Posts Tagged 'philosophy'

At The Crossroads: About The Social Contract

The social contract is generally understood to mean the arrangements people agree to, either explicitly or tacitly, to exchange absolute freedom for security. As part of the grand bargain, duties are levied along with the rights granted to individuals. In Western societies the social contract revolves about the writings of the 17th- and 18th-century philosophers Hume, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. In general, the writers cited centered their definitions of political authority around God, natural rights and a government constituted of either a monarchical or parliamentary nature. Hobbes thought men must consent to be governed, Rousseau believed in self-rule and Locke believed in “natural rights” granted by God. The Declaration of Independence of the United States owes much to Locke. While it is true that the structure of what is taken to be the contemporary social contract is generally derived from the writings of those philosophers, the historical discussion does not end there. Like everything else, there is much more to the matter than meets the eye or the standard definitions.

The origins of the social contract lie well beyond recorded history and long before hominids walking upright were a novelty. In fact eusociality, the “true social condition,” is found in insects such as ants and termites, whose origins can be traced to 100 million years ago. The term “eusociality,” as used in theories of social evolution, describes cooperative brood care, overlapping social generations and division of labor within groups. From the starting point of eusociality our human ancestors evolved physically and socially and enlarged upon the three basic requirements.

Cooperative child care and overlapping social generations yielded a continuity of shared experience; division of labor enabled males of the species to hunt and forage. This new phase was inaugurated likely by A. afarensis, the first hominid believed to have walked upright, three million years ago. The new posture meant looking for food and watching for predators became easier, and life on the planet was, in a manner of speaking, looking up. Primitive though it was, a social mechanism was being created and defined as, in the words of Robert Ardrey, “ … a group of unequal beings organized to meet common needs.” These simple arrangements continually evolved over millennia, becoming more and more complex to achieve the social structures we inhabit today; the social contract expanded beyond survival to global domination by the species Homo sapiens.

The social structures of bands, tribes, camps, villages, towns, cities and, eventually, nations followed those simple earlier footsteps in an evolutionary process known as complexification. One step at a time, human  consciousness evolved from immediate family to the planet in that continuing process, moving in relatively short order from simple kinship campsites to the complexity of the United Nations. As Edward O. Wilson put it, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology.”

I will dare say that if asked today whether or not they are a part of a social contract most respondents would be perplexed, it never having occurred to them that such exists. Because we are continually immersed in our social contract we fail to notice or be aware of the fact that there is one and that we are bound to it. It is like fish not being aware of the water around them – it is simply there. In spite of its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, the social contract has been the focus of much writing and thought by biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and many others for a very long time.

Following his trial in 399 BC, Socrates’ taking of poison and the discourse leading to that exercise is an example of an early social contract (which act became a subject of discussion for philosophers ever after). Accused of corrupting youth with his teaching and questioning and impiety by failing to acknowledge established Gods and introducing a few of his own design, Socrates exchanged his life for his belief in a social contract in which he believed he was free to question established beliefs but ultimately wasn’t. It was the same grand bargain, the exchange we all make regarding absolute freedom, even if not at such a price, to live in society. It is important to recognize that it was his belief in that Athenian social contract that led Socrates to act as he did.

In China during the reign of Zu Jia (1177-1158 BCE) questions about successful harvests, successful military campaigns, and even about the weather were believed to be revealed by reading cracks in heated turtle shells. Such archaic beliefs have been abandoned only to be replaced by others and those varying from culture to culture. Modern societies have their own versions of baked turtle shells to believe in. Robert N. Bellah put it well: “In an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us.” Ultimately, all social contracts rest on a centuries old foundation of belief and that is a matter to be pursued as this series of essays proceeds. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, “… it’s beliefs all the way down.”

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Civil Society at a Crossroads—Truth and Justice

 I have always believed truth to be the basis of justice, for how can you have justice without truth? So far so good perhaps, but then the questions inevitably arise—which truth, whose truth? There are at least 11 theories of truth, plus a few including mathematical truth. Just for the sake of illustrating the difficulty of defining truth, the major theories are: Correspondence, Coherence, Constructivist, Consensus, Pragmatic or Minimalist, Deflationary, Performative, Redundancy, Disquotational, Pluralist and Semantic. There are others as well, but these are the biggies. You could spend a lot of time working your way through these ideas and still, in my opinion, not come up with a better everyday working definition than “conforming to reality.” As Aquinas said: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to reality.”  This is the definition I would suppose and hope parents teach their children.

I’ve put the following question to lawyers: “Is it winning or justice you seek in court?” So far I haven’t received a take-away answer. This leads me to believe we are dealing with a conundrum, a question for which I had naively expected there would be a ready or, at the least, facile answer. After all lawyers are professionals who appear before judges and juries to represent … what? Are lawyers merely hired guns who do or say whatever it takes to win their case? If so, what does this say about the very idea of justice? How does the society arrive at justice if everyone is telling a truth designed to serve their own purposes? How can a society believe in justice when there is no truth serving justice? From the most primitive to the most sophisticated societies, social contracts are underwritten by truth and justice. These are the foundation stones of the social contract. Consequently, when the contest is between winning and justice, the ultimate victim is the social contract.

In addition to the many truths posited, philosophers also argue there are many realities. Obviously, this makes getting to an absolute truth even more of a crap-shoot. If that doesn’t make for a shaky social contract what does? We have my truth, your truth, the Supreme Court’s truth, a billionaire’s truth, a plaintiff’s truth, a defendant’s truth, and of course, an insurance company’s lawyer’s truth. Whoa! “Did you throw a stone through the neighbor’s window?” Yes or No? That’s easy, isn’t it? When a man spends 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, was the prosecutor seeking justice or a conviction? Of course if truth is as fungible as indicated by the lack of one definitive statement of it, that would, I believe, indicate there can be no absolute justice either, could there? So, it would seem then that the multiplicity of these realities gives rise to many possibilities and a great many of them troubling.

If there is no absolute truth and thus no absolute justice, what do we mean when we talk about a just society, a just social contract? What if justice is merely an illusion promoted for purposes of one form of social control or another? What happens when people wake up to the charade? How do they manage? In Central Europe, when the illusion of Communism’s truths dissolved, so too did the social contract, and it is now wearing thin in China. Religion and democracy have the same problem as politics in matching promise to actuality. Consensual truth has led to all manner of belief systems, from religious to social, but when experience didn’t add up to the promise, consensus had a limited life span, as did the social contract. When life as it is lived doesn’t add up to the promise, change is inevitable.

It is said all men are created equal before the law. If you take that statement at face value then you must also believe in the Easter bunny. We all know that in life, as it is lived, not all people are treated equally before the law, but we choose to believe otherwise—we live with the contradiction, indeed we need to live with it. The statement is patently and demonstrably not true but is repeated mantra-like as though it were, and why is that? One reason is that as a society we need it to believe it true—we need to believe it is true because if it isn’t true the believed social contract is on shaky ground.

All societies are built on a foundation of “truths” and beliefs, many of which are illusory. Equal justice is, as we have seen, questionable, so too are equality of economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and others as well. Each illusion serves a particular purpose and polity. Each has its own dynamic, and each needs to be publicly examined and discussed. This I believe; while philosophers chew on these questions the rest of us need workaday answers, otherwise the social contract cannot otherwise function. Illusory or not, ultimately the social contract becomes no longer viable—destroyed by those sworn to uphold it, and those who profit from it in one way or another, but in every case a betrayal of unimaginable proportions.

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