“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A description of life during the Covid-19 pandemic? Actually, this phrase is 370 years old, coined by English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes to depict what he believed life would be like were we not to have laws or political authority – that is, were we to exist in a state of nature.
Political philosophers imagine a time when all of us lived like this – before or without political association – as a tool to understand how we can justify the political systems and authorities we have now. Hobbes is the first in a long line of “social contract” theorists: those who subscribe to the idea that political authority is justified because we would, in a hypothetical state of nature, agree to it to avoid the uncertainty and insecurity we face without it. The terms of each social contract differ from theorist to theorist, but the popularity of the concept has remained constant. But do we have a good grasp of what it means? And what it means for us as citizens?
Simply put, the idea is that even though we never had a chance to do so, if we had such a chance we would “contract” into “society” – we would agree to give up some of our unlimited freedom in exchange for the state’s protection of our other freedoms. We do this because it is the most rational way to protect ourselves and to achieve some of the goods central to a good life.
One of the central features of the social contract that is often overlooked is that it is between citizens rather than between citizens and the state. That is, on the social contract view, the state and its political structures and authority are morally justified not because we have signed a hypothetical contract with the state to obey its laws, but because we have signed a hypothetical contract with each other as citizens. It is our job as citizens to respect the terms of the contract. The job of the state or political authority is to do something about it if we don’t.
That said, the legitimacy of the contract is not dependent on whether the state does its job or not, our obligations to each other exist irrespective of the government’s enforcement of them. Democratic states are, after all, rooted in a commitment to a form of political equality between citizens – or, to borrow from Bernard Matolino’s thoughts on consensus democracy, rooted in our ability to respect the seriousness of each other’s interests.
Underpinning the concept of the social contract is the recognition that, for better or worse, those who live closest to us are both our greatest source of danger and our greatest opportunity for a better life. Collaboration is therefore essential to our well-being. The pandemic reveals to us on a new scale just how serious this societal collaboration is: it is literally a matter of life and death.
In a pandemic (as in all other times) we have a duty not to cause death (or harm) to others just as they have a duty not to cause death (or harm) to us. In typical times, the state enforces this duty with a variety of relatively uncontroversial criminal laws. In these atypical times, not harming each other is both similarly simple and more complex. It is simple because we know which social actions can make a big difference to our collective survival: masks, washing hands, physical distancing, ventilation and a national vaccine strategy. It remains complex because these strategies rely on collective participation and coordination: they will only work if the vast majority of us commit to following a shared strategy.
We would do well, at this current political moment, to remember the insight above: that as members of a civil society, we have duties to one another that are not contingent on whether the state enforces those duties or not.
Doing so will remind us that the first question we should ask ourselves about the vaccine is not whether the government has the right to mandate it, but rather what do we owe to each other? It is only once we are clear about what our obligations as citizens are that we can begin to think through whether and how political authority can help us to fulfil them.
To fulfil our duties and protect ourselves we need the coordination of a shared political authority. Further, we need the expertise and resources available in a shared political project. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the reason for following the guidance and legislation of our government is most foundationally rooted in our duties to each other, not our duties to the state.
Does this make a difference? We think it does: in a country where trust in our political authority is fragile, debates around new strategies, such as vaccination programmes, are clouded by views on the government itself, because they are framed as debates around what power the government should have over us. Of course, it matters whether the state can be trusted to discern and implement. But it is not the only or the main thing that matters.
Returning to the foundations of our state project focuses our attention on what is at stake – our ability to keep one another alive, the best we can, with the resources and information we have available. With this perspective in mind, we suggest that the real issue is not about whether vaccines should be mandated by the state. Rather, we need to recognise that while it is the state’s job to coordinate and fund a vaccine programme, it’s (y)our job as a citizen to have the jab. DM/MC
Dr Christine Hobden is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Fort Hare and an Iso Lomso Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. She is a political theorist whose research focuses on citizenship, international justice and collective responsibility. Her forthcoming book, Citizenship in a Globalised World, will be available from May 2021. Dr Heidi Matisonn is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her focus is on applied philosophy with a specific interest in health and research ethics.
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