One of the first things we learn in the law course at University is the basic rule that contracts must be respected. We all know this intuitively as it is one of the core values in any social order – we must keep to our promises because otherwise no one will trust us, and we need trust in any society for it to achieve the best outcomes for its members.
Law is a tool which enables us to design many levels of relationships. The legal system also includes Courts to force people to respect their contracts when they try to breach them. Trust is, however, fundamental to the way we manage our relationships with each other. These are not necessarily economic. They go much further into the substance of our lives.
Sometimes we have obligations without even having contracts. We are bound often bound by our own declarations or the moral position we assume – judges in a court, officers in the public service or parents having children.
These are called fiduciary obligations to care and protect others, to act selflessly or act fairly and impartially – many shades of the same concept of obligations to others. Sometimes these extend to animals and the environment. These are all based on a value system, rarely specific laws, and again observing them produces trust.
Value systems go far beyond economics. Unfortunately, our societies have reduced the richness of the ethical and moral systems, which have guided humanity for millennia, to a poor economic logic – rich in numbers but poor in qualities. We see this at its extreme in some countries where people are being dismissed from their jobs again on a simple economic logic – are they performing and producing? – disregarding all else, even a lifetime of loyalty and sacrifice.
Health and social support systems have, embarrassingly, been shown up to be underfunded and understaffed and the tragedy of low priority exposed. We almost ask if political, social and legal orders are there for real people or merely for statistics!
The world has passed through an extremely “wealthy” period over the last 70 or so years, with Governments spending massively and encouraging consumerism to grow economies, but there is clearly something wrong. It seems it will only get worse unless we rebuild a higher ethical approach to the way we govern as leaders and how we live as ordinary citizens.
We waste too much, we destroy too much, we don’t preserve, reuse and we pollute, and it seems we don’t care for each other and we are all disposable. How long can this keep going? Now we have time to think and so do our leaders. Is anyone thinking about how the future is going to be or are we still parroting the mantra about “future proofing” through economic management?
We have what is referred to as a social contract. The ethical dimension is easy to see there as this is not even a contract! It is an assumed moral guideline between imaginary government and imaginary populations.
Populations don’t have many options when political leaders decide to breach the social contract, even when the breach is very serious! Leaders must respect human rights and the rule of law. As administrators and fiduciaries of the nation’s environment, its heritage and its assets, they must not be abusive and corrupt.
Institutions, though their officers, must be the check and balance against any abuse. On the other side as citizens, we must work hard and perform the functions we agree to for fair consideration, create opportunities, pay employees their fair wages, provide safe and healthy places of work, respect consumers with fair trading, pay our taxes and respect the law, avoid privileges in awards and support others as best we can.
This “social contract” evidently even exists even on the international plain among nations. COVID-19 has shown how interdependent nations are and that has created implied mutual obligations to care about each other and act properly. Bad behaviour by one nation is a breach of the international social contract on the basis of which all the nations of the world operate to survive.
Being selfish (nationalistic) as a nation has been unmasked in the most emotional terms because it is a breach of trust. Even there, trust has its role. Loss of trust has its impacts.
It is wonderful to see how our medical structures and all care workers, supported by the police and others, are living up to their ethical duties and, likewise, how the population in general is respecting their instructions and extending mutual support. This is an example, in a limited context, of the social contract working well.
We need serious and intelligent thinking to take place to ensure the proper standards required by a notional “social contract” operate in all other areas of our nation. This social contract is totally based on ethical behaviour by all sides. Because it is not enforceable, we have to trust each other. That is why, when it is abused, it hurts us all. When it works to its ethically correct standards, as intended, we all support it and are all proud of our nation.
This article is the first in a series of articles by Max Ganado on contracts in the age of COVID-19
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