(Captain's log): Slak writes:
From time to time, I hear these arguments about "social contracts" and how, because society enabled me to get to my position, society can thus take from me what it sees fit, when it chooses.
This argument, when I hear it, sounds flawed. In fact, I know it is. But I can never articulate well enough to fight it.
What are your opinions on it?
We do have a social contract. It's the Constitution. It does permit society to take things from us, but not anything it sees fit.
The limits on governmental power in the Constitution were well considered, and much of it (most particularly the Bill of Rights) are enumerations of the things that society may not take from us whether it sees fit or not.
The idea that "society enabled us to achieve" embodies the fundamental idea that the things we think of as "rights" were somehow actually granted to us, and that therefore we should be grateful for them and feel as if we need to pay for them. But the founding philosophy of our system is that we do not get those rights from society or government, but rather that they are inherently ours. It is not that our society gives us the rights which enable us to achieve, but that our particular society take from us less of what is inherently ours, and by so doing leaves us more able to succeed.
Arguments to the contrary end up being rationalizations, usually by leftists who feel that things would just be so much better if there were more regulation so that the power of government could be used to force people to live better lives (i.e. more along the lines of what the leftists think they should be). This is the traditional anti-democratic concept that the elite know better than the masses how the masses should live, and that the masses need to be forced to live the right way for their own good, whether they like it or not. Moralistic reformers have always lamented the folly of the masses, and yearn for the ability to force the masses to behave. But it is generally leftists who talk about "social contracts" as a smokescreen for this impulse to meddle. (Religious fundamentalists generally tend to talk in terms sin and damnation. Since modern moralistic leftists tend to be agnostic, that argument is not available to them.)
This is the basic argument of elitism versus populism: should the masses be directed, or left to make their own decisions? Can the masses be trusted with that responsibility, or will the consequences of letting them make decisions for themselves be too catastrophic? The idea of a "social contract" is usually a smokescreen for the elitist impulse to try to run things directly, with the best of intentions. But elitism as such is profoundly contemptuous of the masses, for that is its foundation. Elitists think the masses are not truly capable of handling that responsibility and will abuse it and do the wrong thing. If one respects the masses, one must necessarily be a populist and in that case one cannot support the idea of "forcing them for their own good" because forcing them is itself inherently not good.
Our national system, as embodied in the Constitution, is fundamentally populist, fundamentally anti-elitist. As a result, that kind of coercion using the power of law isn't really possible here. Those who still want to exercise that power (because, of course, they are self-identified as being part of the elite and know better than the masses) are thus reduced to attempting to con others into accepting those rules without any legal enforcement, and they are reduced to sophistry about "social contracts" and the idea that people have a moral obligation to follow thus-and-so rule even though there's no legal penalty for not doing so.
That's what they mean by "social contract". That's why they use the word contract; it's allegedly an obligation laid on us which isn't actually justified by the law of the land, which is nonetheless allegedly mandatory. They're attempting to create an obligation where none actually exists. They are trying to create a contract, to convince you that it exists, because a contract lays obligations on those who are party to it. But it only works on you if you let it.
They cannot actually force me to act in a certain way, but they may be able to shame me into doing so, or fool me into thinking that I must do so, and that's what they're trying to do with that rhetoric. But it only works if I let it work, and the best answer for that argument is to ignore it completely.
Part of what they're trying to do is to shift the burden of proof. They attempt in their rhetoric to assume that the "social contract" exists and is binding and try to convince you that you must follow it unless you can prove that it isn't. If you fall for that, they've already won. (That kind of hidden axiom, of shifting the argument to sands where you have to grant an underlying invalid assumption to even participate in the discussion, is an old and highly regarded way to fool people. One must always be wary of letting your opponent in an intellectual discussion frame the terms of the argument.)
I don't have to answer their comments about "social contracts" because I owe them no explanations at all. I am not obligated to justify my decisions to any fellow citizen unless I've been arrested and hauled into court. In normal discourse, the burden of proof is on them to prove the existence of a social contract, no