Motivation, agency and morality in the coronavirus crisis by Vicente Silva

Vicente Silva

image showing chess pieces
Image by Steve Buissinne via Pixabay

The recent Dominic Cummings scandal has demonstrated the importance of following basic rules in public life. The fact that the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser had not complied with the nation-wide lockdown has partly undermined the credibility of the government, and its long-term political and public health consequences remain unknown. Beyond this juncture, what this affair indicates is a more structural phenomenon in the context of the pandemic, one that should be taken seriously both by analysts and policy-makers: the relevance of morality, especially when it comes to convincing the population to follow measures as restrictive as a lockdown can be.

As a matter of fact, in the current crisis governments have recurred to technical and moral arguments to justify their responses. Whereas an important part of the policy debates have been related to the former dimension – evaluating the feasibility and appropriateness of certain courses of action –, the latter has been less prominent in the academic discussion. For example, in Britain ideas such as ‘stay at home, save our NHS’ have been at the centre of the government’s public discourse, but instead from analysing the meaning of this narrative, from a policy perspective we tend to be more concerned about the health system’s capacity or the effectiveness of the lockdown. Yet, it is worth posing questions about the structure and implications of such moral dimension.

Morality and the motivational problem of the pandemic

In addition to the economic and health issues related to the pandemic, there is a third aspect that is different in nature. I am referring to what I call the motivational problem of the crisis, which has to do with individuals’ behaviour and its management to reduce contagion.

States have developed, as we know, measures to control mobility through different punitive means: physical and digital surveillance, establishment of fines and permits, etc. These policies, though effective when tracking systems are well designed, do not address, however, the inevitable truth about human behaviour: people are free to disobey, and many times they do out of economic necessity or personal reasons. In response to this reality, governments and civil societies have developed a moral grammar to manage motivation for the benefit of public health, which, in my view, can be as influential as other more tangible factors in terms of behavioural change.

We can analyse such grammar by following Julian Le Grand’s description of agents in public policy. In his 2003 book ‘Motivation, agency, and public policy’, Le Grand famously proposed that policy instruments and the public discourse often assume several types of human motivations. In this formulation, people behave as knights, when mobilised by altruism and virtue; as knaves, when pushed by their own self-interest; as pawns, when being passive agents, or; as queens, that is, as active and determinant participants in the ‘game’. I argue that it is possible to make sense of the moral aspects of the crisis based on those categories.

Queens, knaves, knights and pawns: making sense of actors in the crisis

Governments have implicitly recurred to these characterisations to justify and legitimise their policies. The queen, that is, the most important actor in the crisis, has arguably been the public sector, which has taken a coordinative and planning role that resembles that of socialist or war economies. Despite being responsible for the most important decisions, for instance about the extension and timing of the lockdowns, in some cases decision-makers have blamed citizens, their hedonism or lack of discipline for the size of the outbreaks, as the current British government has done. Apart from disobedient individuals, other knaves have been related to political or economic self-interest, pointing to leaders that have tried to take advantage of the pandemic, or companies that have expanded their market power on the back of it. The narrative of the knave has certainly been more compelling for developing tighter population controls than for regulating economic and political interests.

Whereas the distinction between queens and knaves has revolved around the tension between public and private interest, the representation of knights and pawns has had a more positive tone. Different types of legitimately earned benefits have been associated with these as well. The ‘heroes’ of the pandemic – frontline workers, from doctors to care workers – have received the gratitude from civil society, and the discursive support of the government. The private sector has also implemented measures to privilege such workers, for example offering them discounts or exclusive services. The idea has been to explicitly give them motivation and recognition.

The pawns, on the other side, have been the victims of the pandemic, the vulnerable groups that are at the mercy of its spread in an economic or medical sense. The idea that both knights and pawns must be protected seem to enjoy a broad consensus everywhere. An important part of the demands made to governments from society has been precisely related to the lack of protection that medical personnel, delivery workers or the unemployed may have to face in the current scenario.

The representation of agents as knights, knaves, pawns and queens is a useful mental map to make sense of actors’ motivations, and their sense of what is good and bad in the pandemic. It also indicates, furthermore, that some intermediate positions – such as that of workers that must leave their homes to maintain their households – are difficult to evaluate, and therefore difficult to frame from a policy-making perspective, given that they are victims and self-interested actors at the same time.

In conclusion, moral arguments have largely rested on different categories of human behaviour. They have served not only to justify measures, but also to blame certain actors for the catastrophic consequences of the pandemic. The consistency of such arguments, and their correspondence with government’s actions, seem to be a crucial condition to motivate people to follow the new rules of social life.


Vicente Silva is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He is on twitter @vicentesilvap