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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