Thoughts on Social Contract Theory (part 1)

Note: I'm going to be splitting this post up into two parts, for brevity's sake.

Yesterday I was watching old videos on Youtube of Christopher Hitchens. In particular, I watched his second debate with Frank Turek, on the question "Which better explains reality – theism or atheism?" I don't know much about Frank Turek, but, while maintaining a half-yell for virtually the entire debate, he recited all the typical arguments – the cosmological, the teleological, the moral (Hitchens rightly pounced by pointing out that these are, at best, deistic arguments). Turek's challenge to Hitch on the moral front was especially facepalm-worthy; he did exactly what virtually all theists do: he falsely equated atheism with moral nihilism. The old, "Without God, everything is permissible" canard. (I've addressed one glaring failure of this argument here.)

Considering how a lot of these Christian apologist types like to posture themselves as learned in topics like philosophy and various sciences, it's astounding to me that none of them seem to have even heard of Social Contract Theory (SCT). This isn't some new, radical theory or something; it's been around since Socrates. And yet you can't throw a rock at an apologist without hitting some canard about how, without some absolute final authority, we have no reason to be kind to each other; why not, as Turek suggests, just kill each other?

The answer, I think is eloquently phrased by the primatologist Frans De Waal, in the book Primates and Philosophers:
Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out—if a starting point is discernible at all—as interdependent, bonded, and unequal. We come from a long lineage of hierarchical animals for which life in groups is not an option but a survival strategy. Any zoologist would classify our species as obligatorily gregarious.
In other words, none of us has the luxury of moral autonomy because we are dependent upon other people for every single aspect of our survival and well-being. It certainly is interesting that we are such profoundly social creatures that, outside of brute physical torture, one of the worst punishments we can think to inflict on another is solitary confinement. Of course, prisoners placed in solitary suffer tremendous psychological distress, but even then they are still reliant upon others for food and shelter.  

Our need to live in cooperative social hierarchies is inescapable. And quite simply, we recognize that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others will have no reason to respect our own needs and interests. So, why not kill someone else if I feel like it? Because by doing so, I sever my trust with others. I'm immediately branded a danger that ought to be isolated from civil society. The degree to which I do have autonomy – the freedom to pursue my interests, relationships, and contribute to society (and reap the rewards of doing so) – will be taken from me.

Thomas Hobbes
Why not simply discard the weak or the ill – you know, throw the cancer patient to the gas chamber? Because we all recognize that it could just as easily be us who become afflicted with a crippling disease or injury, and we recognize that if we foster a society that disregards human life when it becomes a burden to others, we are likely to find ourselves or those we love similarly disregarded. Imagine, for example, if we declined to help Stephen Hawking after he developed ALS; we would have lost his countless contributions to physics and science education, and his family and friends would have lost the companionship of someone dear to them.

But this is only a partial explanation.

De Waal has discussed SCT, but finds it lacking. The Thomas Hobbes version, for example, assumes – much like Christianity – that it is our nature to be cruel and selfish, and that it is only our capacity for reason that allows us to transcend our brute evolutionary nature. But we are coming to realize that a great deal of moral behavior is not rational at all, but emotional; that we are not rising above our evolution, but act out deeply entrenched evolutionary traits. Reasoning about morals may be, to a large extent, just a sort of post hoc rationalization of fundamentally irrational behaviors.

More to come in part 2.


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