Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Social Contract and Morality

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):
This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract--when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don't care about torturing terrorists because they're not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country's laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn't be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.


I think that he's right as far as he goes, but I don't think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are -- and which "rights" are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

For instance, on the torture debate, it seems to me that the two camps hold different views about the extent of basic human rights -- not that one camp only believes in the social contract while the other believes in basic human rights. Essentially, those who are defending the use of "enhanced interrogation" on terror suspects assert that it is in keeping with basic human rights to user certain forms of physical punishment as coercion -- punishing someone for refusing to provide information which the interrogators think they need in order to achieve some common good. What this people are saying (and I disagree) is: "It is morally acceptable and in keeping with basic human rights to waterboard (or beat or keep in the dark, etc.) someone who refuses to answer questions which might save lives. However, we as a society have made an agreement both internally with respect to our citizens and externally with certain treaty signing powers that we will forgo this morally acceptable means of coercion when dealing with criminals or POWs because we consider this to be to the overall common good."

I would propose that the way of testing this claim of mine would be as follows: If those who support "enhanced interrogation" of terror suspects really believe that human rights come only from the social contract and not from basic human rights of some sort, then clearly this would apply to things even more clearly in violation of basic human rights. Would they support:

- Selling them into slavery.
- Cutting out their eyes and tongues and then turning them loose.
- Having them drawn and quartered in the public square.

If not, we must assume that this camp does indeed believe that all people have basic human rights, and indeed their conceptions of basic human rights are more generous than those of many (if not most) societies throughout history.

Now, I do think that Kyle points to a real moral danger. Human societies have a natural tendency towards having one set of rules for "our people" and another for "other people". And so it's important to challenge people to think about what rights are human rights and which ones are civic rights extended only via the social contract.

At the same time, among those prone to hysteria about rights violations, there is a great tendency to assume that all civic rights are basic human rights. So, for example, in the US a trial by a jury of peers is a civic right when accused of a crime -- a right that we as citizens are given via the explicit social contract of our country. However, while being treated justly (and not being punished injustly) are basic human rights -- trial by jury is clearly not. And yet in our society, which so often confuses our legal system with morality, it is quite common for people to consider any other means of dispensing justice than a jury trial to be "denying people their basic rights".

While the social contract is clearly not the only thing that gives us rights, it is by no means unacceptable for certain rights and duties to be explicitly stemming from the social contract and available only to citizens or legal residents -- not to those who are not members of the country.

1 comment:

JoAnna said...

"...when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country's laws..."

What, do you think, is meant by "alienate"? I'm an AZ resident and this is an issue with which I struggle. On one hand, everyone ha human dignity and should be treated in accordance with that dignity. On the other... I think a nation has the right to set laws regarding its own borders, and generally I think people should obey the law. It's a tough line to walk.