[from the old blog again…]
I have long had a problem with book 1, chapter 9, of Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’, the chapter titled ‘Real Property’. To me the failure of this treatise has always been the scantiness of available land outside the monopoly of the Sovereign (something perhaps Rousseau did not adequately anticipate in his time) which brings into doubt the genuineness of the contract’s rhetoric that people have a choice to opt in or out through their own free volition. This condition is the basis for the ethical underpinning of the whole enterprise, it is what gives the body politic a ‘natural’ right to exist. As the social contract plays out in modern democratic societies, demarcated by borders and plots of land divvied up to its members, there appears no viable alternative to the contract that an individual may pursue without having to take recourse to usurp land claimed by the Sovereign. Land is an essential factor in an individual’s ability, let alone right, to make shelter and cultivate for food. Without an alternative, the limited choices afforded to the individual are hardly fair: one can usurp the land and suffer the penalties incurred, one can move to another part of the world inevitably at the mercy of the jurisdictional powers of another social contract, one can commit suicide, or one can join the Sovereign whose jurisdiction one is presently residing within.
To make this easier to cite, I am offering my positions in point form:
1) The rhetorical allure of the social contract hinges upon the notion that people are free to opt in or out of the contract of their own free volition, but I contend that no such volition exists so long as the Sovereign has a monopoly on the use of land and no clear alternative is made available.
2) In lieu of the individual having no viable alternative, and thus participating as an involuntary member of the social contract, he/she bears no contingent ethical complicity with the decisions made by its governing principles. This is true even if the individual participates through the available democratic channels, i.e. if he/she votes.
3) On the other hand, and this bears noting, the individual does bear ethical responsibility for his/her own actions (including voting) but this ethical responsibility is not contingent upon his/her membership, but rather upon his/her relationship as a human being to his fellow man. The social contract is an artificial agreement of coercive involvement whereas the mere reality of being alive and co-existing with other people is a natural agreement of the human condition.
In this case, there are two ethics, and while they sometimes appear to overlap it is important to appreciate at any given time which we bear responsibility for. For example, I do not have an ethical responsibility for the pro-active decisions of my government in their military pursuits in Afghanistan, but I may have an ethical responsibility to do what in my limited democratic powers I can to dissuade a certain executive decision to be made. I say ‘may’, because again, I do not associate ethical responsibility with the impersonal conclusions of a common will, or a categorical imperative… I take my cues from my conscience.
This brings me to a chapter from Dostoevsky’s ‘Karamazov Brothers’ pertaining to man’s ethical responsibilities, the prima facie ethics of co-existence. The chapter, titled ‘Rebellion’ is one of the most notorious of the novel, the first segment of a larger philosophical discussion between two of the Karamazov brothers, Ivan and Aloysha, as they wrestle with the implications of guilt and Christianity in the real world. Nothing I could say here would do justice to the impression one could have reading Dostoevsky’s words directly, so I implore you to read it; instead of trying to paraphrase the discussion in any sort of detail I will sum up my main point pertaining to it (incidentally this reading of the chapter is wholesale borrowed from the lecture of Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus as taken from his podcast lecture).
Ivan Karamazov, fresh from his studies in Moscow, has returned to his hometown with some radical new ideas that trouble his young brother Aloysha’s deep-seated religious convictions. These ideas culminate in Ivan’s epic poem, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, one of the most devastating indictments of Christianity ever put into words; however, leading up to this climax, Ivan reveals to Aloysha his personal religious stance: the suffering of innocent children in the world is too steep a price for God’s divine plan of salvation in the afterlife. While not wavering in his belief in God, Ivan renounces his ‘ticket’ of membership to God’s plan - the ‘rebellion’ as Alosyha puts it – out of his rhetorical guilt for the suffering children. Rhetorical, which professor Dreyfus convincingly observes, due to the fact that Dostoevsky plants numerous clues as to the sadistic nature of Ivan that contradicts the noble self projection that is offered in his great act of rebellion. Appreciating the context of the character, Ivan chooses to renounce God’s plan not because of guilt but because of the philosophical loophole he thinks he has uncovered through his powers of reasoning. His rebellion is one of detached observation (no coincidence he worked as an eyewitness reporter of crime scenes) and it is this detachment that inevitably leads Ivan to make the crucial mistake in his reasoning: the living are culpable in the actions of the world and there is no place on earth one can exist outside of this complicity. Therefore there is no ticket to revoke and no means of cleansing one’s role in the prima facie ethics of co-existence, so long as one continues to live one affects others directly and indirectly as a result.
I bring up Ivan’s rebellion to underscore the dichotomy between two kinds of ethics (not to say there are definitively two kinds or only two kinds): there is the ethical responsibility one feels pertaining to voluntary membership of a social contract, an individual-to-agreement relationship, and what I deem to be the fundamental ethical responsibility of which the social contract only indirectly pertains to insofar as its membership is comprised of humans, the responsibility owing to co-existence (as illustrated in Ivan’s rebellion). The Sovereign is not a person, it is an idea, and one’s obligation to it through voluntary identification as a member of it, burdens the individual with a second-tier of obligations of which one can rightly accuse him/her of complicit ethical responsibilities as outlined by the particulars of the social contract.
An example of this is the president of the United States who under oath swears to the best of his/her ability ‘to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States’. Thus functioning as an executor of sovereign powers with this mandate in mind the president has dual obligations, one to an idea, the other to people, through which his choices may be scrutinized; with regards to his prima facie ethical responsibilities, I give him no more burden of action then I dole out to myself: the burden of reconciling pangs of conscience with decisions within one’s feasible capabilities. A person in a position of power over other people, to the extent that George Bush clearly is, has more far-reaching opportunities to reconcile his pangs of conscience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina then someone like myself. If there were no pangs of conscience then I cannot legitimately accuse the president of being unethical in this regard. The same liberty cannot be given with regards to his obligations to the ideas of which he has vowed to uphold: he has a duty to the best of his ability to uphold the security of the members of the sovereign, and he failed them.
Now this is the juicy bit of my argument, so listen up: there is a justified double standard in this which is that those victims of Hurricane Katrina and botched recovery in need of assistance bear no de facto ethical responsibility to the Sovereign, whereas there is a de facto ethical responsibility of the Sovereign (and by its representatives) by nature of the very contents of the contract.