Philosopher Raz Ruminates on a Possible New Normal Post Covid-19

  • Joseph Raz, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Rule of Law
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Joseph Raz, internationally esteemed legal philosopher and 2018 Tang Prize laureate in Rule of Law, sent an exposition to the Tang Prize Foundation to offer the world his personal reflection on the coronavirus pandemic, in which he examined the current crisis from a variety of perspectives, including how a lack of respect for the diversity of local traditions diminishes the ability of many countries to “meld cooperation,” the right price we should pay for freedom, the influence science has over policy-making, and how this influence is in conflict with the legitimacy of democracy as a form of government.


Starting his essay by a reference to the English nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty,” Raz extrapolated from the line “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” the implication that the pandemic has transformed our life in such a drastic way that however hard we try, we will never be able to return to where things used to be. When forced into circumstances in which changes are inevitable, we have to constantly reshape the vision we are developing for the future. To “find our orientation in the changed conditions,” Raz argued, “our very criteria for judging social practices will have to change.” To illustrate this point, he embarked on detailed explorations of the following three issues.   


One. The possibility of a new kind of globalization.

Covid-19 obliges us to take stock of the existing “international practices and institutions,” deliberate on “the growth of isolationism,” and think up ways to incorporate the diversity of cultural traditions into globalization.  


Globalization, as defined by Raz, means “close manufacturing and trading ties, extensive cultural exchanges and interlinked news media.” It was the main reason the virus spread, but is also crucial in containing the outbreaks, and though “recent months saw efforts to extend and cement international co-operation,” there was also “an explosion of chauvinism and festering hostility.” Contributing to the emergence of these phenomena, Raz believes, was the intention of leaders who, in an attempt to evade responsibility, disseminated “invented conspiracy theories” so as to pin blames on other countries, while “striving to increase their influence worldwide by undermining international co-operation.” Even if “current popularity of isolationism will be short-lived,” Raz warned us that its impact can be profound.


Think about “the many ways in which events in one part of the globe affect people in faraway countries,” and we will be able to see the powerful incentives “to influence events beyond one’s borders.” This, paradoxically, is the opposite of what isolationism entails. “The most effective way of doing so,” Raz remarked, “is through negotiated agreements, involving give and take by all, that is by co-operation.”


The fact that “pre-pandemic international practices and institutions were unstable and led to many undesirable consequences” can be attributed to how “they tended to enhance the power of some countries, or sections within them, in ways which compromised the ability of others to meld co-operation with respect for the local cultures, and the local traditions of fostering civic loyalty and co-existence.” Therefore, Raz reasoned, “the pandemic-fostered isolationism may yield new forms of co-operation which are more respectful of the plurality of cultural traditions across the world and, may integrate them in the international arrangements rather than suppress them.”


Two.The re-evaluation of the price of freedom


Speaking about “personal liberties and the struggle against discrimination,” Raz noted that “we may be impressed by the enormous advances in parts of the globe, in the condition of women, and of various disadvantaged groups.” Nonetheless, “these struggles continue and have a long way to go.” On the other hand, “various personal liberties such as privacy, freedom of expression and related liberties, have long been in retreat.” Among the many causes for this retreat is “the struggle against terrorism, money laundering and cybercrime.”


As to how our liberties have been eroded due to the pandemic, Raz argued that it can be explained, “especially, though not only,” by “the importance of test-and-track for limiting infections.” Facing the restrictions imposed on their freedoms, the public reacted differently, “but many people welcome them, not always realizing their true scope or nature. After all they are due to the pursuit of worthy causes.”    


Raz further observed that the fundamental truth which is no longer so obvious to many people is that “liberties are not free, that we have to pay a price to have them,” and the consequence they have to bear is “conflict between the rhetoric of freedom at all costs and the reality of a decreasing willingness to run risks of harm or injury, from terrorists, criminals or viruses, as the price for enjoying those liberties.” 


Three. Science’s influence over policy-making and the tradeoff between the belief in science and in democracy


Another conflict “hidden in many popular views,” according to Raz, is “between belief in democracy as the only legitimate form of government and belief in the importance of basing policy on sound science.” To expound this idea, he mentioned that repeating the mantra that science can inform us of the consequences of different policies but democratically-elected politicians must choose and take responsibility for the polices they choose, “while not entirely false is not at all helpful,” for “it ignores the fact, highlighted in recent controversies about responses to the pandemic,” that scientists who serve us scientific information can be swayed by both “general politics” and “the internal politics of scientific life.” Moreover, this mantra “fails to provide any guidance about the way science should guide policy choices.” Nor does it tell us “the institutional structures which should enable it to do so.”   


As a philosopher, Raz hopes that when being confronted by all the issues amplified and ramified by the pandemic, we can be encouraged to take “a more balanced and enlightened” view to rethink “the political cultures and institutions in which we live.”  


Additional Information:

For other Tang Prize laureates’ comments on Covid-19, please visit the Tang Prize website’s media section at


Please click The full text of Prof. Joseph Raz’s essay to read the original work