Sunday, October 16, 2011

America's social contract

I'm wondering if I should shift from writing so much here more to summarizing what I'm writing.  I've wondered if there is little interest in wading through my prose.  What do you think?

I've been writing a section in the philosophy book on "Social Contracts."  Here are a couple highlights:

1. I've long heard the name Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) but haven't known a lot about him.  I like this guy.  He took the side of the Arminians against the hard core Calvinists of Holland and lost.  He was imprisoned for life in 1618, but his wife and a maidservant smuggled him out in 1621 in a chest.

He went on to write some of the foundations of international law.  For example, it was he who first argued that the seas were international territory (he wrote this back in Holland before his imprisonment).

2. I have long thought that the best way to get to the bottom of what America should be in relation to many issues is the idea of a social contract.  This of course was the basis for American democracy in the first place, as the founders had the rare opportunity of creating a government from scratch.  Here are some ground rules:

  • One surrenders some degree of individual freedom when one lives together with others in society.  If you cannot remove yourself from a society, then you are bound to abide by its contract.
  • The default state of a member of a society is equal to that of all others.  
  • We agree to live by certain ground rules, a "bill of rights," if you would.  I won't steal your property if you don't steal mine.  I won't kill you if you don't kill me.  Etc.
  • We set up a third party, the government, to arbitrate disputes and protect our individual rights.  Contract violators (criminals) are either removed from society or rehabilitated to follow the contract.
  • What we have the government do for us depends on the kind of contract we arrange.  The only stipulations are that no arrangement can violate my basic rights as an individual.  If we want to pay taxes so that the government provides universal health care, we can.  If we do not, we don't have to.
  • I as an individual have to abide by those parts of the contract with which I do not personally agree, provided that the contract does not impinge on my basic rights. 
  • It is in the best interest of a society as a whole for its contract to benefit as many of its members as possible, present and future.  Some structures may not benefit me now, but might benefit me at another time.
To me, this framework of thinking cuts through a lot of mud.


John C. Gardner said...

I hope that you keep sharing the actual prose that you write rather than merely providing a summary. I believe that this blog is a real asset since it provides real intellectual content for those of us in the pews. Wesleyan churches(I am a member of a Wesleyan church) have much heart but too little historical, theological and philosophical content. Please keep the blog as is.

Robert said...

I'd add that a society has a duty towards its weaker members; its old, its kids, its widows, orphans, sick, etc, and also towards the refugee - the stranger and the alien, in Biblical terms. That has to involve every member of the society - if a wealthy individual is allowed to opt out of caring for others, they weaken the society as a whole - and so it's a funcuion that's appropriately given to government. Similarly, if the community is invaded by a hostile other, everyone has a duty to do what they can to defend it. Again, that's best given to governments, otherwise you have people opting out and weakening the whole.