This Time the Government is Good for You
Relax, I’m a doctor. Of philosophy, that is. I hold a world top-40 Ph.D. in the human sciences and partly because of this people often ask me to ‘explain’ what is going on right now. I can’t cure the virus, so my skills are not front and center. But step aside with me for a moment, and I’ll attempt to tell you why I think that this time, the government is the right pill for the right job.
Needless to say, as a thinker I am no great fan of the state. Our official apical ancestor, Socrates, was executed by the state for ‘corrupting youth’, which remains a large part of my mission. Kant was ordered by his state to stop writing about religion, a particularly delicate theme in his time even more than in our own. He ignored the order and no doubt said something that wasn’t fit to print in return. So that’s pretty much where I come from in the day to day, when times are mundane and life seems long.
But for the moment, our times are neither. I recently published a new theory of anxiety and so one thing I can tell you right off is that Anxiety, capital ‘A’, is seen by philosophers as a good thing. It’s like an early warning system, an impetus to care, which Heidegger stated was the most fundamental aspect of our beings. This ‘concernfulness’, as he put it, orients ourselves to the most pressing of issues which underlie the day to day of living on. These include the condition of others to self, the future as ‘being-ahead-of-ourselves’, and our thrown and fallen state as beings who exist in the envelope of both ‘finitude’ – existential finiteness that cannot be located at a precise time, just as we cannot know the hour of our individual deaths – and ‘running on’ – moving towards our future deaths but in no conscious or systematic manner. Large-scale crises are certainly something to work against and around, but they also serve to distract and decoy us away from confronting the intimacy of our own deaths, which cannot be shared with any other human being.
So ironically, part of our anxieties regarding COVID-19 concerns how well this crisis will distract us from ourselves, our own lives as we have lived them, and whatever regrets we may have suppressed about them. Anxiety, on the other hand, alerts us to these more intimate aspects of selfhood and does not let us be distracted by the world in any inauthentic manner. Generally, the state is part of this decoy world, issuing this or that decree that appears abstracted from our daily life, even arbitrary. The State is one of theological philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s two examples of the ‘evil of evil’ (the other being the Church). The evil of evil is defined as ‘fraudulency in the work of totalization’. What does this mean?
Traditionally, only a God was omniscient and omnipresent. As secular political life elbowed spiritual life into the margins, indeed, sometimes into the shadows, the state replaced the church as the center of social power. Even so, as a human institution, government is flawed, not at all all-knowing, and not quite everywhere at once. It often pretends that it is both, and in this it is a fraud. Many modern institutions partake in this ‘fraudulence’ as they pretend to be everything for everyone. The university is another obvious example. But with the stern demands the state is placing upon us these days it is flexing its absolute power over civil society, in part, again perhaps ironically, to keep it thus. We are reminded of Lord Acton’s now almost cliché epigram, originally in epistolary form, that ‘power corrupts’, and further ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. So we might be adding this worry to our list of anxieties and generally and in principle, we should always be concerned about limiting the power of the state, lest more governments arise around the globe that lengthen the list of authoritarian regimes.
But this time I’m going to tell you that our governments, at least, are doing the right thing. Listening to real doctors, for instance, and following their advice to the letter. In turn, we as civil and unselfish citizens need to do the same. This does not mean that we shed our individuality for automata, slough off our would-be immortal coils of freedom for slavery and obedience, or regress to the status of young children. It is a choice we make based on the best of knowledge at the time, and one that the vast majority of us, myself certainly included, could not make for ourselves. We do not become thoughtless morons by acceding to this general will. Indeed, it is thinking that has brought us to this point and it is thinking that will see us through to its far end, however indefinite this may appear to be today. At both federal and provincial levels then, we should heed to the letter the demands of the day. So relax, take two governments, and call me in the morning.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of almost forty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.