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Richard Ovenden might seem an unlikely cyber campaigner. But the latest holder of the historic post of librarian of the Bodleian, fears ‘knowledge is under attack’ from the impact of the online world on public discourse and decision-making

In a wood-panelled office with an enviable view of Oxford’s most iconic sights, Richard Ovenden might seem an unlikely cyber campaigner. But the latest holder of the historic post of Bodley's Librarian (chief librarian of the Bodleian) fears ‘knowledge is under attack’ from the impact of the online world on public discourse and decision-making. And preserving such knowledge is very much Professor Ovenden’s business.

Listen to Richard Ovenden's frank interview here:

In his recent work, Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, he has taken to the metaphorical barricades over the challenges of ephemeral digital discourse to the work of libraries and archives. But his concerns go far wider – and he warns of the impact on society more broadly of digital communication. One aspect in particular is a current concern: when communications between Cabinet Ministers and civil servants and special advisers take place on digital platforms, with end-to-end encryption, where, he fears, will the checks and balances be?

Burning the Books signage in officeBurning the Books marketing material leaning against book shelf in Richard Ovenden's office
How can history judge, he asks, when decision-making is absent from the annual release of official papers? But, critically, Richard asks, what will it mean for accountability, when public figures act with a sense of impunity given by secret digital platforms? Will the only sources available to future historians be self-serving memoirs?

What will it mean for accountability, when public figures act with a sense of impunity given by secret digital platforms? Will the only sources available to future historians be self-serving memoirs?

As Bodley's Librarian, the 25th in the library’s 420 years, he takes a long view of such things. Tech may be a very modern threat, but Richard sees it as the latest in a long line of attacks on knowledge. He notes this included the destruction of Oxford’s University library at the time of the Protestant Reformation, which led to the creation of the Bodleian - an ‘Ark’ to save knowledge from the ravages of the era.

To restore accountability – and to ensure libraries such as the Bodleian can carry out their historic record-keeping role – Richard argues new measures are urgently needed to preserve communications, many of which are currently only available to big tech firms. It is a massive task. We are writing more than ever – with email and social media often replacing conversation and more formal correspondence.

Richard argues new measures are urgently needed to preserve communications, many of which are currently only available to big tech firms. It is a massive task. We are writing more than ever 

Not everything needs to be kept, though. Libraries are already maintaining huge amounts of data, but many records are being lost – because they are undertaken on platforms controlled by the commercial tech industry. Considerable extra resources and a combined effort from libraries and archivists will be needed, and Richard has mooted a ‘memory tax’ on the tech firms, to pay for it. But, it is essential if we are to preserve knowledge that is now created and managed on digital platforms. Many of these are currently set to be lost to posterity – along with all those family photos on smart phones.

It will not be possible, or desirable, to keep everything, says Richard. But, in addition to communications between government officials, there is a real purpose in maintaining samples of communication on social media platforms. Just as the public records today include fascinating insights into the lives of people in the past, because of chance remarks on the margins of official documents, social media provides insight into 21st century life – warts and all.

Richard Ovenden was in conversation with Sarah Whitebloom; audio recorded and edited by Ruth Abrahams

Jane Austen would fall flat, with a machine translation, because it would fail to catch her ironic wit. You need a human translator for that

What’s the rudest thing you can say to an award-winning translator? Probably, ‘What’s the point, I’ve got Google Translate?’ It’s got to be in the top 10. As an opening gambit, it is unlikely to impress someone who spends hours each day, carefully reworking a text for an English-speaking audience. But translators are nothing if not patient and indulgent.

Indeed, despite the advance of technology, translators are now (belatedly) receiving greater attention in their own right. The International Booker prize now recognises the ‘vital work’ of the translator, dividing cash prizes between the author and the translator. But the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for translation is in its 21st year – and recently announced a strong and diverse 2020 eight-book short list of European language literary translations - from German to Greek, Slovene and Finnish into English.

What’s the rudest thing you can say to an award-winning translator? Probably, ‘What’s the point, I’ve got Google Translate?’ It’s got to be in the top 10.

‘Google Translate might be becoming more accurate and efficient,’ says Dr Eleni Philippou, of Oxford’s Comparative Criticism and Translation research centre. ‘But translation has a human element to it, which cannot be replaced by a machine.’ She adds, ‘A machine (at least for now) cannot discern tone, nuance or humour. Jane Austen would fall flat, with a machine translation, because it would fail to catch her ironic wit. You need a human translator for that.’

Previously, translations would find their way into tourist shops overseas, hoping to capture the interest of travellers. But, increasingly, translations are being published further afield. In reality, translation is going through something of a renaissance, with writers such as Elena Ferrante, author of the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’, and Han Kang, who won the 2016 Man Booker prize for The Vegetarian, becoming global literary sensations. Translation is a very small part of the British book market, though, just some 3-3.5%, but translations have featured on best seller lists in the last few years and publishers cannot afford entirely to ignore them.

Jane Austen would fall flat, with a machine translation, because it would fail to catch her ironic wit

No-one knows this better than Dr Philippou, who has administered the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for almost five years, and has seen a range of translation submissions from publishers, both big and small. ‘Over the years, I’ve enjoyed cataloguing literary texts from the most commonly translated European languages – Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Russian – in addition to books from less-commonly translated languages, such as Modern Greek. It has also been interesting to track fashions or trends when it comes to translations. For example, Nordic Noir is currently in vogue: it has been popularised by various Scandinavian television series.’

It’s a bit like writing a book from scratch...there is no way a computer could do that. It’s very personal and it is necessary to match the tone of the original...translators have a significant role

Creativity is very much part of the translation process, according to Oxford Classics graduate, Joshua Barley. With David Connolly, he co-translated a poetry collection from leading Greek author Michális Ganás’s, A Greek Ballad. Joshua, who has lived in Greece for eight years, was delighted to be among the 2020 Oxford-Weidenfeld short list.

‘It’s a bit like writing a book from scratch...there is no way a computer could do that. It’s very personal and it is necessary to match the tone of the original...translators have a significant role,’ he says. ‘It’s really rewarding.’

A Greek Ballad - shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld prize

The Prize’s judges said of their translation, ‘It is a jointly translatorly and poetic tour de force that proves to be a mesmerising exploration of genres and styles. Connolly and Barley’s pioneering enterprise responds effortlessly to the range of challenges Ganás’s oeuvre presents for the translator: their renditions are inventive and formally exact when needed and stripped back when the original is elegantly succinct.’

Like Joshua, the winner of this year’s Prize, David Hackston, lives abroad and brings the literature of his adopted home to an English-speaking audience. A foreign languages graduate of UCL, he has lived in Finland for 20 years. Finnish was a minor subject for him, but David now finds himself a Finnish translator.

‘There are a lot of people translating from Swedish...Finnish is a smaller field,' he muses. ‘I'm glad my degree [in Scandinavian languages] didn’t go to waste.

You need to create a context and a voice. A passing comment might just need one extra word to make it understandable to a reader in another language. The words are only the starting point

His translation, Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci was highly-praised by the judges, ‘David Hackston’s impeccable translation never falters in the voices he gives to the characters. He switches effortlessly from Bujar’s father’s idiom of legends and fairytales to the obsessive, runaway sentences of the protagonist’s inner reflections. This is a heartbreaking novel that addresses some of the most urgent questions we face, but refuses to give any simple answers.

Crossing: The Oxford-Weidenfeld 2020 winner

The judges’ praise points to David’s attention to detail; he does not underestimate the translator’s art, ‘You need to create a context and a voice. A passing comment might just need one extra word to make it understandable to a reader in another language. The words are only the starting point.’addresses some of the most urgent questions we face, but refuses to give us any simple answers.’

Does he choose the books he translates? Not really but, he says, publishers do take advice.

‘You have to know what will work in English. It must have universal themes. It doesn’t matter where it is set, if the story is relatable,’ he says. ‘Publishers may have never translated a Finnish book before, so they have listen to people they trust. Translators have read more literature in their respective working languages than publishers have, and our perspectives can be valuable.’

Of course, Pushkin Press, which published Crossing, was founded with the explicit aim of bringing literature in translation to the UK, and could not be happier about the win.  As for David, he was delighted to win the prize – and also to translate Crossing.  David says, 'It was a novel in Finnish, about events in the Balkans [where he has travelled extensively] and with LGBT themes. It was the jackpot.’

Carrisa Véliz: 'It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.'

Online data is far more of a problem than irritating personalised ads for embarrassing products and dodgy loans. The sheer scale of personal data circulating on the internet cannot be underestimated, and it is undermining equality and democracy, according to a new book from Oxford’s Dr Carissa Véliz. She argues that we are now subjects of a powerful data world, which goes to the heart of economies and democratic government, and over which we have too little control. Privacy Is Power calls for the end to the data economy. Personal data, she argues, is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to be bought and sold.

We are now subjects of a powerful data world, which goes to the heart of economies and democratic government, and over which we have too little control

Every time you engage with tech, or tech engages with you, the data economy intrudes into your life, according to Dr Véliz, who warns about the vast amount of data now collected on everyone. It is not just your likes and dislikes, and your purchases, it is who your friends and family are, what time you get up in the morning, where you spent last night, how much money you have in the bank, whether you are unwell, how much you drink, how much you weigh, what you search for online. A virtual avatar of you can be created from every key stroke you make on your computer or your mobile phone, accumulating information about you. That data is then used to try to influence your behaviour - from what you buy to how you vote.

‘It is a perverse business model,’ says Dr Véliz. ‘We didn’t have a choice. If we wanted to have an email address or look at some content, we had to agree to give our data...no one explained the trade-off to us. By the time we realised what was going on, the system was already in place; we were told of the bargain we made after the deal was sealed.’

 By the time we realised what was going on, the system was already in place; we were told of the bargain we made after the deal was sealed

Personal data is a toxic asset, argues Dr Véliz. It is poisoning individual lives, by exposing us to harms such as identity theft, discrimination, public humiliation, and more. And it is poisoning society, by jeopardising equality and democracy. Citizens are not treated as equals, but on the basis of our data. We are shown different opportunities, charged different prices, and shown different pictures of the world, all on the basis of what our data says about us.

More action is needed to regulate data companies. Privacy is Power suggests several regulatory measures:

  • Ban trades in personal data;
  • Ban personalised content – it contains risks for democracy by fracturing the public sphere into individual spheres;
  • Implement fiduciary duties - to make sure our data can only be used in our own benefit and never against us.

But regulation will only be implemented when there is popular demand. If data were regulated appropriately, individuals would not have to spend much effort protecting their privacy. But, until we get there, it is important to protect your privacy.

First, because it can save you from bad experiences, such as unfair discrimination. If you have been denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, it might be because of what is in your data file. Second, because protecting your privacy will also protect others. Your data contains information about other people. Third, because by protecting your privacy, you make a statement that you care about your own privacy. It creates public pressure for governments and companies to respect privacy and it creates a paper trail, so that regulators can punish institutions which do not comply with our data rights (e.g. if you ask them to delete your data and they don’t).

If you had been denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, it might be on account of your data file

In her book, Dr Véliz maintains there are basic steps we can all take to resist the data economy. ‘Always change the defaults,’ she says. ‘And make sure you use the strictest privacy settings, so only your friends can access your information.

‘Choose privacy-friendly alternatives. Instead of Google Search, try DuckDuckGo, for example. Try to say ‘no’ to cookies. Ask companies to send you the data they have on you and then confirm they have deleted it.’

She maintains, ‘Some 92% of people have had a bad experience online related to privacy...The individual risks are considerable.’

Dr Véliz says, ‘To collect as much personal data as possible and keep it for as long as possible is reckless. It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.’

‘Before the Second World war, the Netherlands kept careful records of its population’s religious affiliation. It meant that the Nazis, by looking through the registries, were able to locate and murder some 73% of the Jewish population. But, in France, by contrast, where they did not keep such records for privacy reasons, it was not as easy to know who was Jewish, although the Nazis were able to find and assassinate some 25% of the Jewish population in France,’ says Dr Véliz.

Imagine if there were a new authoritarian regime, similar to the Nazis, and they had real-time data of your location, your face, your political beliefs, religious background, and so much more

‘Imagine if there were a new authoritarian regime, similar to the Nazis, and they had real-time data of your location, your face, your political beliefs, religious background, and so much more. During the Second World War, there was a largely unsuccessful attempt to set fire to the Amsterdam registry. The Dutch made two mistakes: they collected too much personal data and they didn’t have an easy way to delete that data in an emergency. We are making both of those mistakes on an unprecedented scale.’

Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, and a Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

See Dr Véliz in conversation with Professor Rasmus Nielsen, Lead Researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on Misinformation, Science and Media discussing Privacy is Power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVLMnRE0HY4&feature=youtu.be

See the book launch at the Institute for Ethics in AI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giQmtJ7LjMY

JT2

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.

John TasioulasProfessor John Tasioulas, the inaugural Director of the Institute for Ethics in AI

even if a decision turns out badly – that doesn’t make it the wrong decision to have made at the time

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.