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COVID-19 and the Social Contract

14 August 2020
Written by Peter Antey, Professor of Philosophy
Lockdowns and the need for government interventions have brought the issue of the social contract to the fore during the COVID-19 crisis. Given the social contract is a philosophical idea, perhaps philosophers have something to say about this situation.

In any society there’s a delicate balancing act between individual liberties and community needs, and in pre-Covid Australia we probably had the settings about right.

But the pandemic has changed the settings and the recalibration, particularly in Melbourne, is not to everyone’s liking.

Individual liberties have been dramatically constrained in order to bring an invisible enemy under control and to protect the community’s health, and many citizens appear to be breaking the rules. How can philosophy help us to think about this?
Professor Peter Anstey

There are at least three types of rule breakers. First, there’s there are the Covid deniers.

I spoke to one on the train the other week. He is a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t believe that there is a virus circulating in the community and that it’s all a government plot. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with conspiracy theories, but it all comes down to evaluating the evidence.

To be sure, sometimes we are too inclined to take the authorities’ word on trust, but in this situation the evidence for the existence and danger of this corona virus is compelling.

If the conspiracy theorists will not seek out and reasonably evaluate the evidence, then there’s not much we can do. If they use their conspiratorial beliefs as a pretext for violating the health directives, then they are morally culpable.

Another rule breaker is the dissenter, the person who says, ‘I never agreed to having my individual liberties constrained like this, and I therefore refuse to comply’.

In times of crisis like this pandemic, governments have to move quickly and some of us can be taken by surprise and find ourselves claiming, ‘I wasn’t consulted’ or ‘Why did I have no say in this?’.

This might be a natural reaction, but it shows a misunderstanding of the nature of the social contract that underpins our parliamentary democracy.

One of the reasons we elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf is because decision-making can be slow, especially if we are seeking consensus, and in a pandemic decisions need to be made quickly.

The third rule breaker is more dangerous than the denier and the dissenter. This is the Sensible Knave.
Professor Peter Anstey

The conspiracy theorist and the dissenter object to the new restrictions on individual liberties, but can grudgingly comply. By contrast, the Sensible Knave agrees with them entirely. ‘Bring them on’, says the Sensible Knave, ‘everyone should stay at home and keep to the rules’; everyone that is, except the Sensible Knave.

The name ‘Sensible Knave’ derives from the philosopher David Hume but the idea goes back at least to Plato and the story of Gyges’ ring. In that story a shepherd using an invisibility ring (think Frodo Baggins), seduces the Lydian queen, murders the king and takes the kingdom for himself.

The idea is that if you yourself can break the law without anyone seeing you do it, then breaking the law is a rational course of action: it’s the ‘sensible’ thing to do even if you are fully ‘sensible’ (aware) of the fact that you are a lawbreaker.

If everyone pays their taxes, surely it doesn’t hurt society if one of us gets away with cheating on their tax return? If everyone drives up to the speed limit, surely it won’t hurt if I drive as fast as I want?

There will always be Sensible Knaves in society. The problem that they present is a threshold problem. If one person cheats on their tax, there’s virtually no impact to society and they are better off, but if, say, one in three people cheat on their tax returns then the government won’t be able to fund the roads that the Sensible Knaves want to speed on or to fund the hospitals that sufferers of Covid-19 need right now.

However, Sensible Knaves present a very big problem in a pandemic. If I cheat on my tax return the impacts are negligible, but if I break the health directives while infected and become a super-spreader the impact can be devastating.

The actions of just one careless Sensible Knave can create a threshold problem very quickly and it may well be that behind the second wave in Victoria is a small group of Sensible Knaves, knaves who might not even have known that they had the virus.

Of course, meeting friends and dining out are hardly the crimes of the shepherd with Gyges’ ring, but the consequences may be worse.

It’s a sobering thought, but there’s probably a Sensible Knave in all of us. If you see the knave inside yourself, now is the time to keep them under lockdown!


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