Musing: The Social Contract and Religion

I know this may come as a shock, but I don’t always know exactly what I’m talking about. My previous essay (on polygamy) was an exercise in thinking on digital paper, and so too is this article. This one is a good bit longer than I usually aim for, but I’ll justify it by not caring. I was thinking aloud here with no real end goal, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the word count. The title reflects the course of my musing, and if either of those things strike your fancy (or even if not), feel free to read and comment.

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We’re social animals. Our societies are built as a consequence of this. We live and work together in groups, so it is only natural that we should develop ways to manage these groups. This process hasn’t always been terribly efficient, of course, which doesn’t take a history degree to see, given mankind’s long history of violence and war. The dust has been settling for some time, and as we have periodically endured periods of chaos, our ability to work together in pro-social ways has improved as a consequence. Rather than living and dying by the sword, we’ve come to thrive under an increasingly less violent social contract.

Under the social contract model, individuals consent to the giving up of some of the freedoms that would be present in the state of nature (e.g., the freedom to murder your neighbor) in order to be a part of the larger society. This consent is implicitly given when one reaps of the benefits offered by participating in that society—basically, if you want to enjoy the advantages of having electricity, clean water, police, roads, and so on, you give the state a certain amount of control over your life in doing so. In most of the developed world, the rights that citizens are obligated to abrogate are not terribly severe: violence is the domain of the state, a certain percentage of one’s income must be devoted to the maintenance of society, and so on.

Like any contract, however, a person can choose not to sign. In this case, it is possible to reject the social contract. People of reasoning age can choose for themselves to do this, however, only by leaving society. Nothing obligates anyone to stay and participate, but as long as they are reaping the benefits of living in a society, they are obligated to contribute—to play by that society’s rules. One cannot adopt a “law of the jungle” mentality, which would be fine in nature where killing may be necessary for daily survival, when one is living in the concrete jungle, where killing is one of the primary taboos.

If you want to eschew contemporary society and live a pre-technological life, you can do this. Even if you may be required to leave your country of birth to do so, that does not make such a thing impossible. Granted, you may be required to endure a bit of irony in that making this decision for yourself likely requires the utilization of modern technological marvels (manufactured goods, at a minimum, and very likely mass transit to get there in the first place), but if you can overlook this, your path is your own. I can think of no morally justifiable reason that a society would seek to deny an otherwise normal person the freedom to leave. (Of course, if you’re trying to escape from justice after committing a crime, don’t expect much lenience.)

Accepting the premise that people causing no harm have the right to act as they see fit, it seems to follow that there is no good reason to try to stop someone from withdrawing from society. But what about someone who can’t make that choice for themselves? If an adult wants to live in an abandoned coal mine, fully cognizant of the risks entailed in such a thing and fully willing to deny medical care from the society being abandoned, I can see little reason to intervene. If, rather than a coal mine, a person merely chooses to live underground, we may view this as eccentric, but not necessarily cause for concern. The recent case of an Islamic sect recently discovered to have been living underground for almost a decade highlights a real-world example of this very thing:

Local media said Mr Sattarov’s followers were found in a series of dirty, damp cells on eight different levels underneath a shabby house with a small minaret situated in a yard surrounded by high fences.

Television pictures showed women and children emerging from the basement, which had reportedly been enlarged into a rabbit-run of about 30 small chambers.

Only a few members of the sect were allowed to leave the premises to work at a local market, officials said. The children did not go to school and the group refused to visit doctors.

A number were suffering from anaemia and tuberculosis. Prosecutors said that adult members of the sect were being investigated on suspicion of child abuse. No arrests have yet been made.

Here, we have a rather different scenario. What should be done if a person wants to bring a small child along for their lifestyle of permanent spelunking? Now things become a bit more … murky. We recognize the right of parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, but is this right universal? Should a parent be allowed to subject their child to overt harms for the sake of parental freedom? The traditional answer to this question has been an overwhelming no. No evidence of physical abuse has yet come to light, but the allegations of such apparently formed the initial motivation for investigating.

Was this an instance of a people rejecting the social contract and withdrawing from society? Not really, no. The sect (can we call it a cult?) was, essentially, seeking to prey upon its host society by making use of all of its benefits (protection from foreign invasion, trading with members of that society, etc.) without contributing anything back to it. Its behavior is parasitic.

Of course, it isn’t impossible for pocket societies to develop legitimately. Consider the case of Amish. Have they withdrawn from society? Partially, yes; certainly in a very similar manner to this underground Islamic sect. Why, then, would it be okay for a government to invade this Islamic sect and take custody of its children? The difference is clear—the Amish have not rejected American social contract. Rather, they have successfully negotiated a different contract within the confines of the larger US government; they asked for special considerations, and (some of?) those considerations were granted. By using the legitimate tools available to all signatories of the original social contract, they have traded reduced state aid for reduced obligations to the state.

This Islamic sect, rather than negotiating a new contract, merely presumed it had the power to dismiss the authority of the state. It did not really free itself of the social contract because it was still a small part of that society (even if not a particularly positive part). But let’s put this aside for now. Let’s pretend that they had indeed freed themselves from the bond of obedience to that social contract. What would the consequences of that be?

Broadly speaking, governments exist to serve their people. People should not have cause to fear their governments—if there is the perception that a government wishes its people harm, that government appears to be broken. If a government passed a law permitting the arbitrary murder of innocent civilians by police and/or military forces, we would interpret that country as existing in a state of anarchy. That government would have abdicated its legitimacy. We can similarly conclude that states committing arbitrary violence against their populace is a Bad Thing™, and that would include storming into a church, temple, mosque, or Italian restaurant for the purpose of removing children would be an inherently questionable activity. (Sure, it’s justifiable for the purpose of righting preexisting wrongs, but doing this with no justification would be reprehensible.) This attitude is the product of the social contract, which says that, because individuals have given up their freedom to do violence, the state, as the owner of legitimate violence, will not misuse its power.

If one has rejected that social contract, by what reasoning can one seek refuge from that entity? This seems to be a bit of a Catch-22—either you consent to delegate your right to violence (if it can be called a right) to the state, or the state is free to exercise violence on you. You cannot say, in any intellectually consistent manner, “according to the rules of the social contract, you may not invade my house” after rejecting that social contract. The issue hearkens back to the days of the US Civil War; by seeking to secede, you are saying that the ruling state no longer has any claim over the land you occupy. Can one really expect that state to give up a part of itself?

The participating members of the mother society are free to insist that their government allow defectors to pass unharmed, and indeed, this is the only method by which the shirker of the social contract can reasonably be expected to evade official reprisal. Even in such a circumstance, however, it is the will of those that adhere to the social contract that causes defection to be forgiven.

In the present case, it comes as no surprise that the group in question was an explicitly religious one. Many religions reject the notion of the state as an authority—when compared with their deity of choice, the state is interpreted to have no real power. To these believers, all “true” laws belong only to the divine, and earthly laws are only to be followed when they are in accordance with divine law. It is to be expected, then, when this faithful minority tries to seize its freedom from state governance (and, oddly enough, so commonly without also abstaining from the benefits that state provides). The debacles of Jonestown and Waco are nothing if not the inevitable consequence of the teaching that human authority is meaningless in the face of divine command. In order to participate in the social contract, one must be willing to cede freedoms to the state, not to a god, yet religious institutions exert powerful influence over governments worldwide. To the fundamentalist, the very concept of a social contract is untenable due to the supposed existence of a “higher authority,” so the human-developed government is the subject of open scorn. In spite of the repeated challenges to state authority, however, many governments buckle, acquiescing to the demands of the religious. They reject the social contract, at least in part, but they often expect to pay no price for doing so. For a time, they become complacent; the government hasn’t intervened yet, so obviously it will never do so—praise the gods! Until the government does, anyway.

I find that a rather curious thing—it’s almost as if they really believe their gods will protect them from earthly intervention. Is there a purer exercise of faith to be found? Naturally, adherents of other sects never see the failure of that sect’s god to protect them as evidence of anything more than the inaccuracy of that sect. How rarely they go that extra step…


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