The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Social contract

Crito

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Shortly before his execution for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was visited in his prison cell by his friend Crito, who offered Socrates a chance to escape. To Crito’s surprise, Socrates turned him down, remained in his cell, and was made to drink hemlock soon after.

Socrates said that he saw all this coming. He knew at the outset that his determination to challenge presumed authority wherever he found it would make him powerful enemies; knew that the consequences would be dire, perhaps fatal. But because he knew what would happen – and because, motivated by a higher commitment to intellectual honesty, he went ahead anyway – he was duty bound to accept his punishment, however severe. He’d already made his decision. Now he was following through with it.

What we have here is a social contract: a citizen’s implicit agreement to abide by a society’s rules in order to benefit from the services it offers. Yes, Athenian society was corrupt and killed dissenters, but there were other societies to choose from, and Socrates had chosen Athens. He had made a free-market decision that this society offered the best cost/benefit ratio, and going to his death was, to him, keeping his end of the bargain.

Very noble, and very moving; but was his analysis correct?

The notion of accepting a society’s demands because you were free to choose another has a dangerous flip-side. It showed its face in a recent documentary about radical Islam, where a clear-eyed young man and self-confessed terrorist calmly stated that the government of the UK had committed terrible crimes; and because the British people voted for that government in a free election, they are directly responsible for its actions. They are enemy combatants, valid targets for military action.

This is an appalling doctrine. And yet it is only the social contract turned on its head. If you consent to benefitting from society’s gains, you also consent to culpability for its crimes.

That is my objection to Socrates’ acquiescence. He should not have taken it lying down. Contrast it with an assessment by Christopher Hitchens:

…as you read this you are in effect wearing a military uniform and sitting in a very exposed trench. You exist at the whim of people whose power does not derive from your own consent and who regard you as expendable, disposable. You merely failed to notice the moment at which you were conscripted. … I do not recognise the legitimacy of a government that puts me in that position.

No system of representative government perfectly expresses the view of any one person. Nor should it; that way lies dictatorship. Democratic government is a compromise reached between people with wildly differing views. I heartily endorse the machinery of government that takes as input suggestions for policies, and then modifies and improves them with bargaining and debate – but I reserve the right not to be happy with the result.

When Crito came to Socrates, I would rather Socrates had found the government that sentenced him guilty of gross negligence, and decided that the social contract no longer bound him. I would rather he’d escaped. But then, I do like a happy ending.

REFERENCES

The Hitchens bit was from Letters to a Young Contrarian.

The dialogue of Crito can be found in its entirety here.

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Written by The S I

October 13, 2011 at 11:59 pm

None Of The Above

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There are two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, the freedom from oppression; and positive freedom, the freedom to achieve one’s potential.*

A caveman wandering alone is, in the negative sense, as free as he could possibly be. But although nobody is around to tell him what to do, this does not mean he is able to do anything. He is not free to fly faster than the speed of sound in an aeroplane. He is not free to listen to an orchestra. He is not free to look at distant galaxies through a telescope. And if he falls and breaks his leg, he is free only to starve to death in agony.

To do these things he will have to cooperate with others, and this means losing the right to act however he likes. He accepts a certain amount of control over his life by others, in order to do things he would not otherwise be able to do. Having a life expectancy greater than twenty-five is probably worth not being able to butcher any other caveman you meet.

This is why humans formed societies: to allow them to achieve things in groups that they could not do alone. Not all these personal positive-freedom dreams are equally attainable; nor are they mutually compatible. It is the role of government to facilitate the achievement of our potential, whether this is our potential to learn to read, our potential to survive a treatable illness regardless of our economic background, or our potential to investigate the inner workings of the universe.

I am not saying that we should prostrate ourselves at the mercy of our superiors and allow them to grant us wishes. The freedom to declare oneself one’s own boss and say hang the consequences is valuable even for its own sake. But acknowledging that we are surrendering some freedoms to achieve others allows us to think of what we should reasonably expect for what we have traded in – and what inequalities in society we should think of as failures of that society.

Of course this social-contract model of society is just a fiction, a convenient way of justifying why there needs to be a government. But in fact none of us was ever asked. We are born into our societies; which one we end up in is largely dependent on where our mother’s uterus happens to be at the time, which is hardly the best way of making any important decision. And while migration does allow us some market freedom, this increasingly owned planet is offering us fewer and fewer chances of ticking the box marked ‘none of the above’.

When governments don’t give us value for money ­– positive freedom for negative freedom, opportunity for rules – we can’t take our custom elsewhere. We have to demand some changes.

 

* See Isaiah Berlin. The words negative and positive do not correspond here with bad and good; they’re just names.

Written by The S I

July 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm