Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Social Contract

It's been a long time since I studied philosophy, and I have no intention of trying to explain the nuances of the concept of the social contract in this post.  But, given that it is the Fourth of July, it seemed like an opportune time to muse a bit on the way in which we interact and support other humans.

The essence of the social contract is as follows:  "Social contract theory.... is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. "  (Source--Social Contract Theory)  To form society, people agree to be governed, and to not always advance only their own selfish interests.  They agree to "all just get along."

One of the most stirring speeches I ever heard was when the late congresswoman Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic Convention.  You can read her words here, but nothing can replace hearing that stirring sonorous voice ring out again and again as she asked:  Who then will speak for the common good.

1976 seems like ages ago--far more than 3 decades.  It seems like centuries ago.  Barbara Jordan's call for the common good has been replaced with disciples of Ayn Rand who advocate a heartless sink-or-swim approach to human needs.  These voices dominate the political discourse today.

During the Republican primaries in this election cycle, we heard various candidates asked questions about whether we have any obligation to mutual support--say, as in the concept of health insurance.  In one instance, a candidate was asked a hypothetical about a young man who chose not to purchase health insurance and then becomes sick.  The question was--should we (i.e. society) just let him die.  What was really stunning were the loud yells from the audience crying out--YES, LET HIM DIE.

Now that the Supreme Court has determined that the Affordable Care Act is "constitutional" we see the sides lining up again.  The presumed Republican nominee is vowing that "what the Supreme Court didn't do, I will do on my first day as President."  How sad--that to appeal to a segment of the electorate we have a man who accomplished, while governor of a state, the very kind of affordable care approach now ensconced in what has been dubbed Obamacare.   That's not a flip flop on Romney's part--it's a loss of his soul.

How did we get here?  When these UNITED States were being formed, the best minds at the time began the document on which rest all our laws with--WE, THE PEOPLE.  

I hear various people yelling about "freedom"--as though the definition of that word is that no one can tell anyone what or how to do anything.  Freedom?  I'd say that's anarchy.

Here's a little rabbit side trail--I am struck with the irony that many people who identify themselves as conservatives disdain the theory of evolution.  And yet, these same folk seem perfectly content to practice social Darwinism--survival of the fittest is just fine.

OK--we're back.  I ascribe to a philosophy that we are all inter-connected.  We all have a responsibility to the other--we are our brother's keepers.  John Donne captured the sentiment of our inter-connectedness with his famous Meditation XVII--"any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

Oh, and if you really want to celebrate what the Fourth of July is all about, go read Barbara Jordan's speech.

Here endeth the sermon.
Photo from


Anvilcloud said...

It's very sad. What else can I say? Americans are such nice folk. I've never met one whom I didn't like. Politically, it's different for some reason.

NCmountainwoman said...

Your post brings to mind those days when Congress set about to do the people's business above partisan politics. Those days when the leaders of both parties disagreed on issues but managed to come together at the end of the day. And then go out to dinner with one another.

I've always been a fan of Barbara Jordan and found a You Tube video of that wonderful speech.

Ginnie said...

Hi: I just happen to be in Massachusetts as I read this. It's ironic that you mention the total "flip" that Romney has made on healthcare. My brothr-in-law who lives here says the Obama design is so similar to what they have here and it works fine ... but, heaven forbid that our present president should get any credit for it. As far as I can see the Republicans have one agenda ... and that's to get rid of "the black guy" in office. It's sad and hard to swallow. I thought we were all Americans !!

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I have oome to the conclusion that the politcal class live in a World of their own. I notice that the most common figure is the 14% of the American people think congress is doing a good job. The most recent poll I read (July5) put the figure at 7%. Also nearly 50% of Americans think member of Congress are corrupt. I have yet to hear a congressman admit to feeling any shame at such low level opinions of what they do (or don't do). They are not listening to the people they are supposed to serve.

I also read that the majority of Americans want a single payer health care system, and yet, it was not on the table. Americans also want good public education, social safety net and good public transportion, protection of the environment etc. Neither party seems capable of saying, we can have these things. It may require a fairer tax system, (taxes are the way we pay for the services we need and want). First, we could being my shrinking the military by half in order to afford services to the American people.

The American political system is clearly broken. The two parties do not make clear alternative visons of the country. A truly progressive liberal Democratic Party could argue for what is best for "the people". It is clear the Republican Party been taken over by extreme views that will and has destroyed much of what is best in American. Real political vison and courage is lacking in American politics.

Climenheise said...

Although my sense is that the Republican Party is the more obviously extreme of the two at the moment (in spite of polls that suggest most voters see Obama as more radical than Romney), I think taht both parties have broken the social contract. Perhaps our prediliction for the use of the courts is part of the problem. Legislating new positions without having congress find the necessary consensus to pass new laws leaves those who disagree with the court's decisions feeling disenfranchised. (A complicated sentence: simply put--I am a conservative when it comes to an activist judiciary. This applies whether the issue is "affordable health care" or "reproductive rights". We must work our way to positions that people agree on, not simply use the courts to knock out the positions we don't agree with.

The Supreme Court has done much good, witness the decisions that led to the Civil Rights Acts; but it is usually a shortcut that destroys more than it helps.

I don't know what can be done to help the USA. A step, I suppose, is to covenant to listen carefully to one's opponents and to assume that they are often intelligent and good. Neither the jokes made about Dan Quayle nor the slanders thrown at Obama (such as "where were you born") are good for us. Civility is a habit that requires much practice.

Climenheise said...

I think I should say "sometimes", not "usually", above in the second paragraph.

Pearl said...

Well said. :-)


Mary Lee said...

Barbara Jordan was magnificent. Her speeches were beyond stirring and made even more so by that powerful voice. Now THAT was a stateswoman!

To hell with "talking points."