Opinion: What 17th-Century Philosopher Thomas Hobbes can Teach us About Masks, Vaccine Mandates, and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Thomas Hobbes was a 17th-century English political philosopher. Among other intellectual achievements, Hobbes developed the theory of the social contract in a way that no philosopher before him had. In so doing, he essentially launched the field of modern political thought and laid the building blocks of liberalism and liberal philosophy. His theory of the social contract remains as relevant as ever in this age of mask-wearing, vaccine mandates, and COVID-19.
Hobbes’ theory goes something like this: before we had government, humanity lived in a state of nature. In this anarchical state, everyone had to fend for themselves. There was no one in charge who could create and enforce laws to keep us safe. So, it was up to every individual to protect themselves and their property. We had full freedom in this pre-government state. No laws, no rules. You could do whatever you wanted.
Then government came along, and everything changed. People consented to be ruled by one person, like a king, or a group of people, like the aristocracy or a democratic assembly. They were tired of spending all their energy just trying to survive and protect themselves. But in order for this political arrangement to be possible, they had to give up a measure of their freedom. They had to agree to follow the rules of their leader(s), and that meant no more total freedom. This is what Hobbes called the social contract. The days of doing whatever you wanted were gone, and in order to have governmental and legal security from arbitrary violence or theft, they had to relinquish some liberty.
Humanity signed the deal, and looking back, it was a pretty sweet bargain. You still got to keep your inalienable rights, of course. For example, nobody could force you to confess a crime, a right that the Fifth Amendment has similarly granted Americans since 1791. But you couldn’t commit murder for fun or steal people’s stuff anymore, and you had to start doing stuff like paying taxes. It was still much better than having to be on your guard 24/7 from potential danger, and people could finally take a breath, even thrive. Society could advance, the economy could grow, culture could happen. We evolved.
And this social contract continues to undergird all political societies today. By being part of a society, we implicitly agree to follow our governments’ rules and laws, and in exchange for this small part of our freedom, we can go on with our lives knowing that we are safe from harm. One could go so far as to argue that the social contract is freedom-enhancing, as opposed to freedom-diminishing. How could you really be free, after all, if you’re always busy fighting for your basic survival and self-protection?
Fast forward to today. The COVID-19 pandemic happened, and governments around the world have struggled to control the spread of the disease. Despite their efforts, the coronavirus has already killed over 5.5 million people across the globe as of the publication of this article.
The government of Ontario has enacted a series of public health measures to flatten the Covid curve. As reported by Emerald Bensadoun for The Globe and Mail, any Ontarian who is 12 or older has to be vaccinated and show proof of vaccination to enter non-essential businesses. Workers at long-term care homes are required to be fully vaccinated. Retail stores and other non-essential businesses must operate at 50 percent capacity. Masks need to be worn in these spaces as well, as the Government of Ontario website notes. These common sense-health and safety measures will decrease the incidence of COVID-19 in our communities and help protect us from disease. They will prevent preventable deaths and keep vulnerable members of society, like those who are immunocompromised, safe. In fact, mask-wearing has been shown to be effective at reducing the spread of the virus, and vaccines have also been proven to reduce the risk of infection, and especially of hospitalization, severe illness, and death associated with COVID-19. It is only logical, then, in my view, that governments would require the wearing of masks in public spaces or mandate that certain segments of the population that regularly come in contact with those who are immunocompromised or older get vaccinated. It makes sense, and it will save countless lives.
And yet, some people have argued that these public health measures are an infringement on their freedom and their rights. A certain “freedom convoy” led by Canadian truckers took place over the weekend in Ottawa to protest the federal government’s newly-announced vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, as Rachel Aiello reported for CTV News. (Not to mention that many of the organizers and participants of the convoy have links to white supremacist groups, but that’s a story for another day.) Many Canadians who feel that vaccine mandates and other public health measures against COVID-19 impede their freedom have shown support for the truckers’ protest. This sort of rhetoric, which holds that vaccine mandates or vaccination requirements to enter certain spaces violate individuals’ freedom and rights, has been proliferating on the Internet since the start of the virus.
And to this rhetoric I say: what freedom? What rights? You cannot demand to be given back freedom which you never had in the first place.
Think back to Hobbes. By living in Canadian society, we have all implicitly agreed to follow the rules and regulations put in place by governments at both federal and provincial levels. We’ve agreed to relinquish some personal freedom in exchange for security. That’s our social contract, and we signed it.
We’ve faced a grave danger to our health and safety in the last few years in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and our governments have responded by implementing measures to keep us safe. We have been asked to do some slightly inconvenient and uncomfortable things, like wear masks. We’ve also been asked to do some slightly more uncomfortable things, like get vaccinated. As the CDC notes, the vast majority of those who experience side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines only experience the minor and temporary kind, like some swelling at the site of injection or tiredness. Personally, I would take these minor side effects over potential hospitalization and death any day.
Yes, these measures technically infringe on our individual freedom. But this is an infringement on our freedom that we agreed to when we signed our social contract, and one that will grant us and those around us the security we need to go about our daily lives. A world without public health measures to combat COVID-19 is one where the virus runs rampant, where more people get sick, and more than 5.5 million people die. It is a world where you have to fear for your life, more than you already do, every time you step outside—a feeling that immunocompromised individuals are already quite familiar with. It’s a world where you are confined to your home at all times for fear of catching the virus, and where the only thing on your mind is self-preservation and survival. It’s a world teeming with swarms of unvaccinated and unmasked people gathering in close proximity and spreading the virus eternally. Where variants upon variants continue to develop and spread, where we never reach herd immunity, and where we never return to normal, to life as it was in pre-Covid times. In other words, a world with full freedom is a world with no freedom at all.
The same goes for things like road rules, for example. Our governments require us to be licensed to drive. We have to follow road lights and signs while driving. Yes, these rules technically violate our “freedom” to drive however we want. But they keep us safe (and alive), and they allow us to get where we need to go. They’re just part of our social contract, and it is clear that our society would descend back into a state of anarchy and violence without them. But I don’t see anyone screaming bloody murder because they have to stop at a red light and wear a seat belt.
So, for the love of all that is good in the world, stop claiming that the government is “taking away your freedom” by enacting basic public health measures against the coronavirus—you never had unreserved freedom to begin with. As the social contract dictates, that’s not how freedom works. Common-sense measures like wearing a mask or requiring proof of vaccination to enter non-essential spaces are keeping you safe enough to go about your life without a constant fear of infection and death. They are giving you freedom. And as Hobbes turns in his grave, he is surely thinking the same thing.