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If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live.—Dr. Martin Luther King

Democracy & the Social Contract

We owe much of the philosophy of our constitutional government to Plato (428– 347 BC) and to three Enlightenment philosophers who developed theories of political thought: Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679); John Locke (1632–1704); and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 –1778).

Plato's dialog, the Crito, is a conversation between Socrates and his wealthy friend Crito discussing justice, injustice, and the appropriate response to injustice. Socrates has been arrested and condemned to death. He tells Crito that injustice may not be answered with injustice, and refuses Crito's offer to finance his escape from prison. He explains that since he has willingly remained in Athens all of his life despite opportunities to go elsewhere, he has accepted the social contract, the burden of the local laws. He cannot violate these laws even when they are against his self-interest.

The Enlightenment philosophers taught that human life would be “nasty, brutish, and short” without political authority. In its absence, we would live in a state of nature, where each person has unlimited natural freedoms, including the “right to all things” and thus the freedom to harm all who threaten our own self-preservation; there would be an endless “war of all against all.” To avoid this, free men establish political community, i.e. civil society through a social contract in which each gains civil rights in return for subjecting himself to civil law or to political authority.

The notion of the social contract is that individuals unite into a society by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by certain rules and to accept duties to protect one another from violence, fraud, or negligence. It implies that the people give up sovereignty to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order through the rule of law. It can also be thought of as an agreement by the governed on a set of rules by which they are governed. It is the basis of democracy, asserting that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed.
President Obama's Interview with Bill Maher
Young American Talking About Community Values

Introduction to Political Philosophy, Open Yale Courses
Lectures on Democracy and Participation, presented by Professor Steven B. Smith
This Open Yale course is an introduction to political philosophy as seen through an examination of some of the major texts and thinkers of the Western political tradition. The three lectures linked below discuss the philosophy of the 18th century thinker, Rousseau. The first lecture places Rousseau in context, within the historical and political events in France after the death of Louis XIV, in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Rousseau helped bring to fruition the political and intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. In the second lecture, The Social Contract is discussed with an emphasis on the concept of freedom, and how one's desire to preserve one's freedom is often in conflict with that of others to protect and defend their own. The third lecture looks at the concept of "general will," considered Rousseau's most important contribution to political science. It is presented as the answer to the gravest problems of civilization, namely, the problems of inequality and general discontent. The Social Contract is the foundation of the general will and the answer to the problem of natural freedom, because nature itself provides no guidelines for determining who should rule.

Each of these excellent lectures is about 45 minutes long and was delivered to a class of Yale students in 2009.
Lecture 1 (#18)
Lecture 2 (#19)
Lecture 3 (#20)

Seven Billion People


7 Billion/News Story
AP News/ 7 Billion People
10 Billion people by 2050?

What Does it Mean to Live in a Democracy?

In President Obama's farewell address (January 10, 2017), he addresses the nature of the social contract in his insistence that citizens of a democracy must participate in their governing structure.

Informed Consent: The Affordable Care Act



Importance of Questions

What is the point of asking questions about issues like torture, gun control, immigration or freedom of speech?

In the end, most political decisions we make, both collectively and individually, even when we vote, are fundamentally ethical in character. We may believe, for example, that issues like abortion, gay marriage, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or Climate Change should be addressed in one particular way. We may decide to vote for politicians who we think will address these issues the way we want them to, that they will “represent” us in congress.

It’s important with any ethical decision, whether it’s personal or political, that we go deeply enough into the facts and context of the issue, to understand it properly. For example, with guns: it may be that we can support the banning of an assault rifle or an extended clip, even if we want to make sure that we still retain the right to carry a weapon. We may not approve of weapons being allowed on campuses, in statehouses, or in bars. We may want there to be some kind of check that prevents people with mental health issues from easily obtaining weapons. In the same way, we may want to understand and consider our history as a country of immigrants when we think and talk about the immigrant issue. It may impact our stand, but even if it doesn’t, it may change the way we talk about it. We may find we have more compassion and wisdom, when we have more information and can see more than one side of an issue. That’s what is important.

Elizabeth Warren


Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking about the Social Contract. Ms. Warren was a Harvard law professor when she ran for the senate in 2012 and won. The video clip is from one of her campaign events.

Mendocino County Library Tax

In 2008 the people of Mendocino County voted to raise their taxes in order to keep the libraries open. This is an example of the Social Contract at work, everyone pitching in some small amount to keep a resource available that the community needs and/or benefits from having.

Benefits of Vote that Funded the Libraries

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