It’s typically thought that a contract agreed to under duress is void.
Philosophers who have seen the basis of political obligations as something like a contract, therefore, have had to suppose, explicitly or implicitly, that people are not ‘under duress’ when they agree to such a contract, that they have available options and are sufficiently autonomous.
I have come to believe, over the last few months, that the ‘contract’ metaphor is fundamentally appropriate to describe the relationship by which the individual becomes part of society. But I’ve also come to believe that the nature of this contract is such that individuals are almost invariably under severe duress. I want to briefly lay out why.
Firstly, I should say what I take the actual content of the ‘social contract’ to be. In particular, it’s important to note that this content may be partly indeterminate – we may not be entirely sure ‘what we’re signing up for’, as discussed here. Anyway, I think there are several connected layers, in particular the following four:
1) Order: reciprocal expectations that we will each refrain from ‘dangerous’ behaviour, primarily meaning attacks on each other’s bodies, but also to some extent acts that destroy physical objects. (more discussion here)
2) Decency: reciprocal expectations that we will present our bodies in certain ways, that allow it to be seen in terms of our personhood and not our physicality. (more discussion here)
3) Collective action: reciprocal expectations that we will abide by those conventions (including the explicit law) that allow us to co-ordinate in large-scale and long-term projects. (more discussion here)
The fourth, it seems to me, in a sense encompasses and rolls together all the others: if the individual recognises society, society recognises the individual. That is, by emotionally investing in the validity of the symbolic categories by which their society understands itself, the individual is given one or more of those categories as an identity which other members of society will accept them as having.
This ‘encompasses’ the others partly in the sense that it makes their terms much more specific. It specifies precisely what sort of behaviour is ‘aggressive’ or ‘indecent’ or ‘unfair’ for particular sorts of people.
When are these contracts ‘signed’? The first three, I think, are signed everyday, anew for each time we relate to another person. To agree to a contract, in essence, is to deliberately communicate to someone your intention to act a certain way, with the aim of leading them to act a certain way.
So, for instance, I ‘sign’ the first contract mentioned above, of safety, whenever I meet someone, by my body language, my staying out of their personal space, my avoiding their bodies, and by my making neither too little nor too much eye-contact. When we both do this, we can interact without fear – if one of us doesn’t, anxiety intrudes and co-operation becomes more difficult.
But the fourth is more permanent. It is, I would argue, a central component of the psyche, of the self-concept by which we make sense of ourselves and, by extension, our interactions with our surroundings. This self-concept is largely formed during childhood.
But that means the ‘contract’ is made by children. That already puts in question how autonomously it can be made. But there’s more. Who teaches children about society, who enforces upon it the demands of society? Its parents – figures who hold enormous power over the child in at least three ways: physically (much bigger), epistemically (they know more), and socially (they are less dependent on their child’s recognition and approval than the child is on theirs).
Individuals don’t just relate to society, then, when they face the offered contract, but to society as manifested in their parents. To reject the contract, then, will often mean rejecting the parent, which children may attempt but can rarely do successfully.
What about in adulthood? Can individuals not choose to leave their society, or reject it, once they reach adulthood? Perhaps they can cross a national boundary, but that’s largely beside the point. By this time, they have largely internalised the terms on which society offered them recognition – indeed, to speak of ‘the individual’ is only partly appropriate, since their identity is largely that which they have taken up from society.
If there is inevitably this contract, but it’s inevitably void, why should we care? How is it relevant to political philosophy?
1) I think one major reason is that a lot of the strongest political feelings turn on violations of the contract. That people are breaking the law, or spreading disorder, or being indecent, is not evaluated merely in utilitarian terms, as any action is, but also are condemned vehemently because they are ‘unfair’, they break the contract everyone has made.
So the illegitimacy of the contract is an important point insofar as it tells us to be sceptical of these reactions in ourselves and in others.
2) But at the same time, if an action violates not only the actual contract but any possible contract – if, for instance, it’s something so violent that nobody could feel safe dealing with someone who broadcast their propensity for it – then that is a serious (‘utilitarian’) point against it, since it undermines the very possibility of society.
So it becomes enormously important to distinguish the actual terms on which society contracts with the growing individual, from possible other terms that would still fit the basic needs of human psychology. That means that analysing the structure of the social contract is important as a way to distinguish forms of rebellion which are inherently anti-social from those which are not.
3) Thirdly, I think this sort of investigation is potentially the source of critique of existing social relations, since it can show what the terms of the agreement really are, and how they are not necessitated by the mere need for society. A critique that identifies the positive functions of its target is more effective than one which ignores them.
4) Fourthly, it’s an important topic for psychological research and analysis, in particular of what sort of emotional complexes support what sort of political opinions, and how they relate to the developmental process of childhood.