Social Contract Theory: Don't argue with it


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Everyone here has probably heard of social contract theory, and denied its validity, being able to bring up all sorts of arguments against it. "I didn't sign any social contract" I think is a Libertarian Party bumper sticker. The theory is almost always brought up in any discussion of freedom vs. statism. I think Objectivists, libertarians (big L and small l), free market economists and all other advocates of freedom are making a mistake in arguing against the theory itself. This is partly because, in a metaphorical sense, social contract theory is correct.

The fact is that we do choose to live in societies, and in order to gain the many of societies benefits, we as individuals choose to abide by the laws and rules of society. This much is true and almost trivial, and there are a few versions of the social contract theory that go far beyond it, but when we argue against social contract theory, this is what it often sounds like we are denying. We come off sounding like anarchists.

I can just hear you objecting, but social contract theory is used against us all the time. If social contract theory is true, then statism is true. If we agreed to a social contract, then we have given up individualism. If thats what we believe, then we have conceded a premise to them that we don't need to. The fact is that if social contract theory can be used to defend statism, socialism, fascism, whatever, it can be used to defend ANY system of government or social organization.

Social contract theory doesn't say anything about how society should be ordered, or how the government should be set up. All it says is that we should accept it, because we have supposedly already agreed to it. We have signed the contract, but the theory says nothing about the terms of the contract. For all that social contract theorists have to say, that contract could be for socialism, fascism, feudalism, slavery, or, if the society has already been established that way, a limited constitutional republic with laissez-faire capitalism. The theory says only that we should obey the contract, not what's in the contract.

Notice that statists of all kinds, especially in America, keep wanting to amend the contract themselves. In America, they want to change the government to grant more entitlements, outlaw consentual activities, take away liberties and rights that our previous social contract allowed us. The very language of the Left's welfare statism, "The New Deal" implies this. How can there be a new deal if there wasn't an old one? The only time it ever seems to be wrong to amend the contract is when its the advocates of freedom that want to do it, to repeal regulations, secure our rights, and get the government off our back.

And that seems to be the whole point to the social contract, to exclude advocates of freedom from debate about social organization and the political process. If we deny the existence of the social contract, we may as well be excluding ourselves, and unnecessarily. Metaphorically, there IS a social contract. We do accpet that, in order to live in a society, we have to follow certain rules. Ayn Rand never advocated breaking laws. The policy she called for when it came to unjust laws was not anarchy. In fact, she suggested compliance, with advocacy for change. After all, the government has the guns.

We do, in effect, renegotiate the social contract all the time, with elections, petitions to the government, parliamentary processes, debates in our newspaper editorial pages. Why should advocates of freedom be excluded from the process?

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Saul,

It would be a good idea to define a term or two. In particular, what do you mean by social contract? Simply acceptance of government and/or society? Obligations to others? Benefits?

Also (and using the "contract" metaphor), just because the consideration is not fleshed out, this does not mean that the other components are not specified. Here is a small list:

Who are the parties to contract?

How and what is offered/accepted by each? (In general terms)

What is the intended duration?

What is the legally binding format or formalities?

Is there a provision for termination?

This isn't a questionnaire. It's just to get the juices flowing. Without some kind of defined term, there is room for disagreement galore without anyone really knowing what they are disagreeing with.

Michael

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In common law there is your basic contract -- offer, acceptance, agreement, exchange of valid consideration -- but there is something else under the UCC called a "quasi-contract".

A quasi-contract does not need to involve all the elements of contract in order to be enforceable. Rather, it need only be shown that a party has received some benefit in order to place the full burden of specific compliance (read: involuntary servitude) on that party, whether or not he has agreed to any "implied exchange" or "implied duty."

This is touched on by Howard Freeman.

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Michael: Well thats the big problem with social contract theory. All of those terms are either left undefined, and there are so many different versions of the theory that define them in different ways. Each version depends on the political or social status quo.

And all of that is, like I said, a red herring. The social contract theory is basically an argument that restrictions on our freedom are voluntary, that we have already agreed to them, and therefore we shouldn't complain or advocate for change. Living in a society is voluntary. That much we can concede. The terms by which we do so often aren't, but can be changed.

The questions you raise are important ones, especially if you accept the social contract theory. As I said, statists seem to feel free to renegotiate those terms. They have their ideas about what they should be. We should be free to express our own ideas about them.

Maybe I should have put this in the "Objectivism in dark places" section. I'm beginning to have some doubts about accepting the theory, though I am sure of some of my points, that it is a red herring, and that it begs the question.

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I am reminded of a Heinlein short story, in which a future American society actually formalizes sort of a social contract. After a revolution against an American theocracy, a new libertarian society is formed, in which citizens are required to agree to abide by a sort of social contract. Those who refuse are exiled to a penal colony called Coventry.

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we do choose to live in societies ... Living in a society is voluntary.

No child chooses to be born. No one chooses a century. Very few qualify to choose a nationality.

Glad to talk about 'social contract theory,' but it should start from the premise of involuntary, archaic, oppressive institutions.

UCC quasi-contract and implied exchange does not apply to religion or citizenship.

Immanuel Kant was said to be the most adequate social contract theorist, with John Rawls a runner-up. Both argued universal imperatives, one rule for all. Is that what you want? If so, why?

W.

Edited by Wolf DeVoon
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UCC quasi-contract and implied exchange does not apply to religion or citizenship.

Strictly speaking, no, of course not. But the law itself holds a didactic ("normative") role in society; teaching the rules of a particular society's "social contract", and revealing its intents, so that people can learn to comply with it rather than running afoul at every turn. And rules of human intercourse, no matter how specialized, tend to diffuse over time and be applied into areas they weren't intended for.

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the law itself holds a didactic ("normative") role in society; teaching the rules of a particular society's "social contract

Steve, I can't guess where you're going with this. We have very different understanding of constitutional law. Are you saying that you wish it to be so, that law = social contract? or rather in the current state, law = social contract?

Maybe you're thinking of some political society other than the United States?

W.

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the law itself holds a didactic ("normative") role in society; teaching the rules of a particular society's "social contract

Steve, I can't guess where you're going with this. We have very different understanding of constitutional law. Are you saying that you wish it to be so, that law = social contract? or rather in the current state, law = social contract?

Maybe you're thinking of some political society other than the United States?

W.

Okay, what I am doing is chucking all the social-contract "theorists" out the window. I am not arguing for or against it, but saying that the description of a"social contract" is just that -- "descriptive", not "proscriptive", -- i.e., it is a description of how people behave in society. And I can not conceive of ANYONE asserting the opposite, "Awww gee whiz, Steve, people DON'T have any behaviour in society." Like, what could that possibly mean? Of course they do!

We need a common basis for communication here. And what I meant was that the social contract is precisely that -- the common basis for communication. The sum of one's understandings of language and behaviour. The total of one's expectations, actions, and responses, in one's social interactions. Like language, these tend to change over time (even the meanings of written documents are subject to "entropy"). In most societies, the written law is part of this. And there are no rules in reality that say it has to be a suicide pact or that it can't be renegotiated.

So, I guess i am agreeing with SaulOhio, that just because the public discussion may be about "the social contract", it doesn't mean that those who believe in freedom have to sit this one out. In fact, engagement may be critical to helping build the type of rational society you or I would want to live in.

Steve

p.s. I do not readily approve of the UCC quasi-contract, it sends the wrong message. But it's there, poisoning people's minds into thinking it's okay to force people to do things involuntarily. It's one of those things I think we should "renegotiate." Of course, considering Directive 10-289, also known as "National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive NSPD-51/HSPD-20", it may all be a moot point anyway. As I've noted elsewhere, when life imitates art, it can get scary.

Edited by Steve Gagne
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I have rethought my position on this subject, and am backing away from the idea of conceding that social contract theory is true. I've read up on the theory some more, and have found more fallacies behind it, one of them being a strawman argument against natural rights.

The theory is a castle in the sky built out of a grain of sand. But the grain of sand is there, and real. There is one fact of reality that makes social contract theory sound plausible, and that is that we derive benefits from living in a society. The rest of the conceptual edifice of the theory is smoke and mirrors, but this fact is the grain of sand I mentioned before. If you deny the whole theory in its entirety, it sounds like you are denying that we want to live in an ordered society, like an anarchist.

I have written a new essay on this subject, which I posted on the Sam Harris forum, which can be seen here. In it, you can see some changes in my thinking.

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Saul,

I will read your essay a little later today. For now, I want to say there there is a biological element that confuses this issue at times. The "animal" part of human beings (the genus in the definition "rational animal") has a herding nature. Human beings live in groups not only because of exchanging value, but also because they herd.

That's generally what primates do.

That has no impact on rights per se, but it is a partial explanation of why society is always with us. (There are some other reasons, too.)

Michael

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Saul,

I will read your essay a little later today. For now, I want to say there there is a biological element that confuses this issue at times. The "animal" part of human beings (the genus in the definition "rational animal") has a herding nature. Human beings live in groups not only because of exchanging value, but also because they herd.

That's generally what primates do.

That has no impact on rights per se, but it is a partial explanation of why society is always with us. (There are some other reasons, too.)

Michael

We don't herd, we group. Herd animals are prey animals and vegetarians with eyes on the side of the face. Predators have the eyes in front. The only herd humans are the veges. :)

--Brant

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Saul,

I will read your essay a little later today. For now, I want to say there there is a biological element that confuses this issue at times. The "animal" part of human beings (the genus in the definition "rational animal") has a herding nature. Human beings live in groups not only because of exchanging value, but also because they herd.

That's generally what primates do.

That has no impact on rights per se, but it is a partial explanation of why society is always with us. (There are some other reasons, too.)

Michael

What you are saying seems to imply some version of evolutionary psychology. But that means that such behavior evolved because it has certain benefits. We evolved the tendency to herd because of exchange value. Chicken, egg?

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We don't herd, we group. Herd animals are prey animals and vegetarians with eyes on the side of the face. Predators have the eyes in front. The only herd humans are the veges. :)

--Brant

OK. Vegetarians herd. Predators run in packs. I'm an omnivore. What do we do? Besides eat everything, wether it moves or not? :P

Excuse me. I'm getting hungry. Have to go eat.

Edited by SaulOhio
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Call it herding or running in packs. Whatever. There is a line of psychology that calls it flocking.

The principle is the same. We are primates. Primates generally live and breed in groups. It's biological up to a point.

Human beings are primates. Thus they have a biological propensity to live in groups.

This does not negate the volitional part. But the volitional part does not negate the biological part either. It's a mix, like most everything in life.

Michael

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May I try to state what I think is the orthodox Objectivist position on this? (I'm not saying that I agree with it just because it's the orthodox position, though on this occasion, if I've got it right, I would agree with it.)

1) It is appropriate for there to be a government, but it should have strictly limited functions. These are to do with the preservation of individual rights to life and property.

2) Some (many, most, all?) governments may seek to do more than this. Such extensions to the powers of government are to be deplored.

3) Those of us who are subject to the powers of a government (ie most of us) may judge it pragmatically wise to accede to even its wider demands.

4) That doesn't mean those wider demands are right, nor that we accept their moral validity.

Courtesy of the folks at http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/index.html, I've read a recent piece byTibor Machan at http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/print...an-coercion.php, in which he notes that government authorities may "thank us for our co-operation" when in fact they are getting not voluntary co-operation but enforced compliance. (There are of course parallels in "Atlas Shrugged".)

Isn't the "social contract" just one example of Rand's "sanction of the victim"? A contract is surely in principle something which an individual voluntarily enters into, deliberately, with full awareness of its terms, and with the alternative option of not entering into it. To say that "we" (and who's that?) have entered into some contract sometime in the past without any clear expression of assent nor any clear definition of its content is surely quite simply nonsense.

Best regards

Adrian

Edited by Adrian
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Adrian,

Your post is pretty much on the money and I agree with you. But there is still one part where Rand mentions a form of Social Contract in the very sense you last sentence conveys ("To say that 'we' (and who's that?) have entered into some contract sometime in the past without any clear expression of assent nor any clear definition of its content is surely quite simply nonsense.")

From The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Nature of Government," p. 129:

There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement.

The act of delegating is a contractual act. Rand was not clear on when a person was supposed to perform such delegation (enter such a contract).

This is a crack in the principle that needs to be patched up.

Michael

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The act of delegating is a contractual act. Rand was not clear on when a person was supposed to perform such delegation (enter such a contract).

This is a crack in the principle that needs to be patched up.

Michael,

I am surprised that no one has mentioned Lysander Spooner in this context. In his Constitution of No Authority he points out that the US Constitution was signed by a number of men who existed at the time of its adoption but that all of us are held to it and to the laws passed by men sworn to uphold it but who also didn't formally sign it and none of subsequent generations have signed it either.

I think there might be a formal ceremony when one reaches "voting age," similar to a Bar or Bas Mitzvah in which one reads the Constitution aloud in front of family, or selected portions of it, or tops it off with a reading of the Bill of Rights, including Prohibition and its repeal, and then celebrating by signing it in public.

Otherwise the "secret band of robbers and murderers" to which Lysander Spooner referred will continue to enslave us.

galt

Edited by galtgulch
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Rand was not clear on when a person was supposed to perform such delegation (enter such a contract).

This is a crack in the principle that needs to be patched up.

Correct. There is no Objectivist philosophy of law. I don't think a patch will work.

W.

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From The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Nature of Government," p. 129:
There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement.

The act of delegating is a contractual act. Rand was not clear on when a person was supposed to perform such delegation (enter such a contract).

This is a crack in the principle that needs to be patched up.

Michael

I agree there is a problem with Rand's statement here. When in an emergency situation we cannot wait for the police to arrive to defend us. Almost any time we are confronted by a criminal, we have only our own resources to rely on. She should have said something more along the lines of we delegate our right to the retaliatory use of force. That seems to me to be clearly what she meant. If someone pulls out a knife and threatens you with it, you pull out your gun. But if someone has already cut you, and run away, or stolen your property, you do not go after them yourself, you tell the cops.

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  • 4 years later...

Call it herding or running in packs. Whatever. There is a line of psychology that calls it flocking.

The principle is the same. We are primates. Primates generally live and breed in groups. It's biological up to a point.

Human beings are primates. Thus they have a biological propensity to live in groups.

This does not negate the volitional part. But the volitional part does not negate the biological part either. It's a mix, like most everything in life.

Michael

I know that this is 4 years old, a thread, but I would like to apply my opinion for posterity.

I do not see the relevance in the volition/biological inference here. Animal behaviour evolves around some benefit. Human grouping is due to the benefit of trade. Since the jump to conceptual thinking, we have evolved out, our physical advantages. It makes logical sense to specialize and trade. Whether voluntarily or by instinct, this remains the cause to the effect. We are rational animals after all. There is no 'mix' with respect to behaviour.

Though man possesses an instinct to eat when hungry and to act toward his own survival, he can certainly act upon his choice to fast or commit suicide, based upon his personal value systems. No irrational animal can knowingly act toward its own demise. Man's voluntary choice to remain in a society on the achievement of adulthood implies no contract. When he trades, he contracts. When he violates, he contracts. That is all.

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Social contract theory works on a small scale, for example with my friends, and acquaintances. This smaller society exists in such a way as to make a "social contract" viable. However once we expand this beyond a small setting the social contract becomes an invalid argument because it grows beyond the limits of what a contract by its nature can and cannot do. Also the strong belief here in the US a state cannot leave the union disproves the social contract theory. Even though the Federal Government is in demonstrable breach of contract (the Constitution) and states have no other recourse but to leave, they are not permitted to leave. Its like the mob, once your in, you cant leave.

Also by the nature of Objectivism, objectivists (and libertarians) are considered Sociopaths by its clinical definition, and thus are an abomination to societies.

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If there is a Social Contract I must have been out cold when I signed it.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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