THE SOCIAL CONTRACT AND THE FOUNDATION OF MORALITY

social contract is the basis of all our laws and morals. Human rationality is agency that make people follow laws and morals. Laws are boundaries of major infringements of social contract, while morals are minor infringement of social contact. Change in social, economic and political circumstances bring about changes in the principle of social contract- more so for minor norms or morals and less so for major norms or laws. It is the human capacity for reason and rationality that make them follow laws and morals. Various degrees of compromise to human reason and rationality would cause various degree of infringements of social contract. Religion has no role in it. Religion was just a historical agency that acted as a vanguard of social contract. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for the practice of social contractReligion for historical reason formalized the lesser transgressions as morals and attached social restraint on these. Taboos developed as social restraint imposed by the social agency like religion. Here, we need to understand it is not religion which is the source of moral codes, but the social contract. Religion just happened to there as an agency through which principles of social contract is imposed.

Even if religion was not there, the principles of social contract would have imposed moral restrictions. An agnostics or atheist also follow moral principles.  The source of moral norms is human rationality that informs an individual that he is living in a society and that he has to follow the principles of social contract. Indeed, many religions that has developed rigid moral codes in the period of their origin find themselves increasingly anachronistic in the modern era where social circumstances as well as social and political relationships have changed.

The concept of social contract is a fundamental principle upon which human society and its rules and morals are laid down. We can discuss morals and ethics only after clarifying the concept of social contract. It was developed by a number of western thinkers. The foremost of them are the 17th century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and 18th century Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the 20th century, the American philosopher John Rawls expanded on the idea to develop a theory of justice.

In my exposition of the concept, I won’t be referencing these thinkers, but will propose an independent interpretation of the theme. I think this is important, as social contract is a principle “intuitively” understood by all rational human beings, and one just needs an illustration to understand how it works. These concepts are so robust that anyone can independently reach the same conclusion if these ideas were treated without bias.

We all know that man is a social animal, and without community man cannot for practical purposes make a living in the wild. We do not have the brute force of a tiger or a tusker to make it alone. We depend on society for security, division of labor, specialisation of labor, and the luxury of free time. If someone chooses to live alone, then they don’t need to have respect for law or follow moral codes. They can do whatever they wish to do. They can murder their father, rape their sister or cannibalise their brother. Nothing stops them. But if they choose to be part of a society, they cannot do that.They are essentially restrained by various kinds of norms – infringement of certain norms would make them a criminal or a pervert. In other words, certain transgressions of social contract are criminal and certain other transgressions are immoral.

Essentially, when a man chooses to be part of a community, he submits a part of his freedom to the community, in return for the  protection and security the society implicitly promises. The submission of my freedom for the reciprocal security of myself and my family is the implied contract we enter into with society. Social contract bars you from stealing, from killing your kin, from raping your sister or from telling lies.

For instance, Islam developed in a war economy where the number of women always outnumbered men because of attrition during war. Therefore, to maintain social order, Islam codified polygamy as an acceptable contact. In modern society however, the social and economic circumstances have changed and polygamy is undesirable. Conservative followers of Islam cling on to the idea of polygamy stating that it has divine sanction as a moral principle and cannot be changed. In the southern Indian agrarian state of Kerala, polyandry was an accepted norm among caste communities like the Nairs. In many families, children were of the mother’s lineage instead of the father’s and inheritance was matrilineal- from uncle to nephew. This system is no longer practiced. Had this practice been given “religious stature” as is given in Islam for polygamy, it would have generated unnecessary social tension. But Hinduism being a loose cultural practice without the rigidity of Semitic religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam, there was no vigorous conservative resistance when time-appropriate changes were effected to the moral codes.

Here we have to see two types of norms imposed by the social contract: soft norms that are morals and hard norms that are laws. That one should not steal, murder or rape are universally applicable norms that are not time and place insensitive. Most have prohibited these actions across various time periods. They are hard laws. Morals, on the contrary, are soft norms – they have their origin in the social, economic and political circumstances of the community. They change as the social, economic and political relationship changes.

As a person brought up in a particular society, he or she knows intuitively what is acceptable and what is undesirable conducts in that particular society. If a person conducts undesirably, he will over a period of time become a social outcast; and this would eventually impair his living in the society. Rational individuals have an intuitive understanding of this concept. On the contrary, there are people who do not have these insights. There are individuals who as children were not exposed to the benefits of ‘social contract’, and therefore, do not have an allegiance to ‘social contract’. Say people who have a very broken family, children exposed to criminal environment.  These people have higher probability of disowning norms of social contract- whether it is minor infringement as moral transgressions or major infringement as criminal transgressions. Similarly, there are rare individuals who because of biological reasons do not have the faculty of rationality normal human being possess, irrespective of the social circumstances of their upbringings.  These individuals exist irrespective of being religious or not.  As the American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg said, evil exist whether religion is there or not. But religion make good people commit evil things. This is precisely because religion is an outdated agency promoting principles of social contract from the social circumstances of its origin.

To conclude, social contract is the basis of all our laws and morals. Human rationality is agency that make people follow laws and morals. Laws are boundaries of major infringements of social contract, while morals are minor infringement of social contact. Change in social, economic and political circumstances bring about changes in the principle of social contract- more so for minor norms or morals and less so for major norms or laws. It is the human capacity for reason and rationality that make them follow laws and morals. Various degrees of compromise to human reason and rationality would cause various degree of infringements of social contract. Religion has no role in it. Religion was just a historical agency that acted as a vanguard of social contract. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for the practice of social contract.

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