The year is 1911. The setting, the Swedish university of Uppsala's aula magna, bursting with listeners. The occasion is the installation of the Swedish philosopher Axel Hägerström as chair professor of practical philosophy.

As part of the ceremony Hägerström was to hold a public lecture. Not long into the address, Hägerström's explosive philosophy managed to spark a riot in the lecture-hall: vegetables were hurled, doors slammed. At the end of the lecture, the archbishop of the Swedish Lutheran church, the Reverend Nathan Söderblom, stood up and asked how anyone who harbored such views could ever behave decently towards his wife and kids.

Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the event, this is the form the story was handed down to me by one of my professors at Uppsala University, a proud inheritor of the tradition of Hägerström. The anecdote was delivered with an air of disbelief over the naiveté of the archbishop's question. How could anyone believe that such abstract and abstruse doctrines on the semantics of ethical sentences could have any concrete repercussions on practical issues like how one treats one's family?

More than a century after Hägerström's lecture, Sweden's response in the global COVID-19 pandemic has cast long shadows, drawing attention from all over the globe. Unlike the vast majority of other countries, Sweden has taken scant measures to hinder the spread of the virus. No lockdown. No closure of schools or public means of transport. No obligatory face masks. The infection was left to spread as quickly and widely as possible, in an attempt to achieve "herd immunity" among the population. As a result of this, Sweden is among the countries with the highest death toll per capita, more than twenty times as much as other comparable Nordic countries, all of which have taken considerably stronger measures.

At bottom, the Swedish strategy rests on a set of ethical positions that the government has chosen to adopt. These positions, in turn, look surprisingly like those staked out in Hägerström's 1911 lecture. There is a clear line of influence running from the marmoreal halls of the university's aula to the halls of power today. Although the materialism of our present society may suggest otherwise, ideas leave deep marks – a good example being precisely the materialism of our present society.

The title of the Hägerström's historic 1911 lecture was "On the Truth of Ethical Utterances.” In it, the philosopher laid out something of a manifesto for the ethical position known as ethical non-cognitivism. He argued that any sentence expressing an ethical stance – any statement about what is good and what is bad – is necessarily nonsense. Asking whether an action is right or wrong, Hägerström assures us, is analogous to wondering about the amount of "justice" contained in a bar of gold, or how heavy a color happens to be. Ethical opinions are simply the reflection of personal emotions, and as such cannot be subject to either truth or falsehood.

Pace my professor, Hägerström did, in fact, see his non-cognitivism as the cornerstone for a radical programme for political change. In "On the Truth of Ethical Utterances," he describes his vision of a new ethics spawning to life from the ashes of the old one. This phoenix-like morality, having shed the fetters of metaphysics and superstition, would thereafter follow a single ethical lodestar: functionality. The effect of this approach was a practical utilitarianism: the goal of ethics in practice became to maximize the amount of utility for the greatest possible number. The scientific veneer of utilitarian ethics made it the perfect candidate for Hägerström's post-metaphysical ethics of functionality. While it is nonsense to measure the "justice" of a gold ingot, it certainly makes a lot of sense to ask how much "utility" that gold can buy. Functionality is measurable; measurability is functional. Hägerström thus embodies the widely celebrated Swedish value of functionality. Indeed, it is no hyperbole to say that functionality is the country's most cherished value. It also happens, slightly more worryingly, to be the only one.

The shockwaves of influence of Hägerström's double-barreled approach of theoretical non-cognitivism coupled with a practical utilitarianism are too insidious to fully map. The ideas wormed their way into the official ideology of the Social-Democratic Party, which held an iron grip on Swedish politics for the better part of a century. Several of Hägerström's students clambered up the party hierarchy and served long terms as ministers. The minister and economist Gunnar Myrdal, a disciple of Hägerström, described his master's influence as ripples in water, expanding indefinitely until nobody was left unaffected. Hägerström's students also became the architects behind Sweden's "social engineering" programmes in the 1950s – government initiatives to streamline the population in order to increase its utility and functionality. "Social engineering" – or the project of shaping the "human-material", as it was called – was (naturally) linked to comprehensive eugenic programmes. The Swedish pandemic strategy of achieving "herd immunity" (weeding out weaker individuals for the sake of "herd's" utility) has a venerable history.

With this historical background in mind the reasoning behind the Swedish strategy becomes clearer, and, if anything, more appalling. At bottom, it is founded on a utilitarian calculus. Swedish authorities made no secret of the evaluation that needed to take place: one had to choose between the economy and the elderly, the unfettered functioning of society versus the health of its citizens – either justice or gold. The outcome of the calculations was clear: Sweden would opt for the alternative that maximizes utility across the board, even if in the process – as the euphemism goes – some eggs would need to be broken.

No wonder, then, that utilitarian philosophers came out in force in defense of the Swedish strategy. As the Swedish ethicist Olle Torpman bluntly wrote back in April: "Can we really put a price tag on people's lives? Can we really compare somebody's death with another person's happiness or lack thereof? The answer is: yes."1

Likewise, the internationally acclaimed utilitarian ethicist Torbjörn Tännsjö publicly defended the "Swedish strategy" precisely on the grounds of its palpably utilitarian texture. As he said in an interview: "It sounds as if the government is prepared to sacrifice a number of individuals – at any rate in the short term – to save as many human lives as possible on the whole, partly by indirectly saving the economy."2 There is a more than a hint of triumphalism in Tännsjö's defense: he cannot help but note that ethical boards across the country are spangled with his former doctoral students, who, he claims, do their best to dress up their utilitarianism enough to get away with it, while following it religiously in practice.3

With all due respect to Tännsjö, if the utilitarianism is meant to be covert, his students are the least subtle players of hide-and-seek in the history of philosophy. Only a cursory glance at the ethical reports drawn up under the pandemic betrays an explicit utilitarianism. In a report on the Swedish approach, the Ethical Board of State laid out the ethical foundations to defend the strategy. This document follows through a rigorous utilitarian calculation, tallying up the greatest possible well-being for the greatest possible number. As the board writes in one official document: "To address the question [of which strategy should be chosen] we need to focus on the possible and relevant consequences."4 From the very outset, the question is formulated within a consequentialist ethical framework. The board goes on to list which such "relevant" consequences to be weighed against each other: they begin by noticing that one of these is the loss of lives, but are quick to dilute it with a much longer list, including social and psychological factors, proximate and remote economic factors, freedom, feelings of alienation. The cost of the state intervening to save lives, they suggest in one passage, must be weighed against the cost of the "support" for the government ebbing among the population.5

This calculation is, after all, perfectly in line with the pronouncements of the Ministry of Public Health; the strategy was repeatedly justified on the grounds that it allowed things to run smoothly: it was "sustainable" in the long run, as "effective" as possible.

A century after the Lutheran archbishop's question to Hägerström, we are perhaps ready to suggest an answer. Whether or not we think a non-cognitivist and utilitarian father can be a decent father, it is certainly the case that a non-cognitivist and utilitarian state cannot be a decent state. We have yet to see any form of genuine remorse over the shedding of lives from those in positions of power. We may have a long wait ahead. After all, there can be no remorse for something one believes is entirely justified, even mandated, by an objective standard.

Perhaps the bottom line is that the cynicism of the Swedish strategy ought to raise as few eyebrows abroad as it does here in Sweden. In a society where the only value is utility, where vulnerable groups are expendable as long as the pay-off is high enough, where the values of human dignity and the holiness of life are regarded as metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, where gold will always trump justice, really – what else could one expect?

[Photo Attribution: Joakim Emanuelson, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons]

  1. Olle Torpman, "Moralfilosofin som ger Sverige rätt" ("The Ethical Philosophy that Supports the Swedish Strategy"), Kvartal.
  2. ((Åke Gavfelin and Lapo Lappin, "Interview with Torbjörn Tännsjö", Metafysiskalaboratoriet.))
  3. Ibid.
  4. ((The Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics, Etiska vägval i pandemin, 44.))
  5. ((SMER, Etiska vägval i pandemin, 43-44.))

Lapo Lappin is a philosophy student at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, currently doing an Erasmus exchange in Austria. He has worked at the Swedish catholic magazine Signum. Since the beginning of the pandemic he has been interviewing Swedish philosophers to bring their reflections on COVID-19 to the broader public.