Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The fallacies of Social Contract theory

This is a repost of something I wrote on another forum. 

I've heard the Social Contract Theory used a number of times here as an argument against libertarian or Objectivist arguments for freedom and natural rights, but I've never really directly answered them, basically because there is nothing to answer. I do reject the concept of a social contract, but that is irrelevant. Even if I were to concede that there is a social contract, and that I am willingly bound to it, it changes nothing about the arguments for or against individual freedom.
First of all, we need to understand what social contract means. Here is Wikipedia's description:
The term social contract describes a broad class of philosophical theories whose subject is the implied agreements by which people form nations and maintain social order. In laymen's terms this means that the people give up some rights to a government in order to receive social order. Social contract theory provides the rationale behind the historically important notion that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. The starting point for most of these theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent any social order, termed the “state of nature” or “natural state”. In this state of being, an individual’s action is bound only by his or her conscience. From this common starting point, the various proponents of social contract theory attempt to explain, in different ways, why it is in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily subrogate the freedom of action one has under the natural state (their so called “natural rights”) in order to obtain the benefits provided by the formation of social structures.
This all sounds very plausible, especially since we do all enjoy great benefits from living in an ordered society, fairly free of rapists, murderers, and thieves. We also gain the benefit of mutual cooperation, with the economic benefits of a division of labor. All this, and more, is very good reason to live in a community with mutually agreed upon rules of conduct.

But, there are a whole number of problems with this theory, not least of which the idea that the freedom we would have in this mythical or metaphorical "natural state" represents natural rights. As I said, living in an ordered society leaves us for the most part free of rapists, murderers, and thieves. In the "natural state", we would NOT be free of such human predators. Whatever our situation in the natural state, it would not be freedom. By forming societies and governments, we are not giving up freedoms, but securing them. Rape, murder and theft are not rights, but their violation.

This should be enough to disprove social contract theory, but it is not my main point. The fact of the matter is that, even if true, social contract theory would not prove natural rights theory wrong. What it is used for, when arguing against Objectivists and libertarians is to distract them, and to tell them to shut up.

If I were to concede social contract theory as true, I could still argue to amend the terms of the contract. Statists of all kinds, communists, welfare statists, "21st century socialists", as well as fascists and theocrats, all want to make changes in government, in our laws, and even in the accepted moral/ethical theories that the law is based on. Our communities amend the "social contract" all the time by different processes of democratic elections, parliamentary procedure, court presedence, and in America, ammendments to the Constitution. These are all different forms of debate and action taken to change the government. But when you use the social contract theory against someone who is arguing for natural rights, all you are basically saying is "This is the way it is. You already agreed to it as it is, so shut up." You are begging the question, assuming that the specific law in question is right and just because it is the law, and thus part of the social contract. If you yourself want to advocate for social change and new laws, you are being a hypocrite. Why should you be free to advocate change to the government, but not Objectivists or libertarians?

What I have noticed in particular is that the social contract theory, in its most general form, is meaningless, with no description of what form society should take. It could be used to justify any social organization, fascism,  democracy,  monarchy, communism, or even a limited contitutional republic with a laissez-faire capitalist economy, whatever the system of the moment happens to be. Any theory that can explain any fact, actually explains nothing. The only way out of this problem is to presuppose some natural law above the contract, giving it a context and moral purpose. There are reasons why we want to live in an ordered society, namely protection of our right to life. This presupposes natural rights, which is what I have always seen social contract theory used to try to disprove.

Thats why it is both a red herring and question begging. Its a distraction, an attempt to get the natural rights advocate arguing about social contract theory instead of the issue at hand. Instead of discussing the consequences of a progressive income tax, whether redistributive policies are moral, whether or not employment is exploitation, the consequences of protectionist tariffs and whose rights they actually violate, or the morality and practicality of Obamacare, or the nature of property rights, it gets us debating the existence or non-existence of  some mythical contract that nobody has ever seen. And it assumes that you can prove the present social system is moral and voluntary because, supposedly, the natural rights theorist has already agreed to live in a society, and live by its rules. In other words, its just a way to say "Shut up, I don't want to hear what you have to say."

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