A Note on Social Contract Theory
26 August 2009
Social contract theory is a major branch of contemporary political philosophy that traces its roots primarily to Hobbes and Rousseau. The basic idea of social contract theory is that legitimate political authority is derived from the consent of individuals who assent to a contract that delivers them from the hazards of a “state of nature” into a state of civil government. It’s a quid pro quo: you give something (liberty) to get something (security).
Contemporary political philosophy is dominated by the work of John Rawls, who is accounted something of a social contractarian, so social contract theory must be considered relevant today. A confession: I personally don’t get the fascination with Rawls. I don’t find his writings to be philosophically very interesting; nevertheless, his contemporary influence is the philosophical “ground truth” and we have to start with the facts on the ground. Also, social contract theory, like any part of philosophy, is not without its critics, some of them bitterly opposed to the very idea of a social contract.
What is a “state of nature”? Hobbes famously described life in the state of nature as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” We can get a pretty clear idea of the state of nature from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, where Freud describes man without the curbs imposed upon him by civilization:
…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.
Freud is such a great writer that it is hard not to quote him at length. I could easily have transcribed more of this passage. Here, Freud really nails it.
That we find these closely related ideas in Hobbes and Freud should alert us to the fact that this topic can be treated in terms of political theory or natural science. Freud was not making recommendations for constitutional reform, and Hobbes was not suggesting that disappointed members of the body politic should receive therapy in order to reconcile themselves to their condition.
Social contract theory has been typically formulated so as to emphasize that those who enter into the social contract surrender their rights and liberties in exchange for security and survival. Hobbes in particular produces some disconcerting formulations that make the contemporary reader squirm. It is almost as if these social contractarians were seeking demonstrate their doctrine through the method of isolation, starkly setting life alone, stripped of its freedoms, and asking us the forced question of whether we would take such a life, humbled to be sure though enjoying safety and security, or risk our lives and the lives of our families to the sort of conditions that Freud described.
Hobbes assumes that we are risk averse, and it has been suggested that Rawl’s contemporary formulation of social contract theory assumes that if we could choose a society from behind a “veil of ignorance” about our position in that society, we would inevitably be risk averse and choose the safest option. This is a weakness of the theory, though I do not think that it is a fatal weakness. Many men are risk takers and would gladly join the fray of the state of nature, but once a man has a family and a position in the world he would not be so ready to risk it all, and he would not likely throw his children into the fray as readily as he would commit himself.
Keeping both Hobbes and Freud in mind, let us ask another question of social contract theory. If we surrender our absolute rights of the state of nature for no rights or abridged rights within a social community for the sake of survival, what then is it that survives? What is a social contract intended to preserve?
I don’t think that Hobbes would have thought in these terms, but it could be said that the social contract is nothing less than a mechanism to assure the survival of the species. Under some circumstances this could be an entirely legitimate concern. In the film adaptation of Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers we are shown a nearly fascist society that has been entirely organized for war (a future Sparta, as it were) so as to preserve the human species from alien attack. One of the central characters, Carl, proclaims:
We’re in this for the species, boys
and girls. It’s simple numbers, they
have more, and every day I have to
make decisions that send hundreds of
people like you to their deaths.
However, under the sort of circumstances we have encountered to date in our history, the human species is not seriously under threat from the state of nature, so that a social contract instituted for the survival of a species, while potentially a valid exercise, is a matter for speculation and not for action.
One might plausibly maintain that the social contract is instituted to secure the survival of the state. Now, in its simplest form this simply won’t work, because the state is in fact the product of a social contract. So we would have to say that the social contract creates a state, and once seeing that the state is good, determines that the highest good is to maintain this state in existence. While my formulation is a bit awkward, it is not difficult to imagine that one could give the idea a formulation that would make it seem a bit more plausible.
But not necessarily so. The survival of the state, the goal of what is often called the reason of state (Staatsräson, raison d’état) or the national interest, is an appeal to the security and survival of the community, so that in any such community so defended the individuals have surrendered their rights and liberties not for their own security and survival but for the security and survival of the community putatively established for the security and survival of individuals — a vicious circle in which the individual must always lose. I can imagine a credulous communitarian swallowing this, but it won’t convince many others.
Suppose we then settle on the obvious and say that what survives by the guarantee provided by the social contract is the individual who relinquishes his rights and assents to be a part of the community. There certainly are a great many situations in ordinary life in which we can imagine that men would strike such a deal. In fact, civil communities are now pervasive throughout the world, so much so that most contemporary men would feel lost without a civilization to give his life meaning and direction.
While striking the deal of individual freedom for individual safety is understandable, there is an important sense in which we have to ask whether the individual as such really does survive under these conditions.
What is the individual life? If life is intrinsically the kind of exercise of absolute freedom that Freud described (including the possibility of suffering the same fate oneself), then life in civil society, after signing on the dotted line of the social contract, is life so transformed as to be unrecognizable. If one could ask a Viking if he would give up his life of raiding and plundering defenseless coastal communities so that he might become like the people he had been, to date, killing and robbing, he would probably take offense at the very idea of it.
For the authentic nomad, hunter-gatherer, raider, plunderer, noble or ignoble savage, the life of absolute freedom — the life of the state of nature — is the only life in which honor and achievement are possible. To assent to a social contract would be to so eviscerate life that life would no longer we worth living. In other words, that the one thing that the social contract offers, physical safety for the individual, would not be worth having. Would a berserker sign a social contract? I think not.
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