parent uncertainty of l'action

Coronavirus epidemic: the mother uncertainty of action?


As the coronavirus-COVID-19 accelerates its spread around the world, as WHO warns of the risk of a pandemic, as stock exchanges around the world panic, governments are taking action. The risk of a major public health crisis requires measures of constraint, containment and surveillance that are, dangerously, beyond the norm. This is the case in China, where the country is locking up millions of inhabitants of a province in the mid-40s, which, as we now realize, is damaging the entire world economy. We do not know much about this epidemic at this time. The human damage is relatively limited; a few hundred deaths compared to other much more deadly diseases or disasters. So why the panic? Because evidence of danger takes second place to the possibility of danger. The imagined danger has more force than the real danger because we have entered the era of uncertainty. It is interesting to reread today, in the light of these events, the text entrusted to us three years ago by the philosopher J. Peter Burgess.

We have entered a new age of uncertainty, a new geopolitics of risk. The point here is to highlight a logic according to which it is no longer proof and rationality, but uncertainty that carries the political force of action and reaction. In other words, proof of danger takes second place to the possibility of danger. The imagined danger has more value than the real danger.

At a press conference at the U.S. Department of Defense on the eve of the 2003 Allied invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faced a somewhat skeptical press about his government's justifications for immanent interference. What information, the journalists wondered, could justify such an act of war against a sovereign state in a situation of peace? His answer caused a stir on the Internet:

"As we know, there are 'known known', that is, the things we know that we know. At the same time, we know that there are things that we do not know, "known unknowns". But there are also "unknown unknowns" - things we don't know that we don't know. »


In other words, in geopolitical terms: it was precisely the uncertainty generated by the lack of evidence on weapons of mass destruction that, in Rumsfeld's view, justified military action.

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Evidence or possibility of danger

Today we are living in a political moment where the rhetoric of threats and insecurity is multiplying. We are observing this phenomenon not only because of the spread of threats imagined in crossed discourses of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, but also because of the evolution of our daily experience of insecurity and a sharp increase in the security measures put in place by our authorities.

The new discourses about the threats we face touch us deeply, they transform us. They change the way we live from day to day, the way we relate to our loved ones and the way we experience others, the stranger, the unknown. Threats to our security are therefore not simply external objects that we can observe with scientific indifference.

The end of bipolar logic

On the contrary. The specificity of today's risks is that we are directly involved in them. The perception, analysis and management of risk are all components of a business that is deeply human, that engages us in fundamental questions about who we are and what a company is.

Since the end of the Cold War concept of security and the perspective of the geopolitics of security have changed profoundly. Security has moved from a bipolar logic - opposing States along the East-West axis - to a more complex logic, mobilizing multiple levels, involving several groups and several objects: international crime, computer attacks, climate change, migration flows, the risk of pandemics, terrorism and so on.

The threats are here, everywhere, among us

Computer viruses are already on our hard drive, climate change is already underway and visible, potential epidemics are already present in the ecosystem, and alas, the terrorists do not come from a geopolitical or imaginary beyond - they are already here, among us.

So the question is no longer: how to repel all these threats? Or how to keep danger at bay? How to make the state impermeable, untouchable? No, the question is rather: how do we organize ourselves as a society to remain ourselves in the face of these threats? And by remaining ourselves. This is not about biology or race. It is about our values: the autonomy of the individual, respect for others, freedom, equality, tolerance and so on.

Security is therefore fundamentally a question of culture, identities, language, democratic institutions and so on. In other words, security has become a question of society, it questions the kind of society we want to have.

Experience from the future to the present

If it turns out - as I believe - that risk management today is a problem of social values, then it is at the same time a type of ethics. Not in the sense that we would have to determine our behavior and that of others against an autonomous or external code of conduct.

The first point of support for risk management is therefore values.If we understand ethics as an experience of uncertainty, an experience of the unknown, the unexpected, even the unpredictable; if we understand ethics as the question of what to do when we are unsure what to do, when we lack adequate knowledge to know what to do, then we are relying on our values. The first building block for risk management, then, is values.

But like the values we hold dear, risk is not about the present. It is about the future. It is about the terms of our conduct in the face of future dangers.

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It is not a question of whether we want to die or suffer because of these potential dangers. Of course not: we want to live! But it is a question of how we wish to live, what meaning should life in society have, what values we should promote, what principles should guide us in the most difficult, the heaviest moments, in times of danger or insecurity.

J. Peter BurgessProfessor, philosopher and political scientist, École Normale Supérieure (ENS)

This article was first published on UP' Magazine ;e 6 June 2017.
The original text of this article was published on The Conversationeditorial partner of UP' Magazine

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