In which I seek to validate my possession of that rarified yet relatively useless to many individuals item that once was held up as a worthwhile goal, a BS in Philosophy. Like the gothic novelist of old, my tale is not one that comes born fully formed and functional. Rather it began as a mewling infant, struggling to breathe in the pollution of modern sound bites and anti-intellectualism. The culture it grew from revolved around and valued ease over intellectual enquiry, the soft read over the hard. But it flourished, nourished on fictional stories that played the role of philosophical mind puzzles, running the gauntlet of dismissive scoffing and mansplaining. So shedding the cloak of casual pop culture, I shall try to reveal why the easy read is not always the correct one, and why actually attempting to look past a Wikipedia entry to the deeper understanding serves not only the individual but humanity.
What set me off on this challenging quest? A friend dismissed the term “The Social Contract” because to them it was a non-existent thing that was used to basically excuse the shift of power from one individual group to another. And was discussed “as if it’s a real thing”. They did not know they were jumping on one of my personal sacred cows. But the cow has been jumped on So I must speak out.
I could have tried this on facebook, but No this is too big for a mere facebook post. I need the space to explain why “The Social Contract” is a real thing if an abstract concept.
Abstract Concepts are real things. Just because something is an intellectual idea does not mean it is not real. It also does not mean that it does not have the power to drastically alter our world. This particular idea has influenced society from the beginning of human co-existance. Like many things, it is ever evolving. Changing, morphing, (for good or bad) from one society or era to the next.
But abstract ideas have no power, no worth in society. Wait, lets think about that. You are saying that race has no power. Gender has no power. Capitalism, no power. Communism, no power? All of these things are at their core, abstractions, mere concepts. Concepts that are playing out in real time around us. Most political and religious ideologies are abstract concepts that have serious power given to them.
The Social Contract is core to most of them. Yet it was dismissed as unreal. That is dangerous in my mind. So to correct this, I am going to spend a this post discussing how I personally define it, and why it is important.
The actual term social contract came about in philosophical dialog around the time of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right combined with his novel Emile, or On Education. The fact that a novel is used in concert to examine this concept does not surprise me. We use fiction to try and explain what is beyond easy understanding. Most works of modern science fiction that deal with the cultural change can also be linked back to the exploration of the Social contract as well.
What Rousseau dealt with in political examination he also dealt with the nature of being a good person within society. Questioning why we do or don’t do something, he went beyond an external morality imposed by religion to the underlying reason to do the “right thing”. And why this was important. The end result was to exist. He believed that unless we understood the social contract the human species would exterminate itself.
Stop. Let’s take a moment to absorb this.
The Social Contract is an abstract concept. In which we discover means to coexist without self-extinction. Sounds pretty important to me, and pretty real.
Let us go on to the application of this Abstract Concept.
Though Rousseau defined it, the concept was at the core of much of the political theories that led to the American and French Revolution. A hundred years later it was still at the center of Hegel’s work or Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance. Pretty powerful for something that is “not real”.
And it is a concept that is being dismissed and ignored now by some actors on our national political stage. When they dismiss the rights of one sector of society due to their personal religious views, when they ignore the rights of others to establish personal goals (financial or political), they deny the social contract. And the Contract does change. In the past, it was based off religion, and we ended up with heretical burning, and wars of religion. In more recent history (say the American Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution) it was placed more within the rule of law.
Now laws change as society evolves. Women and individuals of non-anglo European ethnic backgrounds became recognized as human beings vs legal chattel in the United States of America during the 20th century. A massive change in the Social Contract that is still having implications as the shift of power means that anglo-European males have to consider the personal desires of these individuals in their dealings with them. Think of how our Social Contract with third world countries has changed from Empire building and Colonization to establishing Trade Pact and Globalization. We are still evolving. I don’t know where we will end up a thousand, a hundred or twenty years from now but I do know that the idea of The Social Contract is one that we as a planet should be thinking of on this process of evolution.
As a Society, we are still defining The Social Contract. Our agreement in the best ways to co-exist in a pluralistic world of limited resources. Pretty important and a very Real thing to address and still as important now as it was 250 years ago.
((On a side note, I ETS is being sent off to the final beta readers one chapter at a time…))