COVID-19 Public Inquiry – Does our obedience rely on the obedience of others?

Dr Elystan Griffith and Prof Martin Wagner (University of Calgary) consider obedience to law after former PM Boris Johnson appeared at Covid Inquiry.

Volunteers drawing hearts on The National Covid Memorial Wall

When musing during the parliamentary Covid-19 inquiry about the public health measures to be taken in a future pandemic, Boris Johnson gave voice to what has become an arguably rather common sentiment: rules are necessary because people will commit to good behaviour only if they know that everyone around them will be also forced to behave well.

In a response to his fellow libertarians’ calls for reduced regulation for future pandemics, Johnson said “why you need regulation is because ultimately people want to see everybody being obliged to obey the same set of rules and they want their neighbours to do what they are doing.”

Obedience to the public health measures came for most people willingly, unproblematically— but the reasons for it were different from those we are most accustomed to.

In his famous experiments of the 1960s, which have been replicated many times since, Stanley Milgram studied obedience as respect to authority. Milgram followed perhaps one of the oldest lines of thinking about obedience—according to which all our obedience rests in God’s supreme authority.

Yet people’s compliance during the pandemic did not originate from a particular respect or submissiveness to authority, unless we think of the Nation Health Service (NHS)—sometimes conceived of as Britain’s national religion—as adopting the place of God.

Obedience to the public health measures came for most people willingly, unproblematically— but the reasons for it were different from those we are most accustomed to.

Dr Elystan Griffiths

Compliance to authority is also often perceived as being rooted in the rationality of ‘order.’ Take how Hegel thought about the laws of modern states: we obey them out of insight into their rationality and because we know about the freedoms (of movement and trade, among others) that this obedience affords us. 

Following the science

The UK government’s mantras about ‘following the science’ have elements of this rationality, but they have been seen as an example of blame avoidance for fundamentally political choices, a view recently endorsed by England’s Chief Medical Officer. Yet again, in the pandemic obedience to mask mandates and other public health measures did not spring from an insight into the justification of the public health measures—for otherwise more people would have worn a mask even in the absence of a legal requirement.

Obedience relied on a conditional form of solidarity with the public following the mantra: ‘I will obey orders out of solidarity with my fellow citizens because (and as long as) everyone else is forced to show solidarity as well.’

This thinking goes back to the model of the social contract. The pandemic turned public life into a life in which everybody became everyone else’s potential source of contagion, much as Thomas Hobbes imagined an original social contract that had arisen when people in pre-political ‘war of all against all’ had agreed to trade certain freedoms in search of security. During the pandemic, people longed to end this state of disorder and fear—and they laid down their weapons happily provided everyone else did the same. Perceived policy failings and the Partygate scandal severely undermined this mantra. Pinning a spotlight on how people in power could not even be obedient to the rules that they themselves had made.

Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May noted during the debate on the Privileges Committee report that ‘If people see us making rules for them and acting as if they are not for us, that trust that I spoke about between the public and Parliament is undermined’. Johnson’s insight at the COVID inquiry about the importance of solidarity may indeed be a result of his later humiliation. 

Notes for editors

Elystan Griffiths (University of Birmingham) and Martin Wagner (University of Calgary) are currently collaborating on the book The Age of Obedience: German Thought and Society, 1750–1850.

The authors reconstruct across six different social fields the main controversies over the concept of obedience, and they show the trajectories of these controversies over the 100 years under investigation. Through this comparative work, The Age of Obedience presents a crucial period of intellectual history in a way that highlights both its diverse forms of thinking and expression and its fundamental underlying characteristics.