Anyone who reads the articles on religion and the supernatural in this blog, or in anything else I’ve published, knows that I have some philosophical and logical difficulties with religion. A number of people have taken the position that if I don’t believe that we are created and watched over by a god who defines what is moral, if, in fact, there is no god, then there is no rational basis for morality. That suggestion is often accompanied by the implication that it therefore follows that I, as an atheist, have no business writing or even commenting on ethical or moral issues.
I have started to attempt to formulate a justification for morality independent of any reliance on imaginary all-powerful friends who make up the rules by which we ought to live. There is little that is completely original in the formulation I am attempting; it is more an attempt to explain, using personal analysis and reference to philosophy, how a rationalist atheist can also lay claim to a moral code. This, of course has some impact upon related matters including political theory, legal and judicial theory, and epistemology.
At this point, the formulation I am trying to develop is mostly groping in the dark; I’m not really sure what direction it will end up going, but what I’m blogging here is part of a rough first attempt.
The contract basis of government
Since human society, from the simple family unit to the modern nation state and even the international community, has existed, there has been some form of government. In its most fundamental form, government is simply the mechanism by which the duties and rights of human beings within the society of others are allocated. This model of human organisation can be extended to describe everything from the interaction of human beings within the basic, prehistoric human nuclear family of the hunter-gatherer father and his mate who nurtures their offspring to modern geopolitical interactions among modern nation-states.
These relationships, even in the most rudimentary form of family units, can be seen as primitive forms of government. Government initially was a function of evolution; evolution, being the mechanism by which species and individuals within those species survive and progress, drives the members to behave in ways conducive to the survival of the individuals and therefore the perpetuation of the species through the transmission of the genes of viable members from one generation to the next. Government can therefore be understood as an evolutionary imperative.
Thomas Hobbes, in his seminal book, Leviathan, proposed a thought experiment. He described an imaginary prehistoric world populated by humans in which relationships – primitive precursors of society and therefore of government – did not exist. The existence of man in such an environment was summarised in one of the most famous and turgid phrases in all philosophical literature. The life of man, Hobbes proposed, would have been, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
The way out of this dreadful condition, according to Hobbes, was to make what he described as “covenants”. This was nothing more than individuals, out of their own self-interest and a desire to survive and propagate, making deals with others for their mutual benefit.
From the first two proto-humans who, upon stumbling upon a dead mastodon, agreed that one could eat the back end while the other ate the front end without killing one another, covenants for mutual benefit were formed; deals were struck, and society developed for the benefit of all. Life began to be less solitary, its poverty, nastiness, and brutality began to wane, and humans even lived a bit longer.
For the covenants, however, which are the mortar that holds together all societies and gives form to their formal expressions, governments, one critical element must be present: honesty. A covenant, a deal, an agreement, a contract…call it what you will…does not exist in fact unless the parties involved adhere to its terms. The parties must also be expected to uphold the terms, tacit or explicit of the agreement; underlying all agreements is an element of trust. For society and government to serve the purpose for which it has come into being, there must be a presumption that the people involved will honour their ends of the bargain.
Because some form of duplicity will always exist, and integrity is far from universal, laws have become an inextricable adjunct to covenants. These are sanctions intended to enforce compliance; that is, laws are intended to ensure that the parties will behave as promised in the performance of the contracts into which they have entered. Nevertheless, for there to be any genuinely viable system of organised society, and therefore government, there must be a basic presumption that, on the whole, parties to a contract can be trusted to perform as promised. Without that presumption, society would never have developed after the first proto-human snuck up and killed the other party to the agreed-upon division of the dead mastodon. Other proto-humans would be somewhat disinclined to engage in other covenants, and the world would continue to exist, as Hobbes put it, in a state of a war of all against all. Life in a state of nature in which covenants cannot be relied upon would continue to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And there would be a lot of leftover mastodon meat wasted.
Government, another way of saying organised society, therefore relies upon the integrity of that society’s members. Integrity and honesty have come to be considered moral virtues and are espoused and encouraged by religions and any responsible moral code. However, the intrinsic morality and ineffable nature of whether honesty is good or bad is not at issue here; the general tendency to tell the truth, to keep one’s word, to honour obligations, to respect covenants, all these are pragmatic virtues. The value of honesty, beyond its moral considerations is its utility. It is a general pattern of behaviour with integrity and an assumption that such is the prevailing inclination that makes society and human interaction on a broad scale possible.
This social contract model of government is among the oldest theoretical models and the most broadly discussed; it has been analysed in detail from the time of Socrates until today. In fact, it was Socrates himself who provides the clearest example of the need for an assumption of integrity for the social contract model of government to work.
In his Apology, Socrates argues persuasively for his obligation to accept the judgement – even if it was unjust – of the people of Athens who tried him and sentenced him to death. Socrates had been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and with failing to give the legal gods their due respect. Although he brilliantly presented his classic defence, he was unconciliatory and refused to acknowledge having committed the crimes of which he was accused. Simply assuming a penitent stance and admitting that he had done wrong would almost certainly have resulted in his acquittal, but that was not in Socrates’ nature. In any case he was found guilty and sentenced to death, by hemlock poisoning, an act he could perform in his cell at a time of his choosing.
In the Apology (The Death of Socrates), in which Socrates justifies his acceptance of his sentence and punishment, despite the certainty that his friends and pupils could spirit him away into exile in another part of the Helenic world, the social contract is the backbone of Socrates’ argument. He argued that Athens had been like a parent to him; had fed, clothed, employed, and nurtured him his entire life; that like a good son, he would obey his parent, even when he disagreed with a decision. For Socrates the integrity required to uphold his end of the social contract he had with Athens was crucial…he drank the hemlock and died because, fundamentally, he had – at least tacitly – given his word; he had entered into a contract and he obeyed its terms.
The concept of government being contractually based is currently, and has been for a long time, the most widely accepted view of organised social relations. The social contract for Hobbes was perhaps harder to explain or justify, since he set himself the challenge of arguing both that kings had the divine right to rule dictatorially, and, at the same time, that those same kings ruled by way of consent – of contract – with their subjects. He manages to do it with great elegance and panache, but his arguments and conclusions are open to dispute and persuasive counterarguments.
When we look at modern democratic and quasi-democratic nation-states, however, the social contract basis of government becomes almost self-evident.
…more to come….