The Social Contract

Some thoughts on germanwings flight 4U9525

Slowly but surely, it might seem, our faith in our fellow human beings is being eroded. How many of us have not felt a twinge of fear when the aeroplane on which we were travelling banked steeply or hit an area of turbulence? Few if any of us, I wager, would have given any thought to the possibility that one of the professionals trained to fly the aircraft might be carrying a death wish that would see him lock his captain out of the cockpit and  programme the autopilot to make a gradual, catastrophic descent into the mountains below. But neither would we be likely to entertain the possibility that people would strap explosives to themselves and drive into crowded market places to blow themselves up, or deliberately steer their vehicles into pedestrians waiting at a bus stop.

It’s less than fifteen years since two passenger planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York. In so many ways that event stands as a turning point in our understanding – and fear – of our fellow human beings. Vehicles that have been used for almost a century as means of transporting people from one place to another in our increasingly mobile world have now become weapons in a terrorist’s armoury or, as we are in the process of discovering, an individual’s death wish. Suddenly the dangers associated with travel have assumed a new dimension.

A more telling, though significantly more banal example of the way in which everyday elements of our lives can assume different and more terrifying aspects can be found in the summer riots of 2011. Instead of entering shops to purchase items according to long established commercial practice, several thousand people chose to break down those shops and help themselves to all manner of goods simply because the opportunity was there.

It would seem that many of the basic assumptions that underpin our civilisation are suddenly under threat. People help themselves to material goods rather than paying for them, those charged with our safety in various modes of transport can no longer be trusted to bring us securely to our destination. Media celebrities and individuals who hold positions of responsibility are unmasked as abusers of children. So much that we might once have taken for granted is now being undermined.

The idea that individuals are bound together by a collective sense of obligation to one another is not a new one. This concept, which is effectively the basis for any social group in which members are mutually supportive of one another, is known as a social contract. According to the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ‘Social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons' moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live.’

Every group of humans from the earliest descendants of the apes to our present day have relied on the concept of a social contract to ensure their survival and growth. There is a basic level of mutual trust, backed up by a series of laws and customs to protect both the individual and the collective. From the earliest tribes to the complex and sophisticated nation states that form our twenty-first century world, every group of humans that binds together to form a social group relies upon this trust. It’s enshrined in religious belief systems, however those systems seek to define, portray and practice it. It’s at the heart of any legal structure that seeks to uphold the mutual values proclaimed and carried out by members of a group. Without it we would not dare to venture outside of our homes into the wider world around us or purchase any goods for fear that that the promised list of ingredients might not be true.

The founders of our religion were perhaps among the earliest – though by no means the first – to establish regulations that would uphold the social contract. Not surprisingly their world view was constructed around levels of fear and superstition that are almost comical to our modern eyes: a belief that the sacrifice of animals was a means of pacifying an angry God for example, or that waving palm branches around in the autumn was the key to influencing the weather. But however suspect was the science that underpinned the laws and practices they introduced, their intention and effect was to create a cohesive, mutually supportive and trusting social group. Its very existence encouraged those who were its leaders to develop loftier ideals which they sought to teach to those who were part of it. This is nowhere better demonstrated that in what we call the ‘Holiness Code’ – a series of rules and regulations in the book of Leviticus designed to establish a society in which mutual respect, safety and trust were at its very heart. And in the middle of this collection of regulations they placed a verse that has been used – and often misused – to define the basic principle that lies at the heart of every human society: v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha – ‘You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself’.  (Leviticus 19:18)

It’s a great and noble theory. The idea of a society based on such a principle would, you might imagine, guarantee the security and mutual support that is clearly necessary for human beings to thrive and grow. Loving your neighbour as you love yourself ought to be the key to the social contract that holds society together, the trust in our fellow human beings that allows us to develop, to grow, to live our lives. But recent events have shown us that this basic principle is potentially, and often fatally, flawed.

We humans are complex and rather frightening organisms. An improbable combination of atoms and molecules that have, through millions of years of evolution, developed into the complicated and sophisticated beings that are still a long way short of reaching whatever our potential might be. We have a vision of how we might fulfil that potential: it is enshrined in noble statements like the one that lies at the heart of our religion: ‘you shall love your neighbour as you love yourself’. The problem is: what happens when the chemical make-up of an individual or a series of circumstances that someone has encountered puts them into a position where they do not love themselves?

If an individual has decided that the best outcome for their particular situation is to bring their life to an end, what chance then for any others who are caught up in that person’s descent to self-destruction? In a way that is incomprehensible to us, there are individuals who do indeed choose to regard and treat others as negatively as they regard and treat themselves. And the consequences are clear: the shattered pieces of a social contract based on the concept of treating one’s fellow human beings as one would treat oneself lie strewn across a remote Alpine mountainside or in the damaged psyches of those who have in any way been let down or abused by those in whom they have placed their trust.

Do these recent events mean that the social contract is no longer tenable? Must we abandon this project that has been at the heart of all human development and the basis of any society for thousands of years? For the parents of those schoolchildren who boarded a plane to return to their homes only to have their lives ended by someone who perceived himself in a way that was not socially acceptable, it must seem that this is the case. Perhaps there is a principle as important as that enshrined in the concept of loving our fellow human beings as we love ourselves. It is the recognition of the sanctity of human life.

Once again our religion acknowledges this crucial principle. At the very end of the Torah, God tells our ancestors that they have a simple choice between the blessing and the curse, between life and death.  U-vacharta va-chayyim!  They are commanded. ‘Choose life!’ That precept has to go hand in hand with the challenge to us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, for without it the trust that holds our societies together will be abused, and the social contract will be broken.

Our task to reassert the sanctity of human life offers no consolation to those who mourn their children, victims of the latest breach in the fabric of the social contract, nor to countless others whose lives have been ended or blighted by humanity’s woeful shortcomings. To them it must seem that the notion of trust in our society has forever been broken; that the concept is flawed and has failed. When we contemplate the horror of what took place on last Tuesday’s germanwings flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, we too might be tempted to believe that the noble human project to establish a social contract for the benefit of all has failed. We cannot trust our fellow human beings while there are those who are determined to abuse that trust. But the alternative is to abandon the project all together, to retreat into individual enclaves of suspicion and fear in order to protect ourselves and those we love from a hostile world.

Now more than ever we have to find ways to express our belief in the social contract, our acknowledgment of the need to strive towards the noble idea of loving our neighbour that lies at the heart of human yearning and to emphasise the sanctity of human life. Perhaps the biblical verse needs to be rephrased to say that we should love our neighbour as we should love ourselves. However we might choose to restate our commitment to the social contract that underpins our society, it’s clear that we must find a way to do so. Our religion demands it, our humanity longs for it and our troubled, frightened world urgently, desperately needs it.