have to decide between reducing the risk of more deaths from Covid-19, or reducing the society-wide destruction caused by anti-Covid policies, they need reminding that this anguish is inescapable. Hard choices must be made, and inaction is itself a choice.

But there’s far more for our Government to learn from Sartre than simply how to grasp the nettle of leadership. If Twitter is anything to go by, lockdown left many of us grappling with the existential — wondering how to give meaning to our closed-off worlds — and Sartre was the man who first popularised the philosophy. “Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or cauliflower,” he writes. Contrasting existentialism to mechanistic philosophies of human behaviour, Sartre casts a harsh light on theories which “make man into an object”:

All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object — that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone.

Does this remind you of discussions about how best to nudge the population into following government guidelines to prevent infection? It should. Politicians took advice from behavioural psychologists — as Sartre notes, to seek advice, and from whom, is itself a choice — and decided to use fear as a motivating force. The psychologists even warned that fear for personal safety might, in the long run, backfire. Having galloped into lockdown with an air of “we have no choice, people will die!” the Cabinet must now choose the path out, knowing that there is no easy option, and accepting responsibility for their decisions. Could this little book help?

Existentialism is often criticised as individualistic and abstract; Sartre wrote Existentialism and Humanism as a corrective to these claims. Yes, each person is condemned to be free, to make their own choices and find their own meaning, but we must also recognise that humanity in everyone else. Writing in 1945, with the war against Nazism still ringing in his ears, Sartre spells out that recognising the existential freedom of each individual human must also mean defending the freedom of all humans. “We will freedom for freedom’s sake, and in and through particular circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends on our own.”

Before you rip off your mask and put your foot down in a 20mph zone, read on. This principled stand, inconveniently, does not imply any specific course of action. The actions you choose in the real world are still your own responsibility. You might decide that wearing a little piece of cloth is preferable to rising infection and consequent lockdown, or that mask-wearing contributes to a culture of fear which constrains us all psychologically.

How do you weigh the value of every human life that might be cut short by Covid (or by another cause while Covid dominates health provision and government attention) against the value, to each and all of us, of living life as fully as possible? “Life is nothing until it is lived;” says Sartre, “but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.”

Staying alive is not enough. We also need sense, purpose and value in our shared human life. Our leaders must protect not just our lives, but our freedom to live. That is the anguish of leadership. It is the anguish of being human, and therefore free.


Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Technology is Not the Problem, is published by Harper Collins.

TimandraHarknes

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David Barnett
David Barnett
3 years ago

The only hard choice is to admit that an unfocussed general lockdown was a huge error. Ignore the baying press. Everyone else is grown up. We know that mistakes happen. But grown ups admit their errors as soon as possible and fix them.

We want grown up government for grown up people. End the lockdown fully now. End the “safety” theatre of masks and distancing.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

So let it rip and explain the deaths as inevitable.
Same for all pandemics then …
How old are you David ?

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Well on the other side of the coin I guess you don’t make your living from aviation or tourism or the other industries that have been devastated. The effects of Covid-19 are inevitable unless you think we can lock up as well as support an idle society for years.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Yes indeed, ” let it rip”, what are you afraid of?
Even for the “coffin dodgers” as my grandchildren call it, the chop rate is very low and quite acceptable, so long as you are not one of those obese slobs who have spent their lives stuffing their faces from noon till night.

Let’s face it, this is Darwinian selection at it’s very best. To hell with the Nanny State and its sanctimonious drivel.

David Barnett
David Barnett
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Notice I said “unfocussed general lockdown“. Every pandemic is different.

We already knew a lot about the demographic-morbidity profile for Covid-19 by the end of January. That told us: young people no problem. Unusually, unlike influenza, even very young children are not at significant risk. Nobel laureate, Michael Levitt, analysed the available data (including the Diamond Princess).

Since then, it has become evident the population is not as naive to Covid-19 as first thought. Almost certainly because exposure to other coronaviruses confers cross-strain resistance. We also know that relying on anti-body tests drastically underestimates the numbers of people who have had Covid-19, because the T-cell system gets there first.

Further, we have learned a lot about the treatment of serious cases. (Remember the lamentations over lack of ventilators – now known to be counterproductive).

We also have a warning from 1918, where the Spring suppression measures (which had better justification for that pandemic than our measures with Covid-19) caused the Autumn wave to be more deadly. Reason? It was the milder end of the spectrum that was suppressed. In other words, not only is there no evidence that unfocussed lockdown has saved many lives, but it may have been counterproductive and made the virus worse for the long term. I predict that in a year’s time, the countries most “successful” at suppressing Covid-19 this spring will not be looking so clever.

Conclusion: be cautious around the elderly etc. Let it rip through the rest. Then, as with most coronaviruses, herd resistance, and evolution favouring lower virulence will limit the impact of future waves.

P.S. I am old enough to be retired (but have no intention of ever retiring).

Lucy Smex
Lucy Smex
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Death is inevitable. It’s only a matter of how and when. There is no if.
The prevalence of this new virus is negligible in most areas of the country. The highest level today, which is in the North East of th e country is 2.4 “cases” per 100,000 people, and you think we should remain in hibernation for that, especially as a “case” no longer means a hospital admission, but a positive test result, from a test with a high false positive rate?
We can’t remain hiding behind the sofa forever because we’re too frightened to come out in case the virus gets us, when the survival rate is 99.99% for the majority of the population, and you have to be 80+, i.e., close to or above the average life expectancy, and male with co-morbidities, for your survival rate to significantly drop.
If you’re in that category, fine, stay home, don’t go out or meet with anyone if you’re worried, but the rest of us want to live, thanks.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I suspect that some of our leaders can cope with freedom. The problem is whether or not the media will allow them to cope with freedom.

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Spot on.

Lucy Smex
Lucy Smex
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It’s not our leaders we need to worry about. It’s what they allow the rest of us to do is my concern, i.e. how much freedom they’re willing to cede back after this unnecessary curtailment.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I find this mask wearing advice rather confusing.
First we were told that “The Science” said was no benefit, then we were told that “The Science” said we should wear them on public transport but they were not required in shops or schools.
Then “The Science” said they were vital in shops, but not in schools.
Now “The Science” said they were vital for older children in parts of the school.
Next it appears that “The Science” will tell us that young children will need masks in the classroom.
I know that science evolves over a period of time, but does science change over a few days? If you think this is unlikely, then what is driving the change?
I see that Timandra has whole heartedly accepted the “The Science’s” latest discovery about masks and shops.
In my own observations, when I have been shopping in super markets, to start with, hardly anybody wore masks. The same checkout staff were there week in and out.
Now I see shoppers taking a mask out of their pockets and attach it as they enter the shops, touch goods and surfaces in the shop, adjust their masks and repeat.
Then, once they are outside, they put their mask back in their pocket.
I doubt that they use a new mask for every shop they enter, so we now have a potentially infected mask being used over and over again.
So, I do not believe in the wearing a mask in shops is an improvement. Are the scientific tests carried in a real world scenario, similar to the observations I described above, or are they just testing in ideal conditions?
Does anybody know how the tests were carried out, why the tests now produce different results?
So my advice to politicians would be to throw away Sartre and to start looking at “The Science” and check whether it is produces real world answers, or is just being used as a scare mechanism.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell
3 years ago

Concerning masks and other measures, here are some reason why I think scientific information is not truly informing the debate and the measures.

Reason #1: Currently everyone is free to accept and act on information which seems fearful or promotes caution, but nobody without a medical degree or scientific PhD is allowed to promote calming information or attitudes.

Reason #2: The 2-metre rule. I believe the science says we are at risk if all three of the following pertain: 1) we’re in an indoor area (low ventilation) 2) spending time (more than 15 minutes) 3) in proximity to the same individuals (since there’s a small chance one of them might be infected). Otherwise we’re neither at risk nor inflicting risk on others. But most people only seem to remember the third part – the 2-metre rule.

Reason #3: The tyranny of the majority. A majority of the population hasn’t had their livelihood threatened (yet). Remember that one third of the population doesn’t earn a paycheque (retired, children, disabled, wealthy). Perhaps another third has a guaranteed paycheque (essential workers, government workers, high-status workers). So surprisingly enough, the people who have immediate concerns about what’s happening to the economy are automatically in the minority.

Lucy Smex
Lucy Smex
3 years ago

It’s more to do with (Communist/far left) behavioural scientists pushing a permanent cultural change towards everyone wear masks (see Susan Michie, Trisha Greenhalgh). What their motives are, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just further undermining society, to fragment it. You can look to America at the moment to see where that may lead.
Unfortunately, these same people are advising the government, when they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them.
The efficacy of wearing masks by the public is very thin at best, and probably counterproductive or even harmful.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
3 years ago

There is no “hard choice” to be made. One simple thing is required : they have to admit that they got it wrong. The science points to this being no worse than a heavy flu season. Once they admit to the original mistake (listening to a modeller with an appalling track record!) and then their frantic desperate attempts to make it look like they knew what they were doing, then everything unravels. We go back to a situation we had in 2017/18 with the 60k deaths from flu and no shutdown, no masks, no distancing, no economic meltdown (which hasn’t started yet, wait until furlough ends WOW).

The biggest problem is a public who have been scared witless and have fallen for all the irrational and illogical “science following!” which means that getting back to normal will take time.

I have a suggestion, which borrows from the likes of Peter Hitchens and Lord Sumption. Lift all restrictions now but do so for 3 or 4 days a week. This allows those uf us without the brainwashed fear to behave as normal, I suspect that will provide more of a boost for half a week than the current measures do for the full week. The other half of the week can have masked shops,pubs etc. The masked and unmasked can stay apart although I suspect there will be a drift from one to the other ending up with 1 masked day a week!

Peter Frost
Peter Frost
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

The deaths from flu in 2017/18 were of the order of 20,000. More than the expected 17,000 but not 60,000. Your figure may well reflect the total deaths from all causes. What we have is a high excess death figure and the only stand out difference is Covid 19.

I do not expect you to agree because it is regularly shouted in local pubs along with such things as “the Americans didn’t land on the moon” “Prince Phillip took out a contract on Diana” and other similar conspiracy theories.

We saw and heard Johnson boasting that he had shook hands with everyone in a Copvid ward and has since gone silent about it. This is different. We do not have a treatment nor a vaccine. Against flu we have vaccines though for 2017/18 they picked the wrong balance of vaccines and thus some people became infected even though
they had been vaccinated. We have a duty to do whatever we can to protect those who are vulnerable because they have a deficient immune system.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Frost

Since when do we have a duty to do “whatever we can” for others? We have a duty not to harm them, I imagine. Shouldn’t the likely harmfulness of our conduct be judged objectively? For instance there’s certainly no evidence that wearing masks outdoors would provide any benefit, yet there’s a rapidly increasing number places requiring it.

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Frost

I see you assume that the vaccine against the flu makes people immune against it…Dream on, there is no clinical evidence whatsoever that the influenza-vaccine has any clinical effect. Of course they measured the production of antibodies within relatively young people and also within old people. The difference is that the old people survived a few months and then died anyway . Why? Because their immune system can not produce a sufficient amount of antibodies anymore. It’s very complex and mysterious, we call it: old age. When your old enough you will die , no matter what stuff you will inject in your vein. This phase starts around 80 for most people, and plenty of people happen to be around 80.

Jeannette Richardson
Jeannette Richardson
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Frost

I think you will find Malcolm was correct: http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk

Lucy Smex
Lucy Smex
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Frost

There is at least one treatment, if used early, i.e. hydroxychloroquine, but that’s been highly politicised because 1) Donald Trump mentioned it as a potential treatment, and whatever he says everyone has to ridicule and do the opposite, and 2) it’s cheap, so pharmaceutical companies don’t make much money out of it. Much better to push for vaccinations, which have to be done for everyone every year. A lot more guaranteed money to be made out of that, especially if the pharmaceutical companies are indemnified against any potential harmful effects, like narcolepsy….

Lucy Smex
Lucy Smex
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

Once they admit to the original mistake (listening to a modeller with an appalling track record!)

I believe it may be even worse than that. All this has been game-planned by various international organizations, such as the WHO, WEF, CEBI, i.e. a virulent viral pandemic, where governments shut down their countries and economies to reduce its spread. That was the plan, postulated and proposed at least as far back as 2010.
Watch the video by Computing Forever (Dave Cullen), “The Mask Slips”, especially towards the end. It’s all been laid out prior to this virus outbreak.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

An interesting and provocative essay, but I’m not sure that old fraud Sartre is the correct source of inspiration.

Frankly we are ruled by men of straw, granted the best available, but still men of straw.
We need men with backbone and courage, which is almost unknown in our political cosmos, due to the pathetic selection process.

For example, even in Ancient Rome you had to have served for about three years with the Legions, as a “tribunus laticlarius” before you could enter the Senate as a Quaestor, at about the age of 24.
This, in addition to an initial years training as junior magistrate, was thought sufficient to equip you for public office.

As Johnson said in the 18th century, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having served at sea”.

We need a new system of recruitment, a proper “cursus honorum” if we are to avoid the sort of fiasco that is currently taking place.

As David Barnett (below) so appositely say, first we need HMG admit that they are in error, and then return the nation to normality as soon as is humanly possible. Or to put it succinctly, just ‘grow up’.

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
3 years ago

The article goes on to clarify matters, but near the beginning, the writer says that Sartre isn’t writing for ordinary citizens. Actually that’s exactly who he’s writing for: everyone needs to take personal responsibility for their choices and actions. It is bad faith to blame others, including the government, for the circumstances in which we find ourselves and behave as if we are driven by them. Boris may do well to read Sartre, but there are millions of others – not least in the media – who should also be checking themselves in that mirror.

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

To make this whole corona-crisis an existential matter seems appropriate
at first sight, especially now that the measures against corona have had such a massive worldwide impact. But when you start at the beginning of this story, it all begins with plain and simple stupidity. Some dramatized photographs from China and from Bergamo and an astronomically wrong prediction from the WHO about the mortality (IFR: 3,4%). That’s apparently all that is needed to make the whole wide world go nuts. Like Malcolm stated before me: they just got it wrong, totally and utterly wrong. Now it’s not a question of choosing between 2 existential evils but a question of saving the political and scientific careers of the policy makers. I hope Boris and the Imperial college will fail in their attempt but chances are big that the vaccine will prevent their demise, among other fabrications, for instance about the effectiveness of the measures.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Pointless article.

Adrian
Adrian
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

>> My recommendation is…
That was the point.