Why Is the Social Contract Theory Important to Democracy

Many recent developments in negotiation theory and the social contract have adopted dynamic (Muldoon 2017, Vanderschraaf to come) or even evolutionary approaches to model collective bargaining (Alexander and Skyrms 1999, Skyrms 2014). This shows a general gap in negotiation patterns between what we can call axiomatic models and process models. The traditional axiomatic approach to the problem of negotiation dates back to John Nash, codified by John Harsanyi and popularized by R. Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa (1957). Several fundamental negotiating solutions have emerged from this tradition. Each uses a slightly different set of axioms to generate a unique and generally applicable method of dividing a surplus. These are mainly the Egalitarian (Raiffa 1953), the Nash (1950), the Stabilized Nash (Moehler 2010), the Kalai-Smorodinsky (1975) and Gauthier`s Minimax Relative Concession (1986). The main point of contention between these theories is whether Nash`s independence axiom should be used or whether an axiom of monotony should be used (as the egalitarian relative concessions of Kalai-Smorodinsky and Minimax do), although to some extent all axioms have been denied. This approach overcomes the problem of asymmetry identified above (VI) and ensures that a forward-looking regime of international justice does not reintroduce the hierarchies that exist between States into the status quo. The downside of this approach is that it deviates so radically from contemporary practice in which nation-states dominate international politics. In fact, it is quite possible that this alternative international social contract requires the complete reconceptualization of the state and the corresponding consideration of alternative forms of social organization.

Despite these difficulties, however, the social contract remains the most viable tool for political theorists to conceptualize the principles of global justice. The purpose of a social contract theory is to show that members of a society have reasons to support and adhere to the basic social rules, laws, institutions, and/or principles of that society. Simply put, it is a question of public justification, that is, of “determining whether a particular regime is legitimate or not and therefore worthy of loyalty” (D`Agostino 1996, 23). The ultimate goal of state-oriented theories of the social contract is to show that a political system can meet the challenge raised by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 1, whether or not “men are really capable of establishing good government by reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend on chance and violence for their political constitution” (Hamilton 1788). David Gauthier goes on to argue that any system of moral constraints must be justified against those to whom it is supposed to apply. “What theory of morality,” Gauthier asks, “can serve a useful purpose if it cannot show that all the duties it recommends are truly supported in the reason of each individual?” (1986, 1). Thomas Hobbes (2002, p.26), argued that the life of an individual in the state of nature was short, brutal, poor, lonely and evil, with a prevention of society due to self-interest and the absence of rights and contracts. The social contract was introduced by the first modern thinkers – Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf and John Locke, the best known of them – as a narrative of two things: the historical origins of sovereign power and the moral origins of the principles that make sovereign power just and/or legitimate. It is often associated in political theory with the liberal tradition because it presupposes the fundamental freedom and equality of all who enter into a political arrangement, as well as the associated rights that result from the principles of fundamental freedom and equality.

From this starting point, often conceived through the metaphor of a “state of nature,” social contract theory develops a representation of political legitimacy based on the idea that inherently free and equal people do not have the right to exercise power over each other, except in accordance with the principle of mutual consent. Rousseau`s theories of the social contract together form a unique and coherent vision of our moral and political situation. We are inherently endowed with freedom and equality, but our nature has been corrupted by our contingent social history. However, we can overcome this corruption by invoking our free will to reconstitute ourselves politically, according to strongly democratic principles, which is good for us both individually and collectively. Thus, from Mills` perspective, racism is not just an unfortunate coincidence of Western democratic and political ideals. It is not that we have a political system that has been perfectly designed and, unfortunately, applied imperfectly. One of the reasons we continue to think that the problem of race in the West is relatively superficial, that it does not go all the way, is the impact that the idealized social contract has on our imagination. We continue to believe, according to Mills, in the myths that social contract theory tells us – that everyone is equal, that everyone is treated fairly before the law, that the Founding Fathers campaigned for equality and freedom for all, etc. Thus, one of the real goals of social contract theory is to hide the true political reality from the eyes – some people are granted the rights and freedoms of full-fledged persons, and others are treated as sub-persons. The racial treaty shapes the very structure of our political systems and lays the foundation for the continued racial oppression of non-whites. So we cannot respond by simply including more non-whites in the mix of our political institutions, our representation, etc. Rather, we need to review our policy in general from the point of view of the racial treaty and start from where we are, with full knowledge of how our society has been informed by the systematic exclusion of certain people from the realm of politics and the treaty.

This “naturalized” feature of the racial contract, that is, it tells a story about who we really are and what is contained in our history, is better, according to Mills, because it promises to one day allow us to truly live up to the norms and values that are at the heart of Western political traditions. The social contract was developed at the beginning of Western political thought. It was considered an intellectual expression of European political thought, where kings, vassals and masters were taken into account in the formation of political, legal and military affairs (Rousseau 1987, p. 16). Jason Neidleman is Professor of Political Science at the University of La Verne, where he teaches political theory. He is the author of The General Will is Citizenship: Inquiry into French Political Thought (2001) and articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel Foucault. Seine jüngste Veröffentlichung ist “The Sublime Science of Simple Souls: Rousseau`s Philosophy of Truth”, erscheint demnächst in History of European Ideas. . . .

Posted in: Uncategorised