REVIEW COORDINATOR: Bethany Laursen

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April 2nd, 2020 10:05:42 am

A contractual justification for strong measures against COVID-19

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Abstract

Many countries have taken extensive measures to slow COVID-19’s progress and attempt to avert a sanitary collapse. Although the necessity of saving lives seems evident to many of us, these measures will nevertheless have dire economic effects and impose major costs on much of the population. A solid public justification is essential, for which a social contract perspective is useful. I argue that it helps us understand why such measures not only do justice to the claims of those who are likely to become severely ill, but also those of many others, and that no less is at stake than the foundational bonds of our communities.

A contractual justification for strong measures against COVID-19

Many countries have taken extensive measures to slow COVID-19’s horrific progress and attempt to avert a sanitary collapse. Although the necessity of saving lives seems evident to many of us, these measures will nevertheless have dire economic effects and impose major costs on much of the population. In view of their distress and the scarcity of resources characteristic of politics, a solid public justification is essential. In such a case, a contractual perspective is useful. I write from a Swiss perspective, but I hope these thoughts prove stimulating in other contexts as well.

The social contract approach, largely inherited from early modern political thinkers such as Hobbes, Pufendorf, Locke and Rousseau, consists of considering political communities and institutions as if they had arisen from a contract between all their members. In other words, each of us is bound to do our share for the community (typically, obey the law) in return for the benefits we derive from it (the public goods provided by the state). To maintain these mutual obligations, our political arrangements should attend to each citizen’s interests so that everyone has a moral and instrumental incentive to take part in them. Often, this implies solidarity with the needs of the most vulnerable, not only for the sake of the community, but also—for its more skeptical members—because each of us is likely to be in that position eventually. Importantly, this is not about a systematic calculation of what each person actually gives and takes, but about a general principle that should hold across various circumstances.

In times such as the COVID-19 crisis, adopting this contractual perspective helps us formulate our mutual obligations toward one another as members of the same community, as well as how these obligations relate to one another. The first reason obviously relates to the persons most at risk. Our elderly have contributed to our community throughout years of care, work, taxpaying and personal commitment to society’s well-being. As recipients of these benefits, we owe them sacrifices to avoid their unnecessary suffering and deaths. Neither should we neglect younger people with diseases that put them at a higher risk, as they make no less effort for the community than others do.

However, the contractual approach also helps us understand why such measures not only do justice to the claims of those who are likely to become severely ill, but also those of many others.

Hospital staff and their loved ones face heavy exposure to the virus and must make immense efforts to cope. They deserve to work in better conditions than the chaos of overloaded facilities in which they must choose which lives to save and struggle with equipment and medication shortages. The same holds for those who work at high exposure to maintain the country’s fundamental infrastructure and supplies, such as supermarket staff.

We must also remember that the virus will not stop the usual diseases and accidents. Saturated hospitals will be unable to care for their patients as they would in normal times, which will affect many more people than those sick with the virus. Let us also consider all those who will lose someone dear to them without being able to accompany them and say goodbye, possibly knowing that this person could have been saved if not for the want of resources available in normal times.

These claims comprise some of the immediate arguments in favor of significant protective measures. If these do not suffice, a more general contractual justification lies in our deeper motivation to accept the restraints and efforts imposed by life within a political community. If we choose a society model that copes with hard blows such as pandemics by quickly abandoning those affected, playing along becomes less attractive. Why work, pay taxes, obey rules not always favorable to one’s own interests and engage politically or socially if we know that we or our loved ones will be abandoned as soon as it is cheaper to do so? Alternatively, what happens if we realize that we are no longer worth protecting once the peak of our economic contribution lies behind us? It seems that no less is at stake than the foundational bonds of our communities.  


None of this is intended to minimize the sacrifices made by those who lose their source of income, current housing and potential savings or who must give up important projects. On the contrary, contractual logic only makes plain that genuine support is due to those for whom solidarity comes at a high price—including from those lucky citizens relatively unimpacted by the virus and the measures deployed to harness it. This is necessary for the flourishing of the community in which they have acquired such a safe position, but also (from a Rawlsian perspective), because they could well be affected under slightly different circumstances.

Neither are these thoughts meant to embellish the situation as it was before COVID-19. The social contract approach aims to articulate an ideal to strive for and a standpoint from which to assess our societies, not to depict their realities. It is not difficult to think of people who benefit far less from the organization of their communities than others do or who seem forgotten in any such contract. The current crisis will no doubt reveal under-addressed discriminations and needs, especially those related to work and education conditions. Let us at least hope that a wakeup call will be one positive consequence of COVID-19.

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    A contractual justification for strong measures against COVID-19

    Copyright

    2020

    COMMENTS ON THIS SUBMISSION

    Joseph Arel

    April 03, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    I take the aim of this paper to be to show how a contract theory approach can help us to justify the measures being put in place in many countries affected by Covid-19. I think this is worth sharing with the public and is a meaningful engagement with the current debate. 

    I have two main comments, and then some minor suggestions:

    1. I think the problem should be motivated a bit more. I take the author to claim that the social contract approach explains why it is worth protecting older citizens, for example, and it is not worth abandoning them for economic reasons. I would first show why someone might think that we might want to abandon them. This may be because of my particular cultural context, but I would expect most people who would read this to take the protection of others seriously. So, if the reader doesn't see what exactly the problem is and why it should be taken seriously, there really isn't a problem that this is solving. I think it it is set up more clearly, we'll see what this solves more clearly.

    2. The main example I see for protecting others here is because, for example, older people have already given a lot to the community. It is suggested that younger people do just as much, but it's not clear how. My issue is that it seems like this all hangs on how much someone has given. If this is the case, it would be easy for this approach to exclude a lot of people from worthy of being protected if we can give a reasonable argument that they do not contribute much to our community.

    There are a couple of references at the end ("contractual logic" and "Rawlsian perspective") that should be explained if the aim is for accessibility to the public.