Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Pandemic in Thought and Action

Andy Mueller

On February 29th 2020, I submitted my manuscript “Beings of Thought and Action” to CUP for review. While I did register news of cases of COVID-19 in Europe, little did I know what that would mean for the future. In July 2021, “Beings Of Thought and Action” is being published in a world that isn’t the same as the one it was written in. It is natural to wonder whether the events of the past year would have resulted in a different book. On reflection though, the pandemic is primarily helpful in illustrating the main topics of the book. Let me explain.

Plausibly, if hydroxychloroquine was effective against COVID-19, then the rational thing to do is to treat everyone in need with it. Our predicament was that we did not know whether it was effective. Noticeably, we did not take that for granted and held off from administering it widely until we had more evidence (which then in fact demonstrated that it wasn’t effective). One of the main themes of the book is that rational practical reasoning is not entirely detached from epistemic considerations, which the above nicely reflects. Having no evidence for the proposition that hydroxychloroquine is effective made it practically irrational to just rely on this very proposition. However, as I explain in the book, it is actually remarkable difficult to provide a water tight argument for this view, despite it seeming obvious, and the natural follow up question “How good does our evidence have to be so that we may rely on a consideration in our practical reasoning?” does not have a trivial answer either.

Hope got many of us through the last year. The hope that hydroxychloroquine was effective against COVID-19 was one of them, but it needed to be abandoned at some point. The epistemic constraint on hope that I offer in the book nicely explains this. On my account, hope is impermissible if one is in a position to know that the hoped for outcome will not obtain. Arguably, once the studies were in, we were in a position to know that hydroxychloroquine was not effective against COVID-19, and hence needed to abandon hope. Surprisingly, as I spell out in the book, standard accounts of hope do not seem to deliver this verdict.

Finally, a controversial main thesis of the book is that the quality of one’s evidence can be sensitive to practical considerations. If you have the flu, you can be contagious up to a day before you start developing symptoms. Yet, in the context of a possible flu infection, if you feel fine, that seems to give you good enough evidence for justifying your belief that you don’t have a contagious disease. However, without downplaying the seriousness of the common flu, COVID-19 is much worse than the flu. In a context of a possible COVID-19 infection, simply feeling fine isn’t good enough evidence for justifying a belief that you do not have a contagious disease. I argue that while the evidence, feeling fine, is in some sense the same in both contexts, the practical difference between makes it that your evidence is not equally good evidence in both contexts. In sum, the events of the past year do not undermine the positions for which I argue in “Beings of Thought and Action”, in fact they nicely illustrate them.

Beings of Thought and Action by Andy Mueller
Beings of Thought and Action by Andy Mueller

About The Author

Andy Mueller

Andy Mueller is a post-doctoral fellow at Goethe University Frankfurt. He works on epistemology and practical reasoning and has published articles in journals including Analysis, A...

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