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‘Covid and the Social Contract’ by Dr Noel Kavanagh


In 1972 the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought of the French revolution of 1789. His reply was simply, ‘too early to tell’. The fact that there was a misunderstanding in translation and that he was actually referring to the Paris student revolt of 1968 probably matters little. The quip is used to demonstrate the tendency of some people to take the long view. Philosophy has this problem. We don’t tend to rush in. While other academic disciplines rush to respond quickly to current events in order to claim the zeitgeist moment, philosophers take the longer view: that is ultimately why we don’t end up on the national airwaves very often, missing out on coming across very sage-like in dark and difficult times.

So, as a philosopher, when asked the question of what impact the current pandemic is having on society? You guessed it; my instinct is to quote Zhou Enlai and inevitably come across all sage-like without having to commit.

Nevertheless, as someone who teaches political philosophy here at Carlow College, I am very sure of one thing over the last few months and that is that the modern social contract has been put under pressure for perhaps the first time: And it’s all about roundabouts. Wait, let me explain.

Most western liberal democracies, Ireland included, work from the principle that the freedom of the individual to pursue their lives in a manner in which they see fit should nearly always have priority over the claims of society to limit those freedoms. What differs from country to country is the extent to which they sway one way or another. The greater the emphasis on individual freedom, the greater the limit on the state to impinge on that freedom and vice versa. In order to manage this tension and create a balance between the two opposing needs, philosophers call on social contract theory. This is the idea that we ultimately agree to some limits on our freedoms in order for the better running of society and sign an imaginary contract to that effect. But perhaps the most interesting thing about social contract theory is how philosophers have argued as to the incentive for us to give up our absolute freedom and agree to the contract. For the philosopher Hobbes it was out of fear of what he believed would be the anarchy and chaos that would exist without civil society.  Without this contract it would be a ‘state of nature’ in which there would be ‘war of all, against all’ and that therefore life would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. Think Mad Max, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and countless other postapocalyptic depictions. Zombies are optional.

So therefore, for him, the justification for the contract was one of fear. On the other hand, the German philosopher Kant suggested that us agreeing to limit some of our freedoms in order for the better running of society was an expression of our human reason. It is simply the rational thing to do to give up a certain level of freedom to ensure things run more smoothly and because we individually recognise the rationality of it, we are far more inclined to agree to any limit imposed by society; it simply makes sense.

Yet whichever one we think is the genuine motivation for the contract, it is an inherently fragile thing and we have seen it tested over the last few months as the state has sought to limit our freedoms. The fragile nature of the contract depends on all of us, all of the time, agreeing to be bound by the contract to limit our freedoms, of doing what we want, when we want, because we want to.

Here’s finally where the roundabout comes in because it is, in essence, the social contract. The roundabout works very well to distribute traffic around our urban landscape, but its working depends on us all agreeing to certain rules to limit our behaviour on it and this means giving over our freedom to get from A to B without regard to others. The two golden rules of the roundabout contract are 1) Give way to traffic on the right, in other words limit your freedom in order to facilitate another, and 2) never get on the roundabout unless you can get off at your chosen exit. If we adhere to these two limits on our freedom of progression, we will all get to where we are going quicker; that is the payoff of the contract. But what happens if a few of us ignore the contract and simply pursue our own perceived aims? Well, the contract breaks down. Ever been in a gridlock on a roundabout? How does it happen? We get to the roundabout and there clearly is a traffic jam on the far exit. We are good contractarians, and we give way to traffic on the right. Now if everyone is agreeing to the contract no one on your right will come onto the roundabout because they will not be able to get off: golden rule 2. However, a driver from the right seizes on the opportunity to get ahead by coming on to the roundabout and the beginning of a traffic jam starts to creep around the roundabout. Because one has done it, others chance it, then you are left with a decision, everyone else is disobeying the contract, they are doing what they want and you are left with an alternative. You either obey the contract and stay put but clearly now you are being disadvantaged by others abandoning the contract to do what they want, or you too abandon the contract and get in the traffic jam. It is now what Hobbes called the ‘War of all against all’. Anarchy ensues and no one gets home quickly. The fragile contract has fallen apart.

Did we not see this evolve over the last few months in terms of the pandemic? I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of us bought into the rationality of the lockdown. We exercised our good reason in understanding that temporary, even if extreme, limits on our freedoms was for the benefit of all. Rational self-interest prevailed and the then Taoiseach extolled the understanding that there would be no need to enforce these restrictions as the population would recognise their inherent rationality and exercise self-restraint. Yet as time went on, we have seen how fragile this is. As more people exempted themselves from these restrictions and under specific circumstances effectively stepped out of the contract, the more the social bond weakened. How we responded was interesting. Initially it was through peer group pressure on social media platforms encouraging each other to pull together, sometimes calling each other out for perceived selfish behaviour. Now it is much more of the kind that ends up with a gridlocked roundabout. ‘If everyone else is breaking the rules and no one is stopping them then why should I?’. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that over time the self-legislation of reason is being replaced by the imposition of enforcement by the state. Is it then Hobbes rather than Kant? Perhaps it is a little bit of both. While our reason will tell us that this is all for the greater good; if we don’t see it as a level playing field; if we see that some of us are not prepared to take the bigger, reasoned view, then the same fear that Hobbes said drove us into the contract, breaks it apart.  It is a fear of being disadvantaged by obeying reason and the contract. Toilet rolls and Pasta come to mind. At some level we all knew the panic buying was ridiculous, but once it starts you are almost compelled to abandon reason and take part. Our contract is always a fragile thing, particularly when for the first time in a generation or two, it gets significantly tested and the limits of our willingness to have our freedoms constricted tells upon us all. All contracts are negotiated and sometimes by necessity re-thought. The lesson we have perhaps to learn is that crises force that rethink more. If any good is to come of all this perhaps it is that we must think more about the contract we all engage in. Even more interesting would be the opportunity to explore which of our freedoms are the most important.


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