Sunday, 18 December 2016

What social contract?



As I said last time, I’ve been reading Michael Huemer’s book:  The Problem of Political Authority. The problem of political authority is the problem of justifying coercion by the government when common sense morality rules out the same behaviour done by anyone else. The point here is that government has no special right to command and we have no special duty to obey unless what the government does that goes beyond what we may do can be justified.
Government coercion is commands backed up by the threat of deliberate physical harm up to and including killing. In short, and for example, taxation is demanding money with menaces, morally forbidden to you and me but done by the government. Does the government have any such right and do you have any duty to obey it?
The first kind of justification Huemer considers is the social contract: that you agreed to being coerced by the government. Now I don’t know about you, but I never made any such agreement. So on that basis the government should leave me alone, shouldn’t it?


Many agreements, however, are not explicit, so perhaps we did agree but did so implicitly through our behaviour. Heumer considers four ways by which this might occur: passive consent which is agreement through not opposing when asked;  consent through acceptance of benefits such as when ordering food in a restaurant is agreeing to pay for it; consent through presence such as staying at my party after I’ve said anyone saying has to help tidying up later; consent through participation such as playing a game knowing that everyone gives the winner £1.
Heumer points out that there are conditions which must be fulfilled for these routes to implicit consent to constitute a valid agreement: there must be a reasonable way of opting out; explicit dissent must block implicit consent; an act indicates agreement only if you think not doing the act would leave you out of the agreement; contractual obligation is mutual and conditional, so if one side doesn’t do its part the agreement is void.
Heumer then argues that none of these conditions are fulfilled by the putative social contract. Opting out requires vacating the territory subject to the government and this is not reasonable. Explicit dissent is not recognized by governments. There is no action that you do that if you did not do the government would not impose its rule on you. The courts routinely and successfully block attempts by subjects to  sue for governmental failure to fulfil specific obligations so there is no mutuality.
Hence there is no explicit social contract and no implicit social contract so political authority is not justified by our agreeing to be coerced.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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