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