26 October 2020

All fun is tracked, traced and cancelled in our misconceived efforts to beat Covid

By Sean Walsh

The joyless establishment clearly have pubs in their sights; all fun must be tracked, traced, and preferably cancelled. As Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer put it the other day: what’s wrong with the 10pm curfew is not that it’s a curfew, but that as curfews go it seems a bit too liberal.

I suspect and fear that he actually believes that, implicated as he is in the accelerating authoritarianism that has come to characterise this government and its depressingly misconceived response to Covid-19.

There are many things wrong with that response, the main one being “lockdown”. Advocates of lockdown are obliged, surely, to tell us which of our activities are essential and which aren’t: an obligation which (pace the First Minister of Wales) nobody this side of Enlightenment should feel able to confidently discharge.

It’s become a commonplace now to deride the idea that Johnson is following “the science”. What is not sufficiently emphasised is that the SAGE Establishment is in its practice anti-scientific. It will brook no contradiction. It carries within it the la-la-la-fingers-in-the-ears reception to views other than its own.

What’s worse, though, is the acceptance by the rest of us that science is the way out of this. It isn’t. The laws of human relationships are just as real as the laws of epidemiology. There are some truths which are invisible to science; to think otherwise is not to assert the primacy of the empirical method, it is to commit oneself to a vulgar scientism.

Advocates of lockdown are forced to prioritise between activity that is important and activity that isn’t; between “work” and “play”. And they are condemned to recommend to the rest of us which counts as which.

There is such a distinction. But it doesn’t follow that that we should valorise work over play.

When Mr Johnson has completed his slow-motion national lockdown (and I think we know that’s what’s happening), we can be sure that he will reprise the instruction he issued in March: that we should leave our homes if necessary for work but not for non-essential activities. But he’s got it the wrong way around. He needs to understand that even those of us who are still able to work need to be able to play. And we need to work so that we can play, not vice versa.

As Aristotle says, “The first principle of all action is leisure”.  Play, he implies, is more valuable than work because it is done for its own sake rather than as part of some calculation of utility. The most valuable things in life are those that needn’t be defined in terms of anything else. When Jesus said in Matthew 1:18 that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must learn again to become like children he was, I suspect, referring to that beautiful quality of knowing how serious it is to do something just for the sake of itself.

Which brings us to pubs.

Pubs matter, for reasons that go further than the economics of the hospitality sector, important though those economic realities are. They matter because they are playgrounds for adults. The pub has its own set of protocols (the “round”), its own hierarchies and its own forms of forgiveness and retribution (“let’s take this outside”); the feuds which develop for reasons nobody can remember and which become otiose after another drink.

Pubs matter because they provide a context within which adults can become “like children” and play and talk nonsense for its own sake. Pubs matter because they remind us that not everything in life must conform to the puritanical idea that we are built for work and for nothing else.

There is no evidence that pubs are hotbeds of Covid-19 transmission – although they might well be places where people transmit their scepticism over the government orthodoxy. For about an hour. After work. Why is this government so insecure about that?

This government’s feud with pubs is based on a misconception: that leisure is less important than work. Mr Johnson has bought into the worldview of the utilitarian; his strategy for defeating the virus is shaped by a grubby calculus of utility which assumes that the only harms that matter are those which can be shown on a graph. But there are harms which are not quantifiable in that way. To deny us our leisure is to inflict genuine spiritual damage. Mr Johnson and the SAGE types need to understand that sometimes you can protect the human body only by doing damage to the human soul. That’s a form of protection that might not be worth having.

Pubs are not essential, but leisure is. The puritanism of the “experts” shows us that they do not understand this, to the detriment of us all.

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Sean Walsh has a PhD in the philosophy of mind/artificial intelligence and has taught philosophy in several universities. He now works with recovering addicts and writes about and researches the metaphysics of addiction

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.