When in the Course of Human Events…

There is no “social contract.”

The Declaration of Independence let King George know that the patriarchs of our Republic just were no longer that into him. The contract the Monarch believed was operable was declared null and void by those it excluded.

Even its postulators admit it’s a construct. But it is even more of a fiction, and a dastardly one at that, than believers hope. The idea is that we all participate in some sort of “gentleman’s agreement” (and the gender is hardly coincidental) through which we agree to certain rules and roles and a system of getting along as self-interested individuals that have to do just that.

This is not out of any Noblesse oblige but out of rational self-interest. If I am a wild-arm-swinger I can swing away, so far as my swinging does not knock you in the nose. And so forth. Otherwise we would all have bloody noses and bloody knuckles and the essential good of commerce could not commence and woe to all, in tooth and claw.

To get to the social contract, one must do that funny little dance that is philosophy, a skip or two away from where the pedestrian walks, as notably expressed by that erudite egalitarian John Rawls, summed up here in the equally accessible “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,”

“The original position is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice.”

Of course, some people are not rational – neither “fair” nor “impartial” and thus not able to sit at this table in such an exalted, yet-equitably-minded perch, in this “original position.” For some reason they are deficient, and membership, by necessity, must be limited to those only who participate in “good faith.”

Women, enslaved humans, and original inhabitants all stayed home when the Founding Fathers worked out just how this whole equality thing would work.

Who decides what is “good faith,” you might ask? But of course it must be the reasonable, fair and impartial members of the social contract. It is a self-selecting membership, and it decides the parameters of what is, and is not, allowed. Not too different, I suppose, than the clubs where Stanford philosophy students and professors like to sit around and chew the fat.

Anyhow… The social contract is fundamentally elitist. It is founded on the notion of participating individuals that must only act in “rational self-interest” even when veiled behind various devices meant to cloud that fact. And therein lies the rub, that no device can cloak, that power protects itself. There is no impartial stance, however cleverly conceived.

There is no “social contract.” And demanding that those who have been excluded even from its pretense behave according to its precepts is a fool’s errand. And a selfish fool at that. At some point those not part of the game of splitting up social goods, are going to say F— your contract, and choose to alter or abolish it.

5 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. kwtree says:

    Not sure what you’re advocating for, other than to stop chiding folks who have no faith in the system and refuse to work within it. If you’re really saying that working within the democratic process is futile, I’m not with you on this. 

    I think of writers and freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass and Susan B Anthony, John Trudeau, Winona La Duke, Corky Gonzalez, who would emphatically agree with you that they were excluded from the social contract, questioned its validity, yet spent decades not only organizing outside the system with occupying and marching and civil disobedience, but also worked in coalitions on small reforms and slowly bending the arc of justice. 
     

    I think that’s how it should be. We need to work inside and outside the system. Long term change should be organic and authentic. Mistakes will be made, and learned from.

     I appreciate your  opening a dialogue on this at a time when we’re talking revolution without talking revolution.

  2. PKolbenschlag says:

    There is no proxy for "consent of the govern" as much as those who benefit from the "ungovernable" being excluded from that metric may wish otherwise. 

  3. Duke Cox says:

    As George Floyd is laid to rest beside his mother today, your topic IS front and center, Pete. Your piece is evocative and well put together. Your point that society will only tolerate so much is also true. But I think it needs to be pointed out that both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King emphasized the link between economic inequity and racial oppression.

    You know from personal experience how the influence of profit perverts that "fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice." (Congrats on that SLAPP deal, by the way).

    Ultimately, the economic oppression must end before any real sustainable change can be made in the treatment of those who do not have a voice in that dialogue. It was the purpose of the Constitution and our system of elections to provide each citizen with a voice, a seat at the table of justice…as long as that citizen was a white, male, landowner. We have come a very long way, but Wall St., K St., and the billionaire ruling class, is very, very white. Until that changes…little else will.

     

     

     

    • JohnInDenver says:

      The process of change is exceedingly slow for the majority of time … and then, a crack opens and the pace of change picks up a bit. 

      Too many “firsts” have happened without immediate follow-up.  Chasing down some evidence against someone’s claim that “nothing has changed” since 1968, I found a few of those firsts: 

      • In 1987, Dr. Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. became Chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF — distinguishing him as the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
      • July 1, 2009, Ursula Burns became the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company.
      • one source I saw said in 2019, there were only 4 among the 500 companies

      In better news,

      • “In 1964, the black high school completion rate was 53% that of the white rate. By 2012, it was 93% that of the white rate.”
      • Black voter turnout has risen considerably since 1963, closing the gap with whites (and in 2012, surpassing it).
      • When I was born, there were 3 members of the House or Senate who identified as Black.  Now, there are 57. 

      Grinding, slow change … but over time, it has added up.

  4. Diogenesdemar says:

    When in the course of human events was America’s social contract ever unbroken? How many social contracts (treaties) were written with “sovereign nation” tribes of native Americans? . . .

    The social contract has always been a social-control contract; a tool wielded by the powerful to maintain their power. 

    No contract would ever be needed when both parties act in good faith, decently and humanely, and are trustworthy.  The initiation of a contract presupposes that one of the parties is not trustworthy, and will not act appropriately.  (Anyone remember, in the book of Two Corinthians I think, who was it that preached that late, great “Contract on The Mount”? . . .)

    It’s not unlike today’s private mediation clauses, written by corporate attorneys, in your credit agreements — “You agree to pay whatever we want, whenever we want, or we’ll use the legal system to sue you and garnish your income and financially harm you.  When we screw you, cheat you, and do you harm, we’ll permit you to talk with one of our hired-gun buddies for a few minutes.”  Sign here _____

    As far as I can tell, our social contract, as practiced, has always been, “We got ours, you and yours can go pound sand”?

     

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