Section Twelve: Social Contract

Social Contract

The Preamble to the US Constitution begins with the words, “We the people…”  This signaled that the new republic would be based on asocial contract among its citizens and between them and their government.  Here, the founders were following John Locke, who, along with Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, used social contract as a political metaphor.  In law, a contract is an exchange of promises.  It is entered into freely, consists in a fair exchange of goods and performances, and provides for redress when violated.  To imagine society as a contract is to make concrete the notion of human being’s political and moral competence.  He or she is able to make promises, to fulfill them, and to function responsibly as a member of society and as a citizen of the state.  In other words, the human being is qualified for democracy.  A social contract, in turn, extends the reach of the social animal beyond the intimacy of family, clan and tribe.  With it, the human being emerges as a responsible participant on the public stage.

With contract as our model, however, we tend to reduce social relationships to policies, rules and performances.  We become moral legalists and it is, perhaps, no accident that Americans have a habit of mixing ethics and law.  Generalized as social contract, it is all too easy to ignore feelings, motivations, and history, and to limit relationships in the public arena to exchanges of one kind or another.  “The business of America is business.” said President Coolidge.  But, give and get is not a sufficient picture of democratic society and surely not of democratic culture.

We have moral impulses like love, care, empathy, cooperation, friendliness, etc.  We are creatures of conscience and judgment.  Moreover, an exchange of goods and services leaves little space for altruism, i.e. service to others without hope or desire of return.  In short, a social contract almost begs for a “market” society.  It is no accident that Adam Smith, the philosopher of laissez-faire economics called his discipline “political economy.”  Its moral center is “self-interest” even if we try for “enlightened self-interest.”  This becomes clear when we compare a contract society with a family or a friendship.  Parents, for example, meet the needs of their children whether rewarded or not.  We retain membership – identity, history, connection – even if we are one of the proverbial “black sheep.”  Only for the most traumatic of reasons may a family member be disowned.  Religious history provides the example – e.g. an offense against the gods warrants expulsion.  Friends help each other without demanding an exchange of goods, e.g. a friend in trouble is helped and need not promise to help in return.

Defenders of a contract society answer that family and friendship and the like are private and intimate, are communal.  Society, on the other hand, is an open and public arena.  Politics is its method and government is its agent.  Its relationships are not familial nor should they be.  For example, when government is conducted among friends and family members, you get “cronyism,” moral corruptions, and inefficiency to boot.  A contract society thus draws a line between the public and the private.  Before dwelling on its problems, we need to be reminded that this distinction was and is a significant historic achievement.  It provides a protected space for all citizens.  Thus, the First Amendment sets up protections for belief, opinion, and association.  The Fifth Amendment protects against arbitrary power.  In short, the Bill of Rights spells out the philosophic ground for limited as against totalitarian government.

At the same time, this public/private separation exposes a second hidden problem of a contract society.  It weakens and overpowers community, limiting spaces for particular and uniquely shared values and traditions, e.g. ethnic communities, religious associations, and the like.  Since a contract society invites individualism, commitment to the public good becomes problematic.  Contracting parties rightly act in their own interest.  In fact, with the emergence of lobbying, we now talk of American politics as “interest-group politics.”  So, a contract society has little to hold it together when the exchange of goods fails.  In fact, a society ought to dissolve if it doesn’t fulfill the promises of the social contract.  Furthermore, revolution is inevitable is society habitually and not just occasionally breaks it s promises.  Recall Mr. Jefferson’s complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence.  The American Revolution, in the eyes of the “founding fathers,” was a precise example of contractual failure and its consequences.

Of course, a social contract is a deliberately simplified picture of human relationships.  It is a useful, perhaps even a necessary, democratic fiction.  In experience, there is no sharp boundary between the public and the private.  We are loyal to the nation, identify with it and its symbols like a flag or an anthem.  Loyalty is intimate and public at the same time, a feeling and an idea.  We feel connections with others and act on those feelings when they have needs or get into trouble.  We care for strangers and not just for those who are expected to reciprocate.  We risk our lives.  Think of the soldier in wartime, the doctor in an epidemic, etc.  In short, we are not just interest-driven, not just creatures of ego.  We are American, democrats, Humanists, members of a family, or what have you.  We are both cultural and societal beings.

With these thoughts in mind, we recognize that Humanists have, by and large, neglected the problem of democratic culture as they have the problem of a Humanist community.  We have been more legalistic than cultural, our focus on legal rights for example.  We have used the rhetoric of community but more often than not only as a synonym for society.  At the same time, we have spoken of democracy as a way of living and as way of valuing.  Thus, rhetorically at least, Humanists have understood that the legalism of a social contract is inadequate to catch the meaning of democracy.  So, in the final three modules we will look at religion, science, and education, three standard items on the Humanist agenda.  They seem to be methods of social development and of cultural reflection and so they suggest pathways to a Humanist culture.

Reflection: We have called the “social contract” a metaphor or even a fiction.  Is this an accurate description?  Why, why not?  Clue: as the citizen of a democratic state and member of a democratic society, have you ever read or signed the social contract?

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