Democracy and Emergencies: Philosophy and Covid-19

Seven years before the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, Tom Sorell considered the conditions under which freedom might be restricted in a state of emergency, from the point of view of a ‘sober Hobbesian approach‘:

The neo-Hobbesian framework I am outlining gives people legal latitude to become very attached to costume, literature, music, and a traditional territory – if these attachments are not life-threatening. But it also recognises capacities in people that work against fundamentalist versions of those attachments, and it recognises reasons for exercising those capacities. The neo-Hobbesian framework credits each person with enough capacity for detachment to see that what is strongly valued should not normally be valued at all costs, or at the cost of anyone’s life in particular. This is what enables individuals to endorse laws that restrict liberty for the sake of security.

Tom Sorell, Emergencies and Politics: a Sober Hobbesian Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp 52-3

The Hobbesian basis of Sorell’s argument for the rightness of curtailing freedom in emergencies can be seen in the emphasis on attachments, threat to life and the idea of security. The highest responsibility of a state is to protect life and ensure the security of its citizens. The reasons this is a neo-Hobbesian approach are that the state is not assumed to take any specific form and the argument is not aimed at rulers, but is built around individual decisions and the attachments of life.

Against the common view of Hobbes as an absolute monarchist, Sorell’s close reading of texts other than Leviathan shows how Hobbes’s moral and political ideas are consistent with many kinds of state, including democracy. This can be seen in Sorell’s point about citizens endorsing restrictions, rather than giving up all rights in exchange for security, except when the state fails to protect them.

To defend the possibility and practicality of citizens giving up some freedom, Sorell balances two human qualities apparently at odds with one another. The first is that citizens will have deep attachments to culture, tradition, religion and place (and possibly many other things). Sorell is not an idealist, with an abstract and universal definition of humanity. Humans are rooted in different practices and cultures defining who they are and what they value. These differences can lead to dangerous conflicts.

The second attribute is that citizens can recognise that attachments must be valued alongside other considerations, above all threats to life. Humans have the capacity to become aware of the need to limit things they value and care about. There is a balance to be achieved between attachments and security. In striking this balance some laws might have to restrict freedom to protect life. Crucially, we can assume that reasonable citizens will accept this and, for instance, either vote for, or acquiesce to restrictions. The contradiction between two human qualities can therefore be resolved in a neo-Hobbesian state.

The current pandemic gives us many examples supportive of Sorrell’s argument. Attending church, or going to the pub, or meeting together for sport, culture and family gatherings have been banned or discouraged by governments of many different kinds, from totalitarian states to different types of democracy. As I write, the UK government is discouraging meetings, whereas France has banned them. The Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker has a record of these measures for different governments over time.

Broad acceptance of these measures as shown, for example, in this YouGov poll, gives initial support to Sorell’s argument, though we cannot know whether backing for government action is based on the Golden Rule (‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’), or Kant’s categorical imperative (‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’), on Hobbes, or on any other precise or vague moral intuition or teaching.

We also don’t know how long this accord will last, whether it will be repeated for other crises, and whether it will be different dependent on how the threat to life affects different groups (already a feature of Covid-19 with its greater risks for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions). We don’t know if concerned agreement will be undone by fatigue, burgeoning discord, scarcity of food and other essentials, or news of social breakdown. As we have already seen among some of our leaders, there will be no shortage of politicians seeking to make capital from divisive statements and policies.

Furthermore, the current world order has long tolerated or even exploited extreme threats to life, so long as these were either partly hidden, were felt to be distant, or fell on groups judged to be (or unconsciously taken to be) more expendable than others – the poor, the foreign, the weak. In recent years, people have been suffering of malnutrition and tuberculosis in numbers greater to the current figures for Covid-19, yet both are curable.

For all these reasons, we should pay attention to Sorell’s argument and others on politics and emergencies, if we are to ward off the temptations of totalitarian rule and selfishness in an age of catastrophes.

It could be claimed that Sorell’s argument resembles the Golden Rule. That’s not the case. In his commentary on the Rule from the Sermon on the Mount (‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets’), Martin Luther shows how the reasoning about thieving and the Rule can be extended to endangering the life of another through poison:

Yes, if it were only stealing, and not also murder besides, for with bad, injurious wares, food or drink, people are made weak and sick, etc., and not only robbed of their money, but also of their health, so that many a one eats and drinks, so that afterwards he must pine away and often die as a consequence of it. My good friend, is not that just the same as if you were to break into his house or chest and strike him a deadly wound? – only it goes by a different name.

If you think others should not threaten your life through poison, you should not threaten theirs through poison. If your life should not be put at risk by the actions of others spreading Covid-19, then you should not act in such a way as to put their lives at risk by spreading the virus.

Contrary to those who would defend the Golden Rule, though there is an appearance of solidarity around the current epidemic, there is also plenty of evidence that those who can act in ways that help themselves but endanger others will do so; for instance, when they flee an area, only to carry the virus to remote areas currently virus free.

I have given flight-to-the-hills examples from the UK and France but, counter to the racism and ignorance of thinking others are more to blame than ourselves, the phenomenon is general. The Golden Rule is not enough to halt self-interested acts and judgements in emergencies.

The resemblance between Sorell’s argument and the Rule is only superficial. His point about attachments runs counter to the Rule and its general application, because he sees attachment as running deeper than any obedience to the Golden Rule. For many centuries after Luther, adherents to religions with the Rule at their heart murdered others in great numbers. They continue to do so.

The question is then how to organise politics such that attachments remain central to life, yet order is maintained to protect life. My understanding of Sorell’s contention, as addressed to his fellow citizens, can be summed up by this rule: ‘In our democracy, we can have the different attachments that matter to our lives, so long as they do not lead to a direct threat to the lives of others.’ Once we are convinced by this argument and endorse it as part of our politics, it can become the following legal principle: ‘In a state of emergency, the government can restrict freedoms that entail a direct threat to the lives of other citizens.’

This rule is necessary to counter the following kind of argument, in this case, about pubs and the current epidemic made by Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator:

Britain without its pubs is not Britain. It just isn’t. It becomes something else. Something worse. Something less free, less convivial, less human. Yes, we all know that Covid-19 is a serious disease and we all agree that huge amounts of government resources should be devoted to tackling it and treating those infected by it. But to halt everyday life, even pub life, in response to it? We didn’t do that during the far worse 1918 flu epidemic. Or during the Second World War. Or when the IRA was bombing actual pubs. We carried on. The pub continued. It had to.

O’Neill’s attachment is to pub life as necessary to British life and freedom. The claim is that even if there is a risk to the lives of others, we cannot give up on meeting in pubs because that’s essential to who we are. Sorell grants that there are such deep attachments and that they should be protected, but he also argues that the freedom to pursue them ought to be curtailed where there is threat to life and that it is right for the state to do so.

The neo-Hobbesian state or philosophy is not about legislating deep into the lives of citizens and into what they can or cannot be attached to. It is rather than in certain extraordinary circumstances – emergencies – the state can expect citizens to endorse and then obey a temporary and as minimal as possible suspension of deep attachments.

There is one exception I would make to this philosophical defence of the curtailment of freedom in emergencies. It concerns freedom of expression. Even if the government and reasonable citizens judge that attacking the state or ‘truth’ risks lives, we should never abandon our attachment to relentless criticism and questioning of the state and of any powerful social and economic interest – including science and technology.