Is the coronavirus moral? Scholarly and political in the face of the pandemic

The President of the Republic cited the scientists five times to justify his decisions in these speeches on March 12 and 16. They were absent from his April 13 speech. Would the honeymoon be over? How is the complex relationship between scientists and politicians structured? Can scientific speech go beyond convictions, ideology, political games?

We find some keys to reading with the eminent German sociologist of the beginning of the XXth century Max Weber and our contemporary the philosopher André Comte-Sponville.

The first sheds light on what differentiates the policies of scientists, and the second, on the meaning of the submission of one over the other: angelism or barbarism.

Axiological neutrality

In Le savant et le politique (published in 1919) Max Weber describes the essential qualities of the scientist: specialization in his field, work, passion, inspiration, intuition. Weber exposes in particular the axiological neutrality (or “non-imposition of values”) which requires scientists the greatest neutrality. For him, this is a fundamental condition of scientific activity without which “there is no longer [a] complete understanding of the facts”.

The essential qualities of a politician are: passion, a sense of responsibility and a look. If the politician is to be driven by passion, he must keep a cool head so as not to be overwhelmed by his emotions. Also called a man of action, he faces:

“A singular and unique conjuncture, chooses according to its values and introduces into the network of determinism a new fact”.

It is here that Weber distinguishes two forms of ethics, well summarized by the philosopher and sociologist Raymond Aron in the preface to the work:

“[In the ethics of conviction] I obey my convictions […] without worrying about the consequences of my actions, [in the ethics of responsibility] I hold myself accountable for what I do, even without the having wanted directly, and then good intentions and pure hearts are not enough to justify the actors. ”

Agreement distinction but prioritization?

We have seen with Weber the values specific to the scientific and political worlds. But how can we qualify the power relations between the two? André Comte-Sponville gives us keys to answer the question in his book Is capitalism moral? (2004). Beforehand, he clarifies four distinct areas (which he calls orders) hierarchical between them.

  • The techno-scientific order distinguishes the possible / impossible and the true / false. The economy is one of them. But techno-science needs to be limited because it progresses according to its own rules, as engineer and physicist Dennis Gabor says “what can be done will be done”;
  • The juridico-political order distinguishes the legal / illegal and is embodied in the law and the state. Two risks arise if it is not limited from the outside: at the individual level, the risk of the “legalistic bastard” because no law prohibits falsehood or wickedness, and at the collective level that of a people who would have all the rights;
  • The moral order distinguishes good / evil: “all of our duties, all of the obligations and prohibitions that we impose on ourselves a priori” (Emmanuel Kant, Foundation of the metaphysics of manners). But love would be lacking for those who follow morals literally without believing and without thinking;
  • Ethical order distinguishes joy / sadness: all that is done out of love. This order could be limited by divine order.

What happens if an order dictates its law to that of the top or the bottom? Barbary and angelicism meets Comte-Sponville.

Barbarism or angelism: back on the Lyssenko affair

Technocratic barbarism (or tyranny of experts) goes beyond the sovereignty of the people on the pretext of their non-competence. Political angelism claims to cancel the constraints of the technical-scientific order by political will or law.

Let’s take a famous example: the Lyssenko affair, described by Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize in biology as “the strangest and most heartbreaking episode in the history of science”.

Trofim Lyssenko (1898-1976) was a Soviet scientist who claimed that he could modify the characters of a plant according to its environment (theory more compatible with Marxist dialectics) and refused the genetics of heredity on the grounds that it was a “science bourgeois ”. He received the support of Stalin and became the master of agronomy in the USSR with disastrous consequences for the intellectual and scientific world as well as for the agroeconomics of the time. Up to France, the PCF summoned scientists to defend proletarian genetics. Those who refused to “politicize chromosomes”, expression of the researcher Jean Rostand, ended up at the Goulag. The expression lyssenkism today designates a science corrupted by ideology.

When politicians deny having power

Current events give us examples of such angelisms. When President Bolsonaro announces that the Covid-19 is just a small flu without regard for scientific results, President Trump questions the injunction of the researchers to long containment to fight the epidemic.

In France, President Macron created the scientific council (March 12) and the “analysis, research and expertise” committee (March 24) to clarify his decision. But “The president has been very clear, these committees must not lead to the Republic of experts,” said a relative of the head of state quoted by the newspaper Le Monde.

Yet the President said in his March 12 television address:

“A principle guides us in defining our actions […]: it is confidence in science. It is to listen to those who know. ”

For some, the politician thus hides its shortcomings and dispenses with its responsibilities. For others, he seeks a form of legitimation because he cannot rely on his political credit alone. The evolution of the President’s speeches shows a certain disenchantment of the politician in his capacity to base a decision based solely on scientists. The expectations of the population towards the political sphere (to give a collective sense) and the scientific sphere (to explain the world objectively) differ. The latter only embracing the issues of their spheres (true / false).

Opposition that can lead to disaster

France has known several political decisions going against scientists. Like the political decision to stop the prototype of the Superphenix breeder nuclear reactor (capable of regenerating its fuel) in 1997 on the altar of the alliance of the PS and the Greens or the closure of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant against the advice of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN).

In some cases, the opposition between the decision-maker (political) and the expert (technical) has led to real disasters.

This was the case in the United States, with the explosion of the Challenger shuttle on January 28, 1986. The evening before the launch was held a tense teleconference. Some engineers (technical) of the Thiokol company manufacturing the shuttle’s thrusters wish to postpone the launch while the NASA (political) manager wants to maintain it: “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, in April ? ”

It was then that the vice-president (political) of Thiokol said to his recalcitrant (technical) engineer, this famous phrase:

“Take off your technician cap, your engineer cap, and put on your manager cap: you will understand that you have to have a very different position.”

We know the consequences: explosion of the craft, death of the seven crew members, international turmoil, two and a half years of freezing of the space program and finally loss of international prestige for NASA.

An essential dialogue

To manage the complexity of the world, dialogue, however difficult, is essential.

So what would Weber and Comte-Sponville say today? Weber hesitated all his life between the two worlds. He is among the academics most involved in public life through the press and because of his participation in the creation of the “German Democratic Party” (DDP) in November 1918 and in the genesis of the future Weimar Constitution. From Le savant et le politique, he wrote that a scientist can defend:

“Political positions […] the possession of objective knowledge, if it is perhaps not essential, is undoubtedly favorable to a reasonable action”.

Wouldn’t he call for more vocations for research activists? For example, the 1000 French researchers calling for rebellion in the face of the ecological and climatic emergency against the inaction of politicians.

As for André Comte-Sponville, the most effective is still to listen to him. The philosopher intervened this April 14 on France Inter with the following alert: “Be careful not to make health the supreme value of our existence”.

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