“The act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals, and that each individual, in making a contract, as we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign. But the maxim of civil right, that no one is bound by undertakings made to himself, does not apply in this case; for there is a great difference between incurring an obligation to yourself and incurring one to a whole of which you form a part”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
I don’t know about you, but I think we should once again teach the basic principals of Rousseau’s Social Contract as part of high school civics. As a society that’s increasingly more self-absorbed than ever, we need desperately need Rousseau. It’s a sad comment on American society to say that we need to be reminded of our social obligations, but it’s true nonetheless.
In his book, Rousseau outlined the need for a political community that worked by addressing both individual and society’s rights and how the two were not mutually exclusive; one cannot work without the other. Although his book and the philosophy behind it pointedly addressed political ideas (some of which laid the foundation of American politics) Rousseau was quick to point out that this contract extended to citizenship; society is made up of both individuals and a collective whole. Rousseau reminded his readers that individuals who value their rights or freedom and self-expression must also admit that this freedom only works if smaller rights are given up for the common good.
A good example of this can be seen on our roadways. We have the freedom to choose our car and when we drive it, but we don’t have complete freedom of how we drive. Because each individual has this freedom there are thousands of cars on our streets and highways. We have rules governing our driving; i.e., stop signs; lights; and speed limits. When we ignore these rules we are ignoring our obligation to the social contract.
Rousseau is not the first to want to outline a set of rules for societal behavior. We can look to the 174 B.C. E. Babylonia Code of Hammurabi. This code, or set of rules of law is one of oldest we’ve found to date. This set of codes were posted on stone blocks, some posted as you entered Hammurabi’s city. These codes covered everything from contract law to marriage laws. Some historians believe that this set of finely detailed codes were written in response to a growing society whose members needed reminding of their social obligations as well as political authority. Some things never change.
Though the 10 Commandments were part of the covenant between the Jewish god Yahweh and his chosen people, Christians have adopted them as part of their social contract. Some even suggest that these laws should part of our secular social contract to be posted on government buildings. I disagree for the following reasons:
- The commandments are too basic. If you don’t know the “Thou shalt not kill” rule before you are an adult member of society, you probably don’t belong in society, period. Here’s one that we do need: Thou shalt not text or talk and drive. If you are an individual whose phone call can’t wait, you’d have a limo driver. Come to think of it, if you don’t know this rule by the time you are old enough to drive, you shouldn’t have a license.
- America is home to many religions and if we start putting up rules based on one, we’d have to put them all up. Who’s going to take the time to read all the rules? What if they contradict each other? Which ones do you follow?
- Having rules based on religious text is the definition of Sharia; A Middle Eastern approach to political and social lawmaking. I find it hysterical that conservative religious Americans do not see the irony that while panicking over the idea of Sharia taking over their towns, they are trying to force it upon themselves. But I digress…
We need to study and learn about Rousseau’s social contract because as we are given more and more freedom and choices, we are unwilling to give any up. We are forgetting that society only works because historically we have agreed to limit our freedoms or “rights”.
I’ve touched on this before in another post, but as our lifestyle choices have expanded so too has the erroneous belief that we can “do what we want”. Or in some cases, don’t do what we want. Yes, if you live on a deserted island or deep underground than by all means don’t vaccinate your kids if you don’t want to. But because you live in a large society, your personal choice does affect those around you, so you better get your children vaccinated if you want them to be part of the collective whole.
We have forgotten that in shared public areas there are limits to our individual rights. This is where a good civics lesson comes in. We need to teach our children that society only works when its members agree and adhere to its rules. Respect for society reflects our need for individual respect, yet too many people refuse to acknowledge this basic tenant. Instead of posting the 10 commandments, maybe we should come up with a list of 10 basic social contract rules.
- Thou shalt not talk in a movie theater. This is what a home theater is for. We don’t want or need to know that you’ve seen this move already and can’t wait for your friend to see….
- Thou shalt not be so lazy that you cannot put your shopping cart away. Or didn’t your mother teach you to put things away when you were done using them? Someone else would like to use that parking space after you are finished.
- Thou shalt not sigh loudly while in line. You are not the only person on the planet who has things to do. Be happy you have the money to purchase items and aren’t standing in a soup kitchen line. Oh and if you are, don’t sigh then either, remember, your getting a free meal.
- Thou shalt not say, “I know” when in fact you don’t know. There is nothing more irritating to the gods than hearing people say they know something to be true when in reality they have no facts or evidence to support such claims. The gods really hate it when you post this kind nonsense on Facebook.
- Thou shalt not open carry a gun on the public shared space. No, you aren’t telling us you have the ability to defend yourself, your telling us you have a small penis and that is way too much personal information. If you want to carry a concealed weapon for personal safety, you have that right. But you do not have the right to freak the rest of us out. How are we supposed to know you aren’t the real threat?
- Thou shalt not bring screaming babies into restaurants. Some of us paid to leave our screaming kids at home and don’t want to hear yours.
- Thou shalt stop being offended by every little thing that you don’t agree with or upsets you or you don’t find funny. Society has an obligation to ensure all are treated equally but under no such obligation to ensure your personal pet peeves are dealt with. Life does not come with trigger warning so grow up and get over it.
That’s only seven but you get the point. It is increasingly clear that in almost every area of society there are those who refuse to acknowledge their role and obligation to the social contract. This is why we desperately need Rousseau and renew basic civil lessons. A society is only as good as its members. If we continue down this path of self-absorption, how long can society really last?
Please feel free to comment and add to the list of modern commandments.