Professor John Tasioulas has been appointed as the first Director of Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI. You can read about his appointment here. Ahead of starting his new role in October, he sat down with us to explain why he is excited about the job and what he hopes the Institute will achieve.
Professor Tasioulas is currently the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law and Director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy & Law at King’s College London. He has strong links to Oxford, having studied as a Rhodes Scholar, completed a doctorate in philosophy and taught philosophy from 1998-2010. He is also a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre and Emeritus Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He has held visiting appointments at the Australian National University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Melbourne, and acted as a consultant on human rights to the World Bank.
What role do you envision for the Institute?
'My aim is for the Institute to bring the highest standards of academic rigour to the discussion of AI ethics. The Institute is strongly embedded in philosophy and I do not know of any other centre along those lines. At Oxford, we have the largest Philosophy department in the English-speaking world and it has historically been a very powerful presence in the discipline. We will also draw on other disciplines like literature, medicine, history, music, law, and computer science. This is a radical attempt to bridge the divide between science and humanities in this area and Oxford is uniquely placed to pull it off.'
Why Oxford a good place for the Institute?
'Oxford is an outstanding environment for the Institute not only because of its great academic strengths generally, and especially in philosophy, but also because in Oxford the study of philosophy at undergraduate level has always been pursued in tandem with other subjects, in joint degrees such as PPE, Physics and Philosophy, and Computer Science and Philosophy. The Institute can reap the benefits of this long historical commitment to the idea that the study of philosophy is enriched by other subjects, and vice versa. Add to this the interdisciplinary connections fostered by the collegiate system, and also the high regard in which Oxford held throughout the world, and I think we have the ideal setting for ambitious interdisciplinary project of this kind.'
Why is AI ethics important?
'AI has a transformative potential for many parts of life, from medicine to law to democracy. It raises deep ethical questions – about matters such as privacy, discrimination, and the place of automated decision-making in a fulfilling human life – that we inevitably have to confront both as individuals and societies. I do not want AI ethics to be seen as a narrow specialism, but to become something that anyone seriously concerned with the major challenges confronting humanity has to address. AI ethics is not an optional extra or a luxury, it is absolutely necessary if AI is to advance human flourishing and social justice.
'Given that AI is here to stay, we must raise the level of debate around AI ethics and feed into the wider democratic process among citizens and legislators. AI regulation and policy are ultimately matters for democratic decision-making, but the quality of the deliberative process is enhanced by the arguments and insights of experts working on questions of AI ethics.'
How does COVID-19 make you think about AI ethics and the Institute?
'COVID-19 demonstrates that it is never going to be enough just to "follow the science’. There are always value judgements that have to be made, about things like the distribution of risk across society and tradeoffs between prosperity and health. Science can tell us the consequences of our actions but it does not tell us which goals we should pursue or what sacrifices are justified to achieve them. In so far as we are going to have AI as part of the technological solution to societal challenges, we inevitably have to address the ethical questions too. AI ethics is a way to get clearer about the value judgements involved and to encourage a more rigorous and inclusive debate.'
What are your priorities for the Institute?
'There are many things I want to get done. I want to embed within Oxford the idea of AI ethics as an important, high quality area of research and discussion that is open to all interested parties. Not everyone has it at the forefront of their minds, but I want people to become aware that there is a lively and rigorous discussion going on about the very pressing questions it raises, one which bears on the topics they are already interested, such as health care, climate change, migration, and so on. If we can secure this high-quality culture of research and debate, it will be the platform on which we can achieve everything else. Vital to all this is getting serious intellectual buy-in from the broader Oxford community.'
At King’s, you led and developed a centre that was also new when you became the Director. What lessons can you bring from that experience?
'The first challenge is getting people from different disciplines to talk to each other in a productive way. This is not easy because the meanings of words, and the methods adopted, can differ significantly from one discipline to another, so people can talk past each other. And then there is just the inertia of staying in your intellectual comfort zone. We need to generate an environment of goodwill in which people feel comfortable talking about things with those from other disciplines and to learn from each other.
'Another important challenge is that this discussion must not be confined to academics. It is important that whatever we do must also be presented in a way that is accessible to a broader community, whether that is legislators, scientists or ordinary citizens. However profound or sophisticated our research is, we must convey it in a way that can be engaged with by a non-specialist community. Otherwise we will not be fulfilling our task. I want us to hold events where the general public feels very free to come along, engage and make points in the discussions.'
What aims do you have for teaching AI ethics in Oxford?
'It looks like AI will become an inescapable feature of ordinary human life. In so far as an undergraduate degree equips students to cope with life in a critical and intelligent way, it would seem natural that the ethical dimension of AI is one of the aspects of life they should be able to engage with in the course of their degrees. AI ethics can be seen through the lens of any given discipline, whether it is classics or medicine or something else.'
What is your aim for the field of AI ethics as a whole?
'Bioethics is a good example of the role of ethics in tackling major issues facing society, but it is also a cautionary tale. Bioethics has truly outstanding figures with a strong philosophical background who drew on deeper expertise in moral and political philosophy in order to advance that discipline. But at the moment, a lot of what you hear about AI ethics lacks this kind of depth, too much is a rehash of the language of corporate governance, or even just soundbites and buzzwords. A sustainable AI ethics needs to be grounded in something deeper and broader, and that must include philosophy and the humanities more generally. The Institute can serve to channel this intellectual rigour and clarity into the sphere of public debate and decision making.
'In the past, philosophers have played an active role in government reports on matters such as censorship, IVF or gambling, but no philosopher was involved in the recent House of Lords report on AI, for example. This is unfortunate and can lead to an unnecessarily limited perspective. Often what happens is people are tempted to use the law as a framework for evaluating various options in AI. Law is, of course, extremely important as a tool of regulation. But ethics goes deeper than law, because we can always ask whether existing law is acceptable, and because we need more than legal rules in order to live good lives.'
Finally, how do you feel about "returning" to Oxford?
'Although this is a new and exciting challenge, it’s also a homecoming because I have always regarded Oxford as my intellectual home. I have such great admiration for Oxford because it manages to combine a commitment to the highest intellectual standards with a broadly democratic academic culture. In that sense, too, I think Oxford is unique in the world and this combination equips us well to pursue our aims for the Institute.'
You can find more information on the Institute here.
For the last six months, in every country, on every continent, politicians, policymakers and scientists have been convulsed by trying to locate and then do the ‘right thing’ in the face of COVID-19 – and very often, apparently, they have been failing.
For the first time, in a very long time, philosophical considerations have become the stuff of political debate and everyday conversation. Is it right to deprive people of their liberty or not; to dictate personal behaviour or not; to close borders or not; to protect life or the health service or the economy, or not?
For the first time, in a very long time, philosophical considerations have become the stuff of political debate and everyday conversation....The world seems stymied by ethical considerations: is there a right thing and, if so, what is it?
The world seems stymied by ethical considerations: is there a right thing and, if so, what is it? These are not everyday questions, for most people and many politicians in particular stand accused of having done the wrong thing, taken the wrong decisions. But the Oxford Professor of Medical Ethics, (Dr) Dominic Wilkinson, is someone for whom these are everyday questions and he does not rush to judgement. He says, ‘Philosophy can help inform what we ought to do, given what we know.’
The trouble is, Professor Wilkinson says, the ‘facts’ appear to have changed in terms of our understanding of COVID-19 as time has progressed. What we know now, compared with what we knew even three months ago, is vastly different. And, says Professor Wilkinson, ‘You couldn’t make decisions based on what you didn’t know. You can only make decisions [and be judged] on what it was reasonable to do at a particular point in time....You can look back in two, five or ten years and see how things turned out. But even if a decision turns out badly – that doesn’t make it the wrong decision to have made at the time.’
‘Consequentialism’, as it is known in philosophy, commends considering what will follow (the consequences) when you make a decision. You consider what will (or may) happen if you take certain actions. And because of the imperfections of our understanding, Professor Wilkinson says, ‘Sometimes you have to make a decision in good faith.’
Clearly, from the multiplicity of approaches around the world to the pandemic, different governments and policymakers have come to different conclusions – both about the ‘right thing’ to do and the right thing to consider when making those decisions. Most, if not all, will have sought to preserve life. But whose life? A COVID-sufferer’s, a cancer patient’s, a person who loses their job? And mixed in with the question have been other considerations: should we prioritise saving the NHS and flattening the curve over individual liberty – and would this, anyway, achieve the over-arching aim of preserving life?
One canard which has dropped into the debate has been the notion that politicians are merely ‘following the science’. Although beloved by policymakers, Professor Wilkinson insists that science cannot make policy decisions, ‘In some limited instances, it may be ethically obvious what conclusion should follow from ‘following the science’. But with a novel virus, this is not the case....’
One canard which has dropped into the debate has been the notion that politicians are merely ‘following the science’. Although beloved by policymakers, Professor Wilkinson insists that science cannot make policy decisions, ‘In some limited instances, it may be ethically obvious what conclusion should follow from ‘following the science’. But with a novel virus, this is not the case....’
He adds, ‘Decisions involve values....There may be an obvious ethical answer to a straightforward question. But when you’re making an ethical and political decision, all sorts of different values are at stake – how to protect the well-being of people with COVID or of the unemployed or someone with cancer.
‘Science cannot tell us what values we should put weight on. These are ethical decisions – not scientific ones...What is more, science is messy and complicated and very often says different things and science will evolve over time.’
So how do we make sense of countries’ attempts to tackle the pandemic? Is anyone doing the right thing? According to Professor Wilkinson, ‘There isn’t a single right answer, it depends how you weigh up your choices. You need to distinguish between a number of things.’
Does this mean, then, that all decisions are equally valid...? No, says Professor Wilkinson, ‘Context matters...Philosophers, justifiably reject the idea of ethical relativism. It might be difficult to work out the reasonable, right approach but there are definitely wrong choices
Does this mean, then, that all decisions are equally valid – another philosophical standpoint: ‘relativism’? No, says Professor Wilkinson, ‘Context matters, what might be the right thing in the UK or the US may not be the right thing somewhere else. But that doesn’t mean it is just a matter of opinion. Philosophers, justifiably reject the idea of ethical relativism. It might be difficult to work out the reasonable, right approach but there are definitely wrong choices.’
For example, Professor Wilkinson, who is also a qualified doctor, says that ‘recommending non-evidenced based’ interventions such as chloroquine, or bleach could be seen as ‘morally wrong’ choices. But he says, ‘We will all make mistakes. There are some things, however, which are not just a matter of someone’s opinion.’
At some point in the future, when the pandemic and the policy decisions are reviewed and blame is apportioned, it may be possible to look back and say that some decisions were made in good faith, given the knowledge at the time, even though they cost lives – meanwhile, others will look wrong.
Consistency, says Professor Wilkinson, is key to ethical decision-making. Where governments and politicians have failed to show consistency, it becomes difficult to justify decisions. But does that mean, henceforth, that the entire purpose of society should be given to preserving life – our national income should be entirely directed towards curing cancer?
At some point in the future, when...blame is apportioned, it may be possible to look back and say that some decisions were made in good faith, given the knowledge at the time, even though they cost lives – meanwhile, others will look wrong
‘No,’ says Professor Wilkinson. ‘We knew COVID was different from influenza [and needed to be approached differently]. But this is a novel epidemic rather than an endemic condition (such as malaria or TB) and so it is justified to treat it in a different way to the way we treat other healthcare threats.’
Key to the treatment of COVID-19, he says, was the fact that many people were going to be unwell at the same time, whereas cancer is a long-standing threat that is not going to go away. But, with fears of a second wave coming, Professor Wilkinson says, policymakers will soon have a different set of decisions, since it ‘may not be possible’ politically to take the same actions again in the face of a renewed virus. With concerns mounting about the impact on the economy and the reluctance of many younger people to be contained, the priority, he says, must be to ‘save lives’. But the mere number of lives saved is not the only thing that matters. ‘You need to consider the length of life and how the lives of the population are diminished [by intervention measures].’
These are hard questions for anyone, politicians included. It is not just a question of ‘following the science’, ‘this is about making an ethical decision about what might happen. And ethical decisions can be wrong’. There has been little time or opportunity for reflection, but says Professor Wilkinson, ‘Politicians have to balance a range of priorities, think seriously about how to act.’
Whether modern politicians are equipped for such considerations, is not something on which a good philosopher will venture an opinion. But trust is essential, Professor Wilkinson says, ‘Issues of credibility arise when there is inconsistency. We demand of our politicians a high standard.’
Whether modern politicians are equipped for such considerations, is not something on which a good philosopher will venture an opinion. But trust is essential, Professor Wilkinson says, ‘Issues of credibility arise when there is inconsistency. We demand of our politicians a high standard
Since the beginning of the crisis there have been frequent comparisons with wartime embattlement. From a philosophical point of view, it raises similar questions, ‘You have to balance costs and face ethical questions in much the same way...There are lots of parallels with the profound and difficult questions that countries face when they are at war.’
When all this is over, will there be the new world, the new normal of which so much is heard? As a doctor, Professor Wilkinson, believes there could be, ‘Many people who have faced serious illness reflect on their priorities...it helps to put their life into perspective.’
But, he says, ‘The trickiest time is still ahead. We could be facing something worse than the first wave and we will need to take decisions on things such as who gets the vaccine first...there are many more ethical decisions than just the lockdown. We don’t know yet what people will tolerate – what they will do.’
The blame game has a long way to run – particular for those whose decisions do not stand up to scrutiny.
Satellite images of the earth’s surface are familiar. From Google Earth to estate agents’ websites, space age technology is used to bring us images of the world in which we live. And there has been regular exciting news from archaeologists about an entire new city or settlement discovered in the desert or on a remote hilltop, lost to generations, found thanks to satellite imaging.
There are pictures of almost every country on Earth, from space. But there has been one key area which it has not been possible accurately to view with satellites, frustrating archaeologists keen to study the region. That area is Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) - a region packed with the history of ages and civilisation, where feet really did walk in ancient times.
There has been one key area which it has not been possible accurately to view with satellites, frustrating archaeologists keen to study the region. That area is Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) - a region packed with the history of ages and civilisation, where feet really did walk in ancient times
A long-standing prohibition in the United States, known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, meant that archaeologists studying the region could not use US satellite technology – which was the main source for many years, although Israel itself put good quality images of its territory on its own mapping agency website.
Two Oxford archaeologists, Dr Michael Fradley and Dr Andrea Zerbini, decided to do something about it. And recently, following concerted effort over several years, reform of the prohibition was allowed. Restrictions over the sale of US high-resolution satellite imagery over the region was reduced on the Federal Register on 21 July. It was a significant victory.
Dr Fradley maintains, ‘This ruling opens up many opportunities for research for archaeologists and many other disciplines which use Earth observation, such as for monitoring evidence of climate change and water exploitation. And it is a big win for science...
‘A century ago, the Cambridge botanist Hugh Hamshaw Thomas, who served as an RFC/RAF intelligence officer on the Palestine front during the First World War, highlighted the value of aerial photography for scientific study in the Levant in a paper in the journal Nature. But this potential has rarely been achieved. Hopefully, this long-overdue reform will help reverse that trend with regards to more recent satellite imagery’.
This ruling opens up many opportunities for research for archaeologists and many other disciplines which use Earth observation, such as for monitoring evidence of climate change and water exploitation. And it is a big win for science
This reform success has been hard-fought. It all started because the Oxford pair came up against the barrier. Their work was part of the Arcadia-funded, Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project. It uses satellite imagery to identify and monitor archaeological sites across the MENA region.
Three years ago, they found most archaeological sites in the OPT were not visible on the available low-resolution imagery. According to Dr Fradley, ‘It was a major barrier to our work. The imagery available was very low resolution – because of the US restrictions. We decided to find a way around it.’
They did find a way. The Kyl-Bingaman Amendment contained a reform mechanism that meant restrictions would be lowered, if companies outside the US were selling their own satellite imagery at a higher resolution than the level set by the US restrictions. And things had changed.The US was no longer the only supplier; Airbus provided imagery. The archaeologists found the French company had been producing sub-2m resolution of Israel from at least 2012. But nobody in the US had been effectively monitoring the situation. Since that time, several other companies outside the US had also surpassed the 2m level, including the South Korean company Kompsat. But, from an academic perspective, US satellite imagery offered the potential for open-source free access – essential for academic uses.
The Oxford pair tried to argue their case, with little response – although no one in the scientific community argued that the restriction should be retained. But they persevered, publishing an agenda-setting paper on the restrictions in the journal Space Policy and working with the Washington-based policy group al-Shabaka. Finally, the US regulator relented, lowering to the restricted level to 0.4m as the archaeologists had argued, a level achieved by the Kompsat K3A satellite.
The decision to lift the prohibition has ‘huge implications', according to Dr Fradley. ‘We haven’t been able to access some areas in occupied territories and this will make an enormous difference.
‘We will be able to record archaeology of the region on a granular level and have a much more objective view. We will be able to see if there has been damage to sites and, potentially, [if they secure access to retrospective imagery] identify where sites have been lost.’
The decision to lift the prohibition has ‘huge implications’, according to Dr Fradley. ‘We haven’t been able to access some areas in occupied territories and this will make an enormous difference.
Dr Fradley explains, ‘Israel has its own mapping of the entire country and a well-developed and well financed antiquities authority...but we haven’t had accurate imagery for the OPT. More data is of more benefit.’
Commenting on the news, Dr Jack Green, Associate Director of the American Centre for Oriental Research, based in Amman, Jordan, says, ‘The release of this more detailed satellite imagery will help provide many archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals with the vital additional tools needed to document and monitor sites and landscapes under their care from continual threats of urban encroachment, agricultural development, looting, vandalism, and other unauthorized activities. This is especially important for monitoring areas which are difficult or impossible to gain access to for security reasons.’
Dr Carol Palmor, Director of the Council for British Research in the Levant, also based in Amman says, ‘This represents an essential step for the protection of heritage in Israel and Palestine, with profound implications for many years to come. Furthermore, it is a brilliant example of the impact of research on policy and international legislation.’
This represents an essential step for the protection of heritage in Israel and Palestine, with profound implications for many years to come. Furthermore, it is a brilliant example of the impact of research on policy and international legislation
This successful reform has been bittersweet. In July last year, Dr Andrea Zerbini passed away of a rare cancer at the age of 34, when it still appeared that the restrictions would not be lifted. The present reform would have delighted him, and the decision is a lasting tribute to the research in Space Policy, in which he was a prime mover.
It was 5am in mid-March, and Lucie Cluver was awake. For once, it was not the children bouncing on the bed that had woken her. She could not sleep because of the pandemic. But it was not the crazy COVID dreams that have affected others. Lucie had woken early because she feared the pandemic was going to be a nightmare - for her and for millions of other parents around the world. The nursery school was closing at the end of the week, along with just about every other educational establishment on the planet, what on Earth were parents going to do?
It was 5am in mid-March, and Lucie Cluver was awake. For once, it was not the children bouncing on the bed...The nursery school was closing at the end of the week, along with just about every other educational establishment on the planet, what on Earth were parents going to do?
Happily, Lucie Cluver, who is Professor of Child and Family Social Work at Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, decided to do something about it. That early morning start inspired what has gone on to be an incredible international campaign in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It has touched every corner of the world – and 58 million families have used the work that began at 5am that day in March.
What was keeping her awake was not just personal. From the evidence and her time as a social worker, Professor Cluver knew that every time schools close and movement is restricted, families have suffered. ‘Rates of abuse always rise’.
It is really hard for families already under stress, through illness, or poverty or mental health distress. But, suddenly, COVID-19 meant those challenges were going to be almost universal. Everyone is worried, stressed about money and at times just totally fed up with being restricted. Most shouting and hitting is not done by malicious parents, but by stressed, exhausted parents at the end of their tether.
It was very clear we were heading into a perfect storm
‘It was very clear we were heading into a perfect storm,’ she says.
Professor Cluver started writing emails. That morning, she and her colleague, Dr Jamie Lachman, contacted the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children, UNODC, USAID and the Centers for Disease Control.
They knew they needed to move fast - the need was urgent and demand would be immense. Together, they began creating simple, but effective, resources to support parents during lockdown. A decade of research into parenting and child care was about to come in very useful.
Normally, it would take about two years to get endorsement and collaboration from this range of international agencies. In recognition of the global crisis, though, colleagues came together and fast-tracked approval. This was made possible because of many randomised controlled studies which show that parenting programmes work to reduce parenting stress, depression, child behaviour problems and violence at home.
Thanks to the almost unprecedented level of global cooperation, the resources created by the Oxford team was reviewed, edited and approved in just a week by UN agencies, and then taken up by hundreds of other NGOs and international agencies. They included tips about how to maintain positive relationships with children through one-to-one time, ways to keep them safe and healthy during COVID-19 and to support positive child behaviour and manage difficult behaviours, and also to manage stress and anger during lockdown. Those resources were put on the WHO and the UNICEF websites and have been taken up, translated and adapted in 180 countries.
Thanks to the almost unprecedented level of global cooperation, the resources created by the Oxford team was reviewed, edited and approved in just a week by UN agencies...They included tips about how to maintain positive relationships with children...ways to keep them safe and healthy during COVID-19 and...to manage stress and anger during lockdown. Those resources were put on the WHO and the UNICEF websites and have been taken up...in 180 countries
UNICEF has called this time ‘a crisis of childcare’. Children around the world have been taken out of their routines and put at home, away from school, friends and extended family. Parents are struggling to work at home and look after children, or have lost their jobs, do not have the support of grandparents, teachers and care-givers.
‘Parents and caregivers of children are the hidden heroes of this pandemic,’ says Dr Lachman. ‘Research is showing just how stressful COVID-19 is for them. The need for parenting support is universal.’
The international collaboration, which began that day in March, has proved successful well beyond the nightmares.
‘We have been amazed, the response has been phenomenal,’ says Professor Cluver. ‘The creative ingenuity of everyone has been incredible.’
The project has shown an unprecedented global alliance to support parents. Twenty-five governments globally have used the resources as part of their national COVID response. ‘Part of this is because the materials were all made open-source and adaptable,’ explains Dr Lachman. ‘We encourage innovation and just ask everyone to keep the evidence intact.’
The parenting resources have been adapted for television and radio in Lao, parenting hotlines in Paraguay, and animated as cartoons in Kyrgyzstan. They have been broadcast through community loudspeakers to reach hundreds of thousands of people in rural villages across Africa and Asia. The advice has been adapted for use as scripts for social workers and front-line community volunteers in Eastern Europe and Central Africa, handed out with food parcels in Montenegro, South Africa, and the Philippines and they have inspired a phone-based parenting course in India, which has gone global.
Religious leaders have taken initiative, from churches in Sudan to Buddhist monks in Cambodia and inter-faith groups in Sri Lanka. A pastor in Malawi has been discussing each tip sheet on national radio to more than two million listeners each week.
They were explained on national TV news by a senior academic in Pakistan, handed out in printed booklets to 281,000 people in Sri Lanka, and shared with 19,000 North Macedonians through Facebook. There is even a parenting song, written by a Broadway musical director. Professor Cluver realised it had gone everywhere when she received her own advice through the door in Oxfordshire, courtesy of her local authority.
‘We were able to kick-start this effort, but we had no money to continue it,’ says Professor Cluver. ‘Oxford’s COVID-19 response fund was amazing, in providing early and swift funding. Then, other funders came forward, including the Lego and Oak Foundations, which both wanted to help. We’ve been lucky to get UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund/Newton Fund support for low and middle income countries, and this means we can really now focus on the next stage.’
This next stage involves making resources that can provide parents with direct and personalised support.
‘We now know that COVID is not going away anytime soon,’ says Dr Lachman. ‘Before it was like we were sewing the parachute while in freefall. But now we can be more strategic, so the resources can have more impact on the lives of millions of parents and their children.’
The team is launching a global free text message system with UNICEF that is responsive to parents’ individual needs with specific support for those with babies, young children and teenagers. It can be accessed through WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or through text messages, if you have a basic handset. It will also include audio-visual versions, for those who have difficulty reading, as well as live recorded videos, with real parents demonstrating key tips. Seven countries have come forward to pilot the system, which will be up and running by September and available globally in October.
The team is also about to release an offline-first App, through which people can access COVID-19 parenting advice, even if they are far from WiFi and cannot afford data.
‘Parents need to know that they are stars,’ says Professor Cluver. ‘Even on those days when it feels like a complete disaster. But they’re not alone.’
Parenting resources in 104 languages: www.covid19parenting.com
WHO website (5 UN languages): https://who.canto.global/s/OMTT2?viewIndex=0
UNICEF website: https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/covid-19-parenting-tips
Professor Rosalind Thomas, Balliol College.
COVID-19 has prompted reflection on many previous pandemics, above all the outbreaks of plague in the 17th century and the Black Death in the 14th. I want to go still further back to the great plague of Athens in the fifth century B.C., which hit the Athenians shortly after they began the great Peloponnesian War against Sparta and her allies in 431 B.C.
The Athenian plague prompted the historian Thucydides to offer in his History a full medical and secular description, so that if it occurred again, people ‘would not fail to recognise it’, as he cautiously put it. Thucydides also offered a brilliant and searing analysis of the plague’s social and mental effects, a devastation of the social order which has been noted after other pandemics. As a survivor himself, he offered as his own observation that survivors acquired immunity, the first attested (written) observation of this phenomenon. This was an absolutely catastrophic plague with a massive death-toll; the precise disease is not clearly identifiable. Can we learn anything from his account?
The death rate was far higher, of course, than our current pandemic: of the 4,000 Athenian soldiers who sailed to northern Greece, 1,050 were lost in 40 days
The ‘Athenian plague’ was not only Athenian, though we have the account of its impact only for Athens. It also hit Egypt and much of the Persian King’s territory, according to Thucydides, and it came to Athens via the Piraeus, and to the northern Aegean. The death rate was far higher, of course, than our current pandemic: of the 4,000 Athenian soldiers who sailed to northern Greece, 1,050 were lost in 40 days.
Thucydides tells of the symptoms of high fever, inflammation, sneezing, retching and spasms, and unbearable thirst, with people throwing themselves into rain-tanks, others recovering but losing extremities and even their sight or memory. He describes the dying gathering around wells, and piles of the dead lying in the streets and even in the temples. Thucydides spoke from personal experience.
There are aspects of the Athenian plague which touch our own current experience, and others which Thucydides as a student of human nature meant future generations to ponder – and to look out for again. First, there was no cure: what worked for some failed for others, and the doctors could not help.
Thucydides refers somewhat acidly to the treatment by regimen (diet etc.) which was the new Hippocratic method of the time: it had no effect and doctors died even more frequently than their patients. Second, it was made worse by the crowded conditions in Athens and in ‘the most populous places’, as Thucydides carefully pointed out.
The leading statesman Pericles had persuaded the Athenians at the outbreak of war to evacuate the countryside to within the walls of Athens, and not venture out to fight the invading army; ironically, his determination on war with Sparta but not engaging on land made the plague more destructive. Moreover, it was entirely unexpected. Even Pericles, praised for wisdom and forethought, could not foresee it, and he urged on the Athenians their hard-line stance to protect the Athenian empire, at the very height of their confidence. The plague was no respecter of persons – rich and poor died. Pericles himself died. The hoplite soldiers (fairly well-off) died and infected others. Thucydides was careful to make clear, against Hippocratic medical theory, that this was infection and had little to do with one’s way of life, medical care, or humours; nor was it affected by religious remedies.
There are aspects of the Athenian plague which touch our own current experience...First, there was no cure: what worked for some failed for others, and the doctors could not help
Thucydides offered an entirely secular vision of the plague. Its cause was terrifyingly unknown: he would leave speculation as to its causes to others, ‘if causes can be found adequate for such an upheaval’. Its nature was ‘beyond logos’ (beyond description or understanding). Many Greeks, however, would have believed that it was the god Apollo who sent the plague as punishment, and by offering a full-scale scientific description of symptoms and the course of the disease, as in the new Hippocratic methods of objective observation, Thucydides was saying that it was amenable to human enquiry and observation, and the new science of medicine (he says there was no cure, but perhaps one might hope for one eventually). His emphasis was on this detailed description, and on the social and moral effects.
Thucydides offered an entirely secular vision of the plague. Its cause was terrifyingly unknown...‘if causes can be found adequate for such an upheaval’. Its nature was ‘beyond logos’ (beyond description or understanding).
For he stresses first that the most dangerous element was the despair or dejection (athumia) which hit whenever someone felt themselves sickening, weakening their power of resistance. He stresses that those who tried to nurse the sick fell ill themselves, while those left alone died of neglect.
Thucydides then traces the corrosion of the social order and moral values as people abandoned the proper formalities of burial. There was the onset of ‘anomia’, literally ‘lawlessness’ or unconcern for customs and tradition. This passage has had deep influence on later plague descriptions: ‘men dared to do what formally they had done in secret’, seeing the same disaster hitting all alike, ‘those of good fortune dying suddenly and those with nothing taking their possessions’.
Bodies and possessions were alike ephemeral and so men turned to enjoyment: ‘neither fear of the gods nor human law held people back’, no one feared eventual coming to justice, for they would probably not live to see it. And so in this darkest of passages, Thucydides re-calibrates contemporary debates about the nature of religious belief and the purpose of punishment to trace the beginnings of the decline of social order.
In this darkest of passages, Thucydides re-calibrates contemporary debates about the nature of religious belief and the purpose of punishment to trace the beginnings of the decline of social order
It should be stressed how remarkably original this analysis was at the time: no writer had tried to analyse the collapse of social norms in this way. It is such an uncompromising picture that some scholars have thought it must be a little exaggerated, but that denies the value of the astute eye-witness. We recall that this occurred at the height of Athenian prosperity and confidence: the era of the Acropolis temples and the intellectual ferment visible in Athenian tragedy, comedy, philosophy and the radical democracy. Not everything collapsed, though there was an immediate effect of acute demoralisation, while longer-term effects might be harder to calibrate - what Thucydides saw as a long-term malaise and loss of integrity.
The contrast with our own experience is stark. The Coronavirus has brought out a vast reservoir of individual sacrifice for others, mutual respect and responsibility for the greater good (some, no doubt, taking advantage also). But two points stand out. Even in Thucydides’ dark description, there was humanity: he does say that the doctors tried to tend the sick (only they died too – as now); he does say that friends and family tried to look after each other (only they died). Indeed in a ray of hope, he explains that people were best tended and cheered by those who had the plague and survived, for they ‘knew in advance’ and were unafraid, and indeed the survivors entertained the ‘empty hope’ that they would never again fall ill. So there were numerous self-sacrificing and pitying helpers and they were only brought low by the disease itself. He hints perhaps that at least if you know in advance, it might not be so unbearable next time.
There was no state response, no health system, no public health knowledge or policy: the Athenian democracy was sophisticated, but on the matter of the plague, this was a do-it-yourself...response
And finally, there was no state response, no health system, no public health knowledge or policy: the Athenian democracy was sophisticated, but on the matter of the plague, this was a do-it-yourself, entirely private response. As far as we know, the only public, official response on the part of the Athenians was to purify the sacred island of Delos and introduce the cult of the healing god Asclepius.
It was through close observation that Thucydides deduced the operation of what we call ‘acquired immunity’
It was through close observation that Thucydides deduced the operation of what we call ‘acquired immunity’, and he was surely offering a rival theory to the nascent science of medicine around Hippocrates.
The other lasting lesson from this historian who wished readers to interpret the future by means of an accurate knowledge of the past, was about human nature: the reactions of human beings in the face of catastrophe and inexplicable death, and the wider effects on social values, morality and the scaffolding of justice. He was careful to say later that war itself also had corrosive effects, but that was humanly contrived and in some respect avoidable; the plague was completely unexpected and a force of nature. So in the end he teaches us to expect profound changes on the level of individuals’ reactions and wider social values in the face of huge upheaval; and on the state level to expect the unexpected – and hope for good government when it hits. The Athenians continued the war anyway.
- 1 of 65
- next ›