Initial Research Proposal

The following is my original research project proposal, which I submitted to the Laidlaw Foundation in March of this year.

Like Comment

My project is concerned with what I regard as the single most important issue facing Ireland and indeed the developed world today.

I wish to present a philosophical investigation into the public’s extraordinary reaction to government-imposed lockdown measures. I will use this discussion to provide a framework for an examination into how our society may be shaped by an increasingly authoritarian government. I will refer extensively to the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt, and indeed will discuss what her view would likely be on the current state of affairs, were she alive today.

As an aside, please note that my project will not present an opinion on – nor will it be discussing - whether lockdown is effective as a method of combatting the pandemic, but rather, I intend to provide insight regarding the following three questions:

(1) Why has the initial public reaction to a measure as extreme as lockdown been one of compliance?

(2) Why has the public continued to comply with, and indeed emphatically accept without question, lockdown measures over such an extended period of time? (I will discuss the media’s role in this regard.)

(3) What sort of future do the answers to the aforementioned questions indicate?

Current State of Play – Data Collection

I will begin by quantifying where we stand by gathering the relevant primary source data. I will compare/contrast the government’s reaction to that during previous outbreaks, for example, SARS in 2003, and the influenza pandemic of 1957.

I intend to contact the World Health Organization for the relevant data. I would also like to work with Departments of Political Science (Trinity and overseas) to quantify exactly how much the behaviour of the current government has deviated from what would be considered the usual role of government in a free society. I’ve never studied politics, or economics, and so I look forward to bolstering my understanding of the two.

Then, I will measure and compare/contrast public trust in politicians pre-pandemic to its faith in current policy. I intend to contact polling institutions in Ireland and overseas. For example, the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy seem active in this regard. I’m interested to explore whether I can provide a quantitative measure of the media’s treatment of both sides of the lockdown debate. I intend to contact departments of journalism and media (Trinity and overseas) to investigate how we could objectively measure it.

I think that the above data collection ties in with the theme of leadership, in that I’ve checked online extensively, and it seems that several of these items have not yet been quantified by anyone.

A Word on Methodology

I’ll spend the first few days of the 6 weeks gathering the relevant data. I anticipate that it will take people time to get back to me, and indeed the answer to some of my enquiries may well produce further questions. I think the best use of time, therefore, would be to run the data collection concurrently with much the philosophical enquiry over the 6 weeks. Broadly, I’ll be working on the above three questions in the order that they’re written, but will have to maintain some flexibility, as the timing of which part of the enquiry I’ll be working on at any given part of the 6 weeks may also be determined by when each item of data comes in.

Arendt’s Insights

Hannah Arendt’s work should provide crucial insights into areas such as personal agency, authoritarianism, media bias, prerequisites for public defiance/rebellion against the state, etc. Lockdown seems to be a measure that falls squarely within the definition of authoritarian, as defined by the Oxford Languages Dictionary: “favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom”. Arendt’s work should shed light on whether we have a cause for concern in this regard, when we consider our future.

Again, my project will not be an opinion piece on the efficacy of lockdown, but intends to forge an unbiased philosophical enquiry, based in quantitative facts, which will employ many of Arendt’s prescient insights.

I will examine whether the reason for the extent of public compliance is down to our material privilege, and prioritising safety over freedom. If so, this may indicate that the public takes, or has taken, their freedoms for granted. In this regard, I will address the question of whether it will be feasible for the public to regain their civil liberties, and indeed how they might do this. Arendt examines, what she views as, the necessary prerequisites for a successful revolution - pertinently, dispensing with compassion for the masses in favour of championing liberty. I intend to explore the applicability of Arendt’s thought in this regard to current government policy.

Our Future

When lockdown functionally removes a significant part of the public domain, Arendt would argue that this undermines the capacity of individuals to differentiate themselves from each other (via public action). Here, she argues that depriving individuals of a public space for appearance, action, and interaction, serves to exacerbate tendencies toward groupthink and conformism – something which, as we have repeatedly seen in history, frequently leads to destructive outcomes. Moreover, Arendt has argued that individuals are more susceptible to authoritarian ideology if they endure an extended period of loneliness. In these regards, and others, I plan to investigate whether Arendt’s ideas can be applied to the current situation.

I will endeavour to demonstrate what Arendt’s view would likely be on lockdown, and indeed whether we ought to be concerned about the current level of state intervention potentially paving the way for a state-sanctioned, authoritarian abuse of power. I intend to conclude by providing Arendt’s likely view – and indeed my own philosophical view – of how, when, and indeed if our civil liberties will be regained.

Claudia Friel

Student, Trinity College Dublin

Hi! My name is Claudia, and I’m an undergraduate philosophy student at TCD. My Laidlaw research project regards the public’s reaction to the Covid-19 related lockdown measures, with a view to providing some insight into the current socio-political zeitgeist. I’ll be doing this with the help of the work of political theorist & philosopher Hannah Arendt.