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Friday, January 16, 2004

The Social Contract

The idea behind the social contract is that all interactions between humans are governed by implicit agreement. The proper moral way to treat other people is the way they would rationally agree to be treated, and the moral way to structure society is the way the members of that society would agree to be ruled. Morality and the good society are based on reciprocation between individuals and between citizens and society. In the realm of personal morality, this takes form as the Golden Rule, expressed by Jesus as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” by Confucius as, “Treat other people the way you yourself would want to be treated,” and by Immanuel Kant as the Categorical Imperative, “Always treat other persons as ends, and never as means. / Always act in a manner that you would want to be the universal rule in similar circumstances.”
In the realm of political philosophy, this would appear at first, at least to citizens of the 21st century, to require democracy. After all, is not the easiest way to find out how people would want to be governed simply to ask them? But it turns out that doing what people actually want is less important than the concept of reciprocity. The advantages of rulership are justified by the benefits conferred upon the ruled. Thomas Hobbes, credited in the West for originating the concept of the social contract, used it justify an authoritarian state: The conditions of anarchy and chaos are so terrible that rulers need to be given the absolute power necessary to impose order. But the concept of basing society on reciprocal obligations is much older. In addition to the idea of divine (natural) right, feudal society was also justified by oath, obligation, and reciprocity. The lord agreed to fight for the king, and the king granted land to the lord. The serfs agreed to work for the lord, and the lord agreed to protect the serfs. (From, presumably, the lords of other kings who might take the land and make the serfs work for them instead.) The social theories of Confucius also appear based on such reciprocity. Wives were to obey their husbands, and in return husbands were to provide for their wives. Men obeyed the emperor, and in return the emperor protected men and their families.
(Without democracies, it is difficult to tell the difference between the Mafia and a “social contract” government: They both earn their way from a protection racket.)
It should also be noted that democracy can be justified by either natural rights or utilitarianism. Some might argue that citizens have a natural right to have their opinions count equally in the governance of their society. A utilitarian can argue for democracy based on the limited knowledge of the rulers. The goal of the utilitarian is to do the greatest good for the greatest number. An elite ruling class, no matter how well educated, may be too detached from the general population and too biased by their own interests to make decisions that will best increase the happiness of all. If individuals have the most accurate knowledge of what will make them happy, the best way to find out what will make the majority happy is to ask them. Or if all rulers can be counted on to make decisions that favor their own best interests first, then the best way to make sure that the interests of the greatest number will be served is to allow the greatest number to rule.
So the social contract does not lead automatically to democracy, and democracy can be justified without reference to the social contract. Still, the intuitions of 21st century citizens are more logical than cultural. The rise of explicit social contract theory coincided with the rise of democracy, most social contract theorists have been democrats, and the language of democracy is enmeshed with the language of the social contract, such as in, “...governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed,” “...of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and the “New Deal.” Democracy and social contract theory may not be necessary for one another, but they are a well-matched pair.
Social contract theorists, beginning with Hobbes, have justified the social contract with reference to the “state of nature”. Roughly, the state of nature is the state of being that humans are in, or would be in, without laws or civilization. Rawls, who rejected the state of nature, called it the “no agreement point”. Hobbes, who originate the concept, thought it would be a war of all against all, and life would be, “nasty, brutish, and short”. Later thinker were more optimistic about how humans would behave without coercive authority. Still, the state of nature was used to explain why citizens were obligated to follow the dictates of their society. Citizens formed civil society in order to avoid the evils of a state of nature, however bad those evils might be.
The latest philosopher to join the cannon of social contract theorists is John Rawls. Unlike many of the earlier theorists, Rawls seems to take the existence of civil society as a given. Although Rawls is dismissive of Hobbes early in his now classic work, A Theory of Justice(ToJ), to the extent that he actually spends time justifying the need for laws and government, he seems to accept Hobbes’ account, as modified by modern game theory. Not only does coercive authority prevent murder, theft, tax evasion, insider trading, and rape, but the lack of coercive authority actually encourages such antisocial behaviors. Without coercive enforcement of prohibitions against antisocial behavior, individuals may assume that their neighbors are not paying their taxes. Suspecting that this probably the case, it seems unfair to be sucker who actually does pay taxes, because the payer is bearing the whole cost of benefits received by all, including the neighbor who refuses to pay. In fact, the payer likely has to pay more to shoulder the burden of those who do not pay. Worse, the reasonableness of this line of thinking means that even neighbors who are not antisocial, but are merely rationally concerned with fairness to themselves, will likely not pay either, leading to an even heavier burden on the few suckers who do pay, and making it even less reasonable to be one of those suckers. The introduction of coercive authority changes this equation. Although their may still be a few people who do not pay and get away with it, the fear of getting caught will deter even most antisocial types from not paying. Since even most antisocial types will pay, those who are not antisocial but merely rationally concerned with fairness to themselves will not think of themselves as suckers for paying and will therefor not be discouraged from paying.
Rawls’ main concern was with providing a method and rules for how draw up blueprints for the institutions of a just society. He called his theory “Justice as Fairness,” and described a moral way to structure the basic institutions of society according to the dictates of fairness. His epistemology of morality was called “reflexive equilibrium.” To summarize, you take a general look at the various things you believe to be morally true. You then develop basic principles that support as many of your intuitions as possible. You then look at situations where the principles you developed lead to conclusions counter to your intuitions. You then make a choice about whether to change your conclusions to fit your principles, or to change your principles to support conclusions you can live with. Changing your conclusions will probably require you to update your principles in light of the new set of conclusions. Changing your principles will probably require you to update your conclusions in light of the new principles. As you move back and forth between your principles and conclusions, each new round of updates should (hopefully) require fewer and more narrow alterations as you move from supporting your deepest convictions and outlining your basic principles to fine-tuning the syllogistic relationship between them. The goal is to eventually reach a point where few or no further alterations are required on either side. It is at this point of logical coherence that your moral philosophy is said to have reached reflexive equilibrium.
Rawls’ own reflexive equilibrium lead him (at the time ToJ was published) to advocate for a society that would fulfill the Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative by way of an elaborate thought experiment. He proposed a new “no agreement point” called the “original position”. A better description might be the “pre-agreement point”. Unlike the state of nature, which is where people end up if they fail to create a social contract, the original position exists for the sole purpose of negotiating the contract. To enter the original position, members of society must step outside of themselves, their society, and their time. They are draped with a veil of ignorance that conceals from them who they are. They not only do not know their names, they do not know their social position, wealth, talents, or interests. They do not even know when they will be born. In fact, they are not even actual people. Rawls does not envision the deliberators to be real people with limited life spans, but rather they are out-of-time representative heads of continuing families. Nor are they allowed, at least at the first stage, specific knowledge about what kind of social positions exist, or can exist, in their society. Rather, they are given general knowledge about human nature, the sorts of things that people desire, what the world is like, and how societies generally tend to develop. The goal at this first stage is not to actually design their society, but to agree on the principles that will guide them when they do create their society. Rawls then proceeds to argue for the principles that he believes would be chosen by the deliberators in the original position. He believes that the deliberators would agree on two principles of justice. Essentially, these are Liberty and Equality, in that order. As is typical for philosophers, what he means by these principles and their order can be fairly complex, and the specifics will be dissected and weighed later in this treatise.
What is most relevant at this stage of the inquiry is not the desirability or workability of particular conceptions of society, but the legitimacy of their foundations. And it can not be denied that the case for the existence of a binding social contract is exceptionally weak.
Humans never existed in a state of nature. Multi-family tribes with hierarchical chains of authority that violently enforce social norms that vary from tribe to tribe can be found among gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and other simian primates. They likely existed among our ancestors long before our ancestors could reasonably be called “human”. Nor is their any empirical evidence that would support the possibility of humans ever reverting to life in a state in which humans have never before existed.
The original position never existed. Rawls never claimed it did, it was entirely a thought experiment. Nor is it an honest experiment. Rather, through reflexive equilibrium, the parameters of the experiment are intentionally designed to produced the result desired. Consider Rawls viewing the deliberators not as actual people, but as out-of-time representative heads of continuing families. This is because Rawls has deep intuitions shared by most for the need for inter-generational fairness in savings rates. But when he can not figure out why folks in the original position would adopt such a principle of inter-generational fairness, Rawls abandons basing logical argument on empirically verifiable factual assertions, he imagines avatars of immortal spirits of collectives who would reach the conclusion for which he has no other support.
Most importantly, for a contract to be binding, it must have been freely agreed to. No such contract has ever been agreed to by all members of a society. When did you agree to be bound by the rules of society? Was it in writing? Many of the founding documents of the United States are written as if they are binding contracts. But they are not. All of these signers of the documents are now dead. Are we the living bound by the agreements of our ancestors? The male ones? Even if none of these people were not our ancestors specifically, but rather the elected representatives of our ancestors? Even if our specific ancestors could not vote in these elections because he owned no land? Or was held as a slave by the people making agreements with each other?
As a moral system, the Golden Rule has a lot going for it. It suits our intuitions about what is right and what it wrong without being inflexible or overly demanding. We want others to respect our rights, but we can be forgiving in emergency situations that might compel us to violate their rights. We want others to not harm us, and to do us courtesies and small favors from time to time and maybe more if we are in dire circumstances, but we do not expect others to spend all their time helping us, nor do we expect the more industrious to give us everything they do not require for subsidence. As a foundation for a political system, the Social Contract is also very attractive. The language of Social Contract is lift directly out of a market economy and infuses the day to day talk of democracy. Social Contract also seems to intuitively provide a greater basis for peaceful resolution of conflict between adherents. If you believe property rights are naturally communal, and I believe my right to my private property is natural, and we fail to convince each other otherwise, what else can we do but fight to defend our rights? If you are convinced that communism would make the world happiest, and I am convinced capitalism would make the world happiest, and we fail to convince each other otherwise, violent conflict between us seems not only justified, but demanded by utilitarianism. Yet if you believe that communism would be the best way for people to treat each other and agree to live, and I believe the same about capitalism, the Golden Rule and the idea of society as an agreement would seem to compel us to negotiate a compromise.
Yet even if the morality of an action is dependent on its actual or expected consequences, the truth of a belief is independent of its consequences. Skeptics should ask social contract theorists why they should be bound by contracts to which they did not agree. If the social contract theorist claims there was an agreement, but it was not in writing, the skeptics should point out that such contracts are not worth the paper on which they are written.

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