Contracted to Society

If we want society to support us then we have to support society. That is the basis of our contractual relationship with society. Society will look after us but we must also look after society.

Society gives us rights and protections as individuals, support and benefits when we’re in need, a living environment that is safe and secure, conditions that enable us to develop nourishing relationships with others.

Without society our survival – both individually and as a species – would be in jeopardy. In a world without society’s rules we would be living in chaos and discord. Hobbes accurately described it as a life that would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Individually, we would be preoccupied with our own survival. It would be a day to day existence, a daily struggle to acquire and retain the basic requirements needed to live – food, shelter, warmth. Only the strong and ruthless would survive.

As a species, we would not be able to compete with the forces of Nature. Other species would triumph over us and environmental challenges would make our life a constant hardship. Given that we would not have any mass strength, humanity would soon perish.

Society has been humanity’s great saviour.

Living together has brought order, harmony and stability. It has enabled us to flourish. As a species we have prospered. For the most part, we live in relative comfort; our basic needs are satisfied; we have high mortality rates; we have acquired leisure time; we live a mainly peaceful existence.

By choosing a societal existence as our developmental course, it seems that humanity has chosen wisely.

There is, however, an underlying fragility to our survival. Society cannot function effectively without the compliance, engagement and active involvement of its people. Society only exists because its people recognise the benefits to be gained from societal living and accept that there is no other realistic survival option for humanity.

Hence, they are, for the most part, prepared to accept their automatic enrolment to the contract that exists between the individual and society.

As part of that contract, and in order to ensure that society can operate effectively, society asks of its populace two things; firstly, that they should obey society’s rules and, secondly, that they should make some contribution to society.

These two stipulations are critical in that they sustain and foster the understanding that living together is mutually beneficial:

  • By agreeing and conforming to set rules, individuals know that they have some protections from other members of society. They are no longer isolated and vulnerable.
  • By making a contribution, it gives recognition that all individuals have some worth. It is by operating together that so much more can be achieved, each individual bringing some value.

But what if they don’t? What if individuals, through their non-compliant actions, choose to opt out of the contract? What does society do with its rule-breakers and to those people who merely take without giving anything in return?

When those people are in a tiny minority, society can deal with them or at least limit their impact. Their dissenting behaviour or their lack of contribution can be minimised or dismissed. Its affect is diluted by the good behaviour and contributions of the majority.

However, the growth of non-compliance is a constant underlying threat, meaning that the proliferation of these minority groups with their destabilising and disruptive behaviours represents the greatest threat to society’s existence – an ever-present, on-going vulnerability.

If we are soft on rule breakers, more people will see the appeal and benefits of misbehaviour; if society gives too freely, more people will take without giving anything in return.

It is often thought that the more a society looks after its miscreants and needy the more advanced it is. This is not necessarily true. The more a society looks after its weak the more threatened it may feel.

Those recognising the importance of society and those reaping the gains made from that societal existence quell the disenchanted minority by “buying them off”. It is by not being too harsh on them that their non-compliance doesn’t escalate into riotous, revolutionary behaviour and, similarly, by accepting a level of free-loading it maintains a semblance that these people still have a stake in or benefit from society.

Yet it’s a difficult balance. If society is too soft or too free-handed then it risks undermining its own ability to survive as too many people would start to take advantage of society’s leniency and generosity.

Society needs to ensure that it members are fulfilling their part of the contractual arrangement. That relationship must be upheld. We need to feel an obligation to society; that we shouldn’t take advantage of it; that we should be prepared to contribute to its upkeep.

Such contractual requirements are essential for humanity’s survival.