The Social Contract: Who Needs It?

Let’s begin with some political theory.  Aristotle, in his great treatise, the Politics, concluded that there are, basically, only two different kinds of governments in terms of the outcomes for a society -- those that serve the common good, or the public interest, and those that have been co-opted to serve the self-interests of the people who hold political power.  Aristotle identified six different types of governments structurally – from monarchies to mob rule – but the most important distinction for Aristotle was between governments that are consensually accepted by the citizenry and are viewed as being “legitimate” because they accommodate to the needs and interests of all the “stakeholders” and, on the other hand, governments that are coercive and rule by force over an unwilling, conflicted, perhaps even revolutionary society. 

As the political history of the past two thousand years abundantly confirms, Aristotle got it right. Stable societies of all types are governed by an implicit “social contract” – a set of shared social benefits and reciprocal obligations among the various interests and constituencies. There is also voluntary compliance, for the most part, with the society’s laws and practices. 

In contrast, corrupted governments – and there are a great many of them these days -- must rely on intimidation, coercion, and lethal force to obtain the “consent” of the governed.  They are, therefore, ultimately unstable.  These societies do not have a social contract, or else it has broken down.   (The exceptions are repressive societies that are nevertheless united by a menacing external enemy – like the Soviet Union in World War Two.)  

The core idea of a social contract goes all the way back to Plato in the Crito, where he argued that, if a society provides the wherewithal for our “existence”, then we have a reciprocal “obligation” to obey its laws.  However, the formal term “social contract,” and various theories about it, is mostly associated with the writings of the philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, some seventeen centuries later.  

These three Enlightenment era theorists all relied on a presumed “state of nature,” before there were organized societies.  Thus, Hobbes argued that the state of nature was a “war of each against all” and that a civil society serves primarily to keep the peace.   The social contract, therefore, requires everyone to submit to an “absolute” sovereign authority – the King.  Locke, on the other hand, portrayed the state of nature as peaceful and the social contract as a voluntary undertaking mainly to protect our property, and our “lives.” It can be disbanded at will.  

Rousseau strongly disagreed. The state of nature was solitary, and people came together to exploit the benefits of cooperation and a division of labor.  However, the invention of private property resulted in competition, greed, and extreme economic inequality.  In his famous essay, The Social Contract,Rousseau called for the creation of a new social contract that would be based on direct democracy and the abolition of private property in favor of communal property, a formulation that later became the inspiration for the socialist and communist theorists – and communist regimes -- of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   

The modern American philosopher John Rawls should also be mentioned.  His theory of justice amounts to an elaborately constructed variation on the Golden Rule – “do unto others…”  Using a thought experiment about an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance” (an abstracted version of the state of nature), Rawls posited two principles of “fairness” that he deemed everyone would want for themselves, and for others – basic personal liberty and an acceptance of economic inequality constrained by the rule that the least advantaged would benefit from any “rising tide.”  Rawls’ theory of “justice as fairness” has been much debated.  

It’s time to forget the hypothetical state of nature.   We now know that humankind is a product of the evolutionary process, not some imagined past history.  We evolved over several million years in small, closely cooperating, egalitarian societies, and every modern society represents an extension of this pre-history.   From an evolutionary perspective, the basic, continuing, inescapable challenge for all living systems is survival and reproduction. Life is quintessentially a contingent “survival enterprise,” and any organized society, whether it be in leaf cutter ants or humankind, is fundamentally a “collective survival enterprise.”  Whatever may be our aspirations, or our illusions, the underlying purpose of a human society is to provide for the basic needs of its members, and of the society as a whole over time.  Survival is a prerequisite for any other, more exalted objectives.  

In my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, I proposed a new “biosocial contract” based on three biologically grounded normative principles that play a vitally important role in our social relationships.   These principles represent the “goal posts,” so to speak, for achieving a fair and harmonious society.  They are (1) equality with respect to our basic survival needs; (2) equity with respect to “merit”; and (3) reciprocity, or giving back for the benefits we receive from others and society. As I explain in my book, these three fairness principles – equality, equity andreciprocity-- must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a stable and relatively harmonious social order – a social contract.  

Given the underlying biological purpose of human societies, the biosocial contract must be grounded in a universal “basic needs guarantee” – a form of economic equality with a concrete but limited political agenda.  This fundamental requirement is based on four key propositions: (1) our basic needs are increasingly well-understood and documented; (2) although our individual needs vary somewhat, in general they are equally shared by all of us; (3) we are dependent upon many others, and our economy as a whole, for the satisfaction of these needs; and (4) more or less severe harm will result if any of these needs is not satisfied.  Indeed, desperate men do not care about the rule of law, or any social contract obligations.

Our basic needs must take priority, but it is also important to recognize the many differences in meritamong us and to reward (or punish) them accordingly.  It is well documented that the principle of “just deserts” also plays a fundamental role in our social relationships.  Our capitalist system at its best does a good job of providing rewards for merit, but this goal is often distorted or even subverted under the doctrine of “shareholder capitalism.”  The reformist concept of “stakeholder capitalism,” in contrast, imposes the requirement that the interests of all the stakeholders, including society as a whole, must be included in corporate behavior and governance. 

In addition, there must be reciprocity – an unequivocal commitment on the part of all of us (with some obvious exceptions) to help support the collective survival enterprise.   We must all contribute a fair share toward balancing the scale of benefits and costs, for no society can long exist on a diet of pure altruism (or ever-increasing debt, for that matter).  We must reciprocate for the benefits that we receive from society through such things as our labor, the taxes we pay, and public service.

The bottom line here is that, yes, we absolutely need a social contract – one that insures that the basic needs of the population are provided for (no small task), while personal initiative, enterprise, and achievements are also appropriately rewarded, and everyone contributes a fair share toward sustaining the collective survival enterprise.   A “legitimate” and consensually acceptable social contract over the long term depends on these three fairness principles.  It could be likened to a three-legged-stool; all three legs are equally important to the common good.  Various alternatives have been tried, many times, but they tend to have a short life-expectancy.  In the present era of extreme economic inequality, coupled with widespread global poverty, endemic political corruption, and the growing challenge of climate change, the biosocial contract is the only viable way forward.    


About Peter Corning 

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also once a science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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