Messy Social Contracts

I’m quite interested in social contract theory, and a ‘contract’ is something like ‘an exchange of promises’. This gives me an interest in promises and the sort of obligations that they give rise to.

Here I just want to run through some very abstract observations about how promises work, and in particular the ways that they can fail to work. I’m interested especially in whether what seems obvious to me seems similarly obvious to others.

So the first point is that the activity of ‘making a promise’ has parts, which may be separated. For instance, I might say ‘I promise to do X’, intending to make a promise to you, but discover that you’re not there and I was talking to a hat stand. On the other hand, I might say nothing, but you think I’ve promised you something, perhaps because you hear voices in your head, or because someone else tricked you.

Here the ‘production’ and ‘reception’ of the promise, respectively, are missing. My intuition is that in these cases, no obligation is produced. If I spoke to the hatstand, or you hallucinated my voice, nobody has promised anybody anything. There was a complete failure.

But there are messier cases. For instance, I may intend to promise something slightly different from what you take me to promise. Perhaps we are having an awkward conversation and you say “so, like, you’ll do that, right? promise?” and I say “yeah, sure, I promise to do that”, only to find out later that the two uses of ‘that’ were referring to different actions. Here there’s both production and reception, but a mismatch between them.

My intuition is that in such cases, a half-formed, indeterminate, obligation is produced. I have some reason to do what you thought I was promising to do, but not as much as I would, had I intended that promise; conversely I have some reason to do what I intended to promise, but not as much as I would, had you understood me. And the strength of these reasons is very unclear.

That is, my inclination is to suppose that just as the communicative facts are messy, so too the moral facts are messy. One might think that moral obligations shouldn’t be capable of being indeterminate; if morality stems from an active, perfect, divine power that would make sense. But if, in whatever way, it rests on facts in this world, then it will no more precise or orderly than those facts are.

A final case to consider is where there’s messiness not just between people but within people. Suppose I promise you “to sort things out”. Then later, I find myself unsure whether I have or have not fulfilled my promise, because I’m not sure exactly what actions count as sorting things out. Is there a fact of the matter about what I need to do? I think the only thing we could appeal to would be either 1) what I intended when I made the promise, or 2) what you expected when I made the promise.

But intentions and expectations can be vague or indeterminate – they can also be contradictory at times. So my obligation will inherit whatever messiness was present in my intentions or your expectations.

Note that both of these sources of indeterminacy will be especially prominent in unspoken or tacit promises and agreements: at least with the sentence “I promise to…” I have some words to guide me. But if two people commit to an agreement implicitly, by body language or euphemism, there’s a much greater risk that the obligations produced will be indeterminate.

This seems relevant to political philosophy because insofar as talk of a ‘social contract’ has any truth, insofar as there is something like reciprocal commitment in the formation or reproduction of social systems, it’s liable to be largely unspoken – even when people are led to make formal pledges or oaths, they do so against an existing social background, as already being members of a certain society.

If this is correct, then ‘social contracts’ will be highly indeterminate in their content: I may, for instance, have ‘agreed to’ certain obligations in my interactions with the Canadian state, or the London assembly, or my friends, or people in the street, but these obligations are not precise or well-defined.

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One Response to Messy Social Contracts

  1. Pingback: Against the Social Contract | Majestic Equality

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