The Social Contract

What is a Social Contract? This definition is taken from Wikipedia: “Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.” Thomas Hobbes, a British Philosopher of the 17th century posited in his book, “Leviathan,” that without social order life would be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Basically meaning that if there were no laws, humans would have the freedom to do as they pleased. This may sound great but when you consider that that could include, rape, murder, theft, etc., it loses its appeal. Therefore most of humanity has given up the freedom to do these things in order to have the protections and benefits that the society in which they live afford. Further broken down it means that I agree to follow the laws of my state and country in order to receive the benefits that my state and country offers. That’s a social contract. Most people agree to the social contract on the idea that others also agree. A society built on the idea that only some of the people have to live by the rules usually will not last. History bears this out.

Thomas Hobbes

A social contract is an abstract thing. No actual contract exists. It only exists as a theory because we agree to it. So what happens when the contract breaks down? When some citizens are afforded rights, benefits, or protections that others are not? Basically the whole fabric of the societal system starts to come unraveled. An obvious example of this is the Civil Rights Movement. There were different rules for whites and for people of color. As I said earlier, the idea that makes a social contract work is that everyone agrees to the contract. When some under the contract receive benefits that others do not, or have to live under separate rules, the contract doesn’t work. And when the contract doesn’t work it loses its effectiveness. Society breaks down. The civil rights movement affected the entire country. Even in my little white town in Minnesota, we were affected by it. We saw the riots on TV. We saw the marches. We saw the speeches, and the protests. When people do not receive the benefits of the social contract they are living under they begin to wonder why they should still have to live by the rules. Social disorder ensues. In order for the social contract to be balanced, people need to be convinced that doing so is good for them. People of color obviously knew this. Civil disobedience helped convince white people that it was in their best interest to change the laws. If they don’t want people rioting in the streets they need to make some changes.

Detroit, 1943

The Gay Rights Movement is still going on today. The idea is the same, that the social contact is unfair for some. What surprises me, and I suppose it shouldn’t, is that after so many years of living in society many people still think that rules should be different for some than for others. And the ones who do think this way are obviously the ones who will benefit more from the imbalance. In every social movement you find the same scenario, people aren’t asking for more rights, they’re asking for equity in rights. Gay people don’t want to be treated better than everyone else, they want to be treated the same. It is amazing to me how hard some people will fight to keep their exalted status over others. What makes a person feel that they deserve more or better than others? I know all the arguments and many of them have to do with religious belief. People of color were touted as inferior races and the churches supported this idea. Gay people are seen as immoral or unnatural and the churches support this as well. Many religious people believe that the laws of their god supersede the laws of man. That idea attacks the social contract because not all people agree.

The question that arises for me is, when will people learn? Will they ever learn? In order to have a social structure that works, equity needs to rule. Fairness and moderation in all things. In what will become known as, “The Trump Years,” we can see this idea of equity being attacked again. The idea that some people deserve more or better is rearing its ugly head and eventually it will be subdued, but how bad it will be is still unknown. What damage our society will suffer will determine how society is shaped for the future. Will it lead to civil disobedience? To rioting in the streets? What will it take to right this imbalance in the social contract? Only time will tell.

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