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william clegg

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What do you think of the Social Contract?

Do you understand what it is? When do we agree to it?
What's it good for? Should we change it? Can we change it?

The Social Contract is an implied co-operative relationship between a government and those governed and has been around as long as governments have existed. The people surrender their inherent freedom to do "as they darn well please" to the government in exchange for a safe and secure life.

The Constitution of a nation sets down the rights and responsibilities of its citizenry as well as of its institutions and its government. Citizenship then becomes a complicate agreement - the Social Contract - to adhere to the strictures of that Constitution and the government of the day. .

Yet from what i have learned over the years few are aware that a Social Contract even exists never mind what its intent or content is. Even fewer seem to respect it with the proliferation of aggressive drivers, tax 'avoiders', criminal enterprises and contempt for politicians - those who end up in government - as classic examples.

So, please share your thoughts and feelings on the whole Social Contract issue.

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Closing Statement from william clegg

Amongst those who spoke for a social contract there was strong support for its continued existence and importance as a binding commitment between the state and the citizenry and integral to citizenship.

However, there seemed to be more voices that refute the existence and/or any importance to the premise of a social contract with blatant self interest - whether the speakers or the speaker's view of others - as the principle barrier to embracing the concept. .

  • Dec 1 2013: It is an inherantly flawed concept. The social contract functions on the basis that most, if not all, of its affected population will adhere to its principles based on the premise of merely hypothetical security. Not all of those who are under its radar will want that promise of security, and the lack of choice in the matter will make them hesitant to comply. Collective security and personal freedom are all too often opposing forces. The idea that one can be infringed for the sake of another will anger extremist adherents on one side or the other. All to often, it is the social contract, or the potentially merited disrespect thereof, indirectly or directly causes war. For example; the social contract that subjects should be loyal to their king caused independent minded colonist to resist the promised security of the redcoats. It is the only thing we have to safeguard the masses though. In my opinion it can work, but it has to remain fluid and fair. It has to balance security and freedom, and deny those the ability to abuse the system that would do so. Otherwise, it will collapse. As for its validity, I hate the idea of being ruled, but it is necessary. Few other mediums exists to contol the population, and they include abusing religion and claiming blasphemous divine right to rule, and submitting to tyrannical monopolies on violence. The social contract is so far the only way a free society can obtain power.
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      Dec 2 2013: Yes, a social contract is only as binding as each individual wants it to be. There is no external force that can compel adherence if a person rejects all or part of it and the number of aggressive drivers are classic examples of this conundrum. But the social contract was never meant as a means of societal control but merely as a declaration of solidarity and common purpose. Unfortunately there have been far too many political figures that, once in office, have themselves ignored any reference to that contract and acted just like arrogant monarchs and dictators setting bad examples for every other cretin to follow. .
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    Nov 13 2013: I would go with David Hume and say that social contract is a convenient fiction. I would go one step further and say that the dynamics of society and polity are inherently different and social contract cannot be taken as synonymous with political contract to start with.
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      Nov 13 2013: and therein lies the rub I am afraid. Political divisions are at the heart of the problem and political parties feed on that division. Political parties don't just serve special interest groups, today they are themselves special interest groups seeking the offices of power and control for whatever reasons or agendas of convenience will get them there.

      Instead of uniting the citizenry in common causes and finding common ground on contentious issues political parties exploit the opportunity to divide that citizenry even further.

      Hume did not have much respect for government in general and viewed most of them as conquerors and usurpers which he then uses to discount and/or discredit any consent of the people to be so governed But that does not diminish the social contract that is inherent in claiming citizenship/membership with any social structure.
  • Nov 7 2013: Like all abstract concepts, the social contract is what you make of it.

    Its quite beneficial when everyone follows it (with or without knowing what it is), but from a practical standpoint, it doesn't do much to stop whomever is willing to ignore it--that's what laws and enforcement are for (with law being equally meaningless without enforcement).
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      Nov 7 2013: Yes, the issue arises when people question whether previous generations were actually automatically empowered to commit them to things, or whether birth or residence in a place binds a person to a contract in which he had no fundamental say.

      An example might be a person born in a place where the "social contract" appears to assign him a role that seems unjust.
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      Nov 8 2013: Your right Nadav, some will point to the Babylonian king Hammurabi as the first to codify laws, This had less to do with Babylonians than it did with outsiders who probably did not know what the "rules" were. So the laws - the social contract - were inscribed on huge stones for all to see and learn from, especially visitors. .

      Of course Fritzie, whether a particular individual likes or adheres to a communities social contract is a matter of our free will and how much we will constrain our own interests for some other perceived gain.
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    Nov 7 2013: Excellent question William,

    I believe the underlining assumption of the social contract is embodied in every definition of 'sustainability'. That each generation will benefit from the same level of resources and opportunity as the last generation.

    That is no longer true. The last 2-3 generations have used far more than there fair share of resources and in that process have left a wake of externalizations and unintended consequences. From global warming to compromised ecosystems and failing economies that think the environment is a subset of economics have all conspired to undermine in spades future generations.

    The social contract will continue to break down as more and more people want their slice of the pie and most of it is now gone. A certain receipt for disaster that will unfold more and more as time goes on.

    It's a shame that we are not smarter to see the effects of our choices not only to mother nature, but to one another.

    Human folly of epic implications. Indiscriminate violence is but one manifestation. We have failed as a species and the end is in sight.
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      Nov 8 2013: Agreed, sustainability would seem to be central to any social contract and that small minded self interest has made a mockery of both concepts. But a society where acquiring, consuming and endlessly seeking to stimulate pleasure centers are what matters most would appear to be incapable of any larger thinking anyways.

      But I disagree that the end is nigh. There is one place were the social contract still survives and also may well rescue humanity from its inherent arrogance, namely space travel where the confined and limited space and especially the shared resources for sustaining life make selfishness, blatant self-interest and self-righteousness untenable and unwelcome.
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    Nov 7 2013: I think social contract is an essential component of civilization building. Social contract creates order and order means life. Let us take the analogy of our solar system- we could say that there is a contract between the sun and the planets, between planets and between satellites and their planets. It is because of these contracts that in million of years we haven't clashed with each other and life has been possible on earth (as far as we know it). Ofcourse, the planets have no choice but to follow the contract but if we were to assume that they could go out of their orbit then we know what would have been the outcome. Same is true with our society I think- we have a contract (whether written or unwritten) between individuals, between individuals and communities, between individuals and institutions and between communities and institutions. Unlike planets we have choice. Unlike the contract between the celestial bodies our social contract is a social construct and constantly has been evolving and changing.

    There are a few things that must constantly and simultaneously happen in our society to make sure that the social contract leads to social order.

    - One is the discourse on the social contract so that it keeps getting better. The discourse must be guided by increasing understanding of certain universal principles.
    - Second is that action must be consistent with the constructed social contract. Writing a wonderful constitution is one thing but to make sure that all policies, decisions, methods, approaches and instruments we use are consistent with the social contract is much more difficult.
    - Third is education so that everyone learns about the social contract.

    When someone breaks the social contract we have a breach in trust and that leads to weakening of the whole fabric or society. When a minority group feels that the social contract is made for the well-being of the majority only then we have weakening of the social fabric.
  • Nov 12 2013: First, what is aggressive diving, apart from whatever it is that "aggressive divers" do? That being asked, one fundamental problem is that pedagogy has abandoned pedagogy in order to follow a succession of fads. Thus, little concepts like the social contract (and its antithesis, the Leviathan) are now considered unnecessary. This ignorance currently works to the benefit of both Left and Right, who would each rather impose one of two Leviathans. The Right's Leviathan is the more "classic" one, which seeks to impose "order" at any cost. The Left's Leviathan is more subtly clothed. It is unlimited paternalism, in which the state "takes care of us", but in return the state gets to dictate everything about what we are permitted to eat, what entertainment will be permitted, etc. What is vital is ignorance of the social contract. If government is seen as a two-way street instead of a one-way top-down arrangement, it is harder to impose that one-way, top-down arrangement.
    When matters are seen contractually, the people are encouraged to demand better service and greater responsiveness. Remove the contractual aspect, then people seek out "great leaders" to solve everything for them and treat any dissent as a form of blasphemy. It is a part of the general derationalization of our culture, in which merely "feeling" something strongly means that it must be true, and disagreement with an idea is automatically a personal attack.
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      Nov 13 2013: thanks for pointing out the spelling error, it is "driver" not "divers" although aggressive diving is probably as reckless and dangerous as aggressive driving.

      Actually it was dear old Thomas Hobbes' seminal writings in the Leviathan that laid down what he believed to be the Natural - derived from Nature as opposed to Devine - constituents of the Social Contract in chapter. VI of that tome. Although those writings evoked the Golden Rule - do unto others only as you would have done unto yourself,- he was among the first to challenge what until then had been the Devine - or God granted - Rule of Monarchs. Instead he introduced the extremely secular concept of governance whereby the Right to Rule a population lay with the consent and obedience of those ruled, not simply Devine Right.

      Meanwhile others such as John Stuart Mill opined that the social contract only bound us to having and obeying laws meant to protect us all from harm while other forms of excess were natural and could even prove beneficial to society.

      The real antithesis of the social contract has, historically, been found in unregulated frontiers. Until the Law arrives that is, Namely those that are usually referred to as outlaws by those who believe themselves part of a society. Not organized crime outlaws because they too have their own social expectations and subsequent consequences - invariably violent - for perceived violations,. But the real outlaws who choose to live outside the constraints of any form of Law and have no regard for any social contract of any kind. In other words what we would call sociopaths in modern day language. . . . .
  • Nov 11 2013: the social contract is the contract stating "i live in THIS geographical location, i swear to abide by all rules imposed by the source of political power in this region". the concept is crucial for a developed society to be. i think what need be changed or paced behind amendments to the constitution is the values each law defends so that, should any other law stand closer that value we shall adopt it if it doesn't impose on the freedom of our citizens. an example of a value would be maintaining a certain ratio of voting power between individuals and corporations. or keeping government simple. building the core competence of the public etc
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      Nov 12 2013: I agree that assuming citizenship/membership is a clear indication of a social contract being undertaken and that the details of that undertaking - both the responsibilities and privileges -- need to be made a lot clearer to all involved.
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    Nov 7 2013: "social contract" is just a buzzword. the reason why it is a buzzword is that it does not explain anything. we can't do something because it is in the social contract. because we can regress further, and ask, why is it a part of the social contract? there has to be an explanation for that. and then either that explanation is enough to justify the action in itself, and so we don't need to include the concept of the social contract, or it does not justify, but in this case being part of the social contract does not make it any more justifiable. therefore it is an empty concept.

    as an analogy, i would pull another such empty concept, the "company policy". in a similar manner, something being company policy can not validate it. there is always a reason behind. if a person follows company policy, it is always for a real reason, like for example, "if i don't do that, i will be fired". but in this case, the threat in itself is enough to explain the behavior. or an explanation can be "because it is rational for X and Y reasons". but in this case the action is validated by X and Y reason, or it does not if the reasoning is incorrect, regardless of its status as company policy.

    such concepts are shields. their purpose is not to explain but to hide. their aim is to stop us from asking the right questions, and to make us accept things that are not acceptable otherwise.
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      Nov 8 2013: agreed, any social contract is a trade off of freedoms and benefits and some may be more obvious than others.
    • Nov 12 2013: That is not how the social contract was originally described in the Enlightenment. The model arose as a justification for democratic government. The then-dominant model of origin of government for Europe was that "God handed it to us." This meant that any dissent from government meant that one was also automatically an enemy of God. This did not sit well with the Enlightenment, which proposed an alternative, specifically that government derives its authority not from "God" or some other external source, but from an internal informal, tacit agreement among the governed. However, like all contracts, it was always subject to renegotiation and revision--not "between" the government and the governed as if they were separate entities, but among the governed. The problem is that Divine Right ideals got mingled with social contract ideals, and government continues to be seen as something "above" the governed. The thing about the social contract is that it cannot validly be resorted to in order to defend any specific policy. To do so is to simply flat-out lie. The actual social contract of any polity is really very basic and covers very few things. Anything else, such as a Constitution, lies on top of that. But even then, the social contract can be modified. It is not God, nor is it a substitute for God. Trying to make it an infallible source that cannot be contradicted is actually antithetical to the model of the social contract.
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    Nov 7 2013: "few are aware that a Social Contract even exists, never mind what its intent or content is."

    In what form are you assuming the social contract exists in your country or province? Are you assuming there is a document in archives with signatories who bind all future generations to that agreement? Or are you thinking a Constitution is that social contract by definition?
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      Nov 7 2013: Blessings for starting off the discussion so perfectly - honest folks I never met the guy before this.

      As indicated in my intro "The Social Contract is an implied co-operative relationship between a government and those governed and has been around as long as governments have existed. The people surrender their inherent freedom to do "as they darn well please" to the government in exchange for a safe and secure life. "
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        Nov 7 2013: The matter I meant to raise is that the first problem arises when people resist the idea of being born into any sort of contractual obligation to be a willing subject and collaborator of a government that existed before they did themselves (and which incidentally may not take their interests or values into account).

        Of this sort of disposition, civil disobedience, civil wars, and secessionist movements are made.

        Here is a reasonable link from which you can learn more about the best known social contract theories as well as critiques from the perspective of groups who tend to have no legacy of participation in founding the governments in question. http://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/#H2
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          Nov 8 2013: Of course the social contract exists, whether written down somewhere or simply in the minds of its adherents. Rules of the road are a classic example. Private clubs, public facilities, non-profits, companies, businesses, governments and criminal enterprises all have spoken and unspoken expectations, freedoms, restrictions and even behaviours which those who wish to participate in them are obliged to follow.

          And yes, there are always those who will resist, deny and/or defy the very idea of a social contract. But if a person claims citizenship/membership with a particular group then they are binding themselves to both the benefits and the limitations of that groups constitution. It is the claim to membership/citizenship which confers ones agreement.

          That said, there are very few social encounters that are not going to challenge such a resistant personality to go somewhere else if they don't like it here.