OVER the past few weeks, I have noticed that social commentators and journalists have been invoking the “social contract” in their musings. Noisy protests, induced by COVID-19, economic distress and the activities of anti-vaxxers, are forcing us to think about the balance between the rights and responsibilities of the members of a community such as Australia (here, here and here).
Suddenly, it is as though the social contract were something that we had signed on to when we became adults.
It is now over 50 years since I read Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, Rousseau (who wrote The social contract), Marx and Engels, and others, as part of a university course in moral and political philosophy. I must admit that in the interim the “who wrote what” of it all has become rather blurred, although I do remember that Plato’s Republic had a brown cover while the Hobbes book was red (although perhaps not easily read), and I have misplaced my key to Locke.
These thinkers were exploring the fundamental questions of how it was that their societies had arisen, how they could be governed, and what it was that the various members of societies owed to one another and to their community as a whole, and vice versa.
Of course, pre-modern, pre-scientific philosophers had no concept of the human species as being part of the continuum of evolution, or that the biological and social evolution of animal communities as our predecessors laid the foundation for human communities – humans were humans and had simply been plonked down on Earth by the gods or god to self-organise under rules that had been ordained.
Members of small communities of humans are intimately co-dependent, know one another personally and are likely to be related – small communities sink or swim together.
It was only a relatively few thousands of years ago that the small-group model that had served the great variety of social organisms well for millions of years became insufficient for the organisational challenge posed by the bigger groups that were supplanting them.
In contrast, the diversity that is enabled and necessary in large complex human communities creates functional challenges, as well as opportunities for internal competition and much greater inequality. In order to operate effectively as large communities, we have had to create complex systems of rules for organising ourselves. Or maybe it was the other way around – that we were only able to become larger because we learned how to organise. Or perhaps even more likely, the solutions and their consequences evolved concurrently.
It is very important to remember that, as I have discussed earlier, the cultural and physical evolution of our societies from very small self-governing groups into large communities also created the environment and opportunity for pandemics, and offered up communities vulnerable to complexity, instability, and collapse (and here).
The emergence of communities with greater diversity poses the challenge of how to maintain cohesion when composed of members who pursue self-interest at the expense of their fellow members, with whom, nonetheless, they share a degree of co-dependency. Why would individuals remain engaged in a society where they do not receive an adequate share in the benefits that they generate for others? How much diversity, dissent and pursuit of self-interest can be allowed to persist in a community without threatening coherence and viability (as has happened in Lebanon)? If diversity and individual ingenuity drive growth and change, will enforced homogeneity and intolerance of intrinsic human diversity stifle flexibility and inhibit necessary adaptation to new circumstances (as is happening in China)?
Larger groups created the need to explore these issues in the interests of their sustainability, while offering philosophers some freedom to consider them. No doubt, and as always, controlling leaders and groups within societies try to manage the discussion in their own interests.
The historical literature of the social contract may seem quite abstract. However, it is probably best understood simply as an attempt to explain the origins and operation of communities. Perhaps surprisingly, the issues are the same whether or not humans subscribe to modern evolutionary explanations – that communities emerged and persist (until the collapse) because they offer greater likelihood of reproductive success and genetic continuity.
The core issues relevant to the current challenge of COVID-19 can be summarised in two questions that emerge from the premise that it is in our interests to live in large communities:
What individual personal sacrifice do we owe to the state (that is comprised of us)?
What does the state (that exists only as lots of us) owe to each of us?
The answers philosophers and politicians have found to these questions are manifest in the design and application of constitutions and laws. And their effectiveness plays out over time in the rise and fall of communities in conflicts over power and control.
[Note: The voting populace are known as constituents (def. voters or ingredients), and that should remind us that the electorate is our community. It is the reason that dictators go to such lengths to claim victory in (often rigged) elections to sustain the illusion that they can rule with a community mandate founded on adherence to the social contract; for example, the recent election in Belarus, Nixon and the Silent Majority, and Donald Trump’s claims of victory when he clearly lost.]
Few would disagree with the principle that humans cannot function as fully self-sufficient organisms. We are all dependent on our community for our sustenance and our wellbeing.
The organisational solutions suggested by philosophers range from idealised benevolent despotism (Plato) to the rule of the proletariat (Marx). Unfortunately, history shows that rulers too easily drop the benevolence and many team players rapidly descend into despotism (Venezuela) – human nature easily trumps theoretical ideals.
We expect the leaders of our democracies to [as they say in their victory speeches] “govern for everyone”. However, in heterogeneous communities, they do not have no-lose options for decision making that are in the personal interests of every constituent member.
Leaders generally represent an ideological subgroup within the subgroup that is their party. But when their communities are under threat, elected leaders have a duty to set aside the interests of their subgroup of origin to protect the longer term interests of the group as a whole. Almost every choice they must make will either confirm the antipathy of other subgroups or cause their subgroup of origin to feel betrayed.
Constituents have a duty to understand and accept how their leaders should act during a crisis, and respect the decisions that they make, even when they are not in their particular interests.
However, the rapidly changing relationship between leaders (who used to be able to assume that they could tell the community what to do) and their community (who now feel empowered to make choices about everything from sexuality and vaccination to voluntary assisted dying) has made implementing the social contract more difficult. Each of us should think very carefully about our role in, and relationship with, our community. This means recognition that, in spite of our freedom of choice apparently growing, we are actually increasingly dependent for our survival, not just on our own community, but also on the incomprehensible dynamic complexity of the 21st century’s global interaction and behaviour of other humans (here and here).
So, how do we personally decide how to balance the freedom to act as we choose versus the right not suffer avoidable harm as a consequence of the exercise of freedom by others?
Few would dispute that, respecting diversity, democracies should support and encourage their citizens to believe that, in principle, they have the right to freedom of thought and action. Our social contract respects the right of individuals to engage in dangerous activities (think unroped rock climbing) that may cause harm to themselves alone, or refuse interventions that might bring them benefit (blood transfusion or dialysis). However, the rights to act are not limitless. The privilege of membership of a community also comes with the presumption that members will not act in a way that deliberately or consciously harms other members or the wellbeing of the community, and that in some circumstances the members of a democracy must defer to the interests of the community as a whole, even if the community’s choices may deny them freedoms or cause them harm. Most constituents also believe that leaders have the right to impose consequences for acting in a manner that causes or has the potential to cause harm to others.
I have great sympathy for our current leaders who have found themselves in a position for which they could not have prepared, and must make choices the consequences of which are often unknowable, apart from the fact that they will probably result in some degree of disorder, and probably deaths, whatever they decide. In facing up to this pandemic (and the greater threat of global climate change), leaders are being challenged to move outside the political paradigm and into a dynamic and uncertain world. They must deal with complexity, viral evolution, epidemiology, public health, ethics, and the variety of human behaviour – all in the name of the longer term interests of their community, and even when that might compromise their short term political prospects. There may only be least worst options.
They have no option for indecision or prevarication when decisions are necessary. A failure to actively make choices is, nonetheless, a statement of acceptance of the consequences of the current direction (as I have explained to patients struggling to make choices or to delegate to others).
They must be open about the evidence, honest about the seriousness of our predicament, blunt when describing the possible poor outcomes that may be inevitable, clear about the options and the choices that they make, and reach out across the political spectrum – for some, this approach will be an anathema.
But, we will respect them much more when they do.
Fortunately, over more recent times, I have noticed a growing candour from some of our leaders. It is as though they have come to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are not political problems to be solved. Their duty, as leaders fulfilling their obligations under the social contract, is to lead us along what they and we hope will be the least bad path. In doing so, they are accepting that their political futures will have to take care of themselves.
In theory, as the constituents of a community adhering to a strict interpretation of the social contract, we should all be accepting our duties without question; doing what we must to minimise harm by accepting the constraints on our behaviour (travel restrictions and social distancing), following directions and advice (masks and vaccinations), and understanding the realities of resource allocation in the interest of the community as a whole (with triage if unavoidable).
However, in the words of the 20th century sage Yogi Berra, catcher, manager and coach for the New York Yankees baseball team:
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice – in practice there is”
So, how is all this blather about the social contract and our individual relationship with the community of ourselves playing out in the face of the real-world universal threat of COVID-19?
In Australia, unlike some other countries, overall intra-communal harmony seems to have improved in spite of our great diversity.
Mostly we have accepted that vaccination (unless medically contraindicated) is a win/win – our individual choices protect us, those we know, and all of those in our community we don’t know. By trying to avoid serious illness, we also repay the benefits of membership of our community through reduction of the risk that our community, and particularly its health system, will be overwhelmed, and thus less able to meet our needs and those of others.
While respecting the right of individuals not to be vaccinated, a consensus also seems to be emerging that the burden of risks imposed on the community by those who make such choices means that they can excluded from sharing in some of the benefits of mass vaccination. Mask wearing is mandated in some circumstances (here, and here).
It seems to me that such responses throughout the pandemic reflect a tacit acceptance of what we describe as the Social Contract, a simple descriptor for deeply ingrained evolved biological and cultural behavioural traits that enable us to better manage external threats. Such behaviours emerged as an almost universal necessity for the success of small groups of social organisms long before we became humans
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.