A valid social contract must have a principled premise for it to work, and for us to achieve harmony that our brains are so hard-wired to seek.
Some ancient history
Socrates’ proddings in The Republic were the earliest detailed attempt at reaching a social contract rationally. There are aspects in it that may make us cringe, but those were not the reasons the Greeks were not happy with him.
Armed with Greek reasoning, however contentious or contradictory, the Romans imposed their will on the ancient Egyptian and French lands. With plentiful food grown by the new slaves in the new lands, the republic did not mind becoming an empire.
However as their social contract was limited to the Romans, the Germanic tribes were not impressed. With stagnation, came implosion. By the time the Roman social contract was extended to these Germanic tribes, it was too late.
A Middle Eastern religion saved the Roman rot. The accepted price by its elite, the Roman Church, was relegation of reason to keep peace and order. Neither came: a dark intolerant age descended across Europe by the name of Holy Roman Empire where social contract was limited to the elite of Church and the Holy Roman rulers.
The eastern parts of the world saw development of Caste System: this earlier attempt at civilisation kept peace and order. However the Vedas were considered highly unjust; the chances of upward mobility were certain only for a few select by birth.
Buddhism directly challenged this rigid culture of not only Indian subcontinent but also the lands of the Far East where Confucianism prevailed, demanding complete subservience to the Middle Kingdom. Human dignity was uplifted and offered to all. However, with the division of Buddhism, the dark ages returned.
A historical change
In this milieu came the call of the Quran stressing individual piety and authority (4:59). There was this concept but the structure materialised over the next few hundred years, particularly after the stress of major political disruption of the 10th century when Muslim world was ruled by three caliphs – in Andalusia (Ummayad), in Egypt (Fatimid) and in Baghdad (Abbasid).
Individual piety was straight forward: follow the Quran, traditions of the Prophet, the salaf, the imams, even one’s inspiring local maulana. Every other religion had a similar call, some with great stretches of imagination.
It was the Authority that was complicated. Commanders, philosophers, traders and all kinds of groups tried their hands and luck. In Islam, the people who came to be vested with ‘authority’ were the one who spoke for the innocent: the Qaadi/judge.
To speak for the innocent, was to seek the truth. This was the social contract where justice was to be dispensed to all, and anyone meritorious can be a judge. In the prevailing atmosphere, only Islam was considered as the rational religion to dispense that justice.
Within a century, the Fatimids (ruling in the name of ‘Ali) were incorporated by their rivals who called themselves ‘Sunni’ (followers of the ‘way of the Prophet’). The Ummayads in the Andalusia were fading out to intense competition by the ever numerous abbeys popping up in the north. In these lands, a broken social contract invited distrust, disruption, displacement and destructive wars.
Then came the Mongols. In 1258, the caliph of Muslims was killed in Baghdad. However, within a hundred years, the social contract of Sunni Islam helped Mongols accept the very same people they had defeated so spectacularly. However, there was a price to pay. Enquiry into truth ceased; the era of Taqleed started.
Our recent history
As Muslim jurists looked the other way in complacency or procrastination, the Roman Church was challenged by the protests in the Northern Europe at their emotional and material coercion in the name of blind faith. In 1648, the Papacy gave in. By this time, rivers of gold were following into the Vatican and Holy Roman capitals from the New World.
Freshly liberated Protestants, grouped as nations, had no choice but to go south – sailing – for survival, trade and fortune. The era of navigation and exploration began. However, the social contract was restricted to the national boundaries, in the name of national Christian denominations.
In their attempt to get rid of English/Anglican rulers, and fend off other European suitors at the same time, the founding fathers of United States of America came up with a very unique idea in 1770s: proclaim a social contract with no mention of divine, naming it as the ‘constitution’.
For the first time in the Christian history, the Church was formally removed from judiciary, legislature and executive. Napoleonic France spread this idea across Europe, to be completed by the Communists in the 20th century by their determined tenacity.
The Soviets, however, limited their social contract only to their ideologue nations. As the winner of the Cold War, the United States of America and its allies have inherited the goal of spreading this idea of social contract to all of humanity.
How far the emerging powers, China and India, are willing to shoulder this concept remains to be seen.
We can do our part.
So what does a social contract consists of
We do not need history lessons to remind us that our social contract was, is and will be with all of humanity – acknowledging all of its differences (49:13) be it races, castes, religions, denominations or ideologies. History lessons reinforce that division not only limits progress but also spreads grief, misery and destruction.
As the contract is with all of humanity, it must be transparent. There are dividends here: our global village does not need to waste billions of dollars spying on each other – for the fear of the other; the militaries of the world can be remodelled to police our global village; data and research harvested across continents can be used to uplift all of humanity.
Transparency remains a critical element in nurturing trust – knowing, as humans, we are hardwired with animal instincts of fear, impulsive behaviour and self-preservation.
Successful concepts are the ones that can be used at an individual level but also incorporated into human systems (judiciary, legislature, institutions, etc). A social contract that is clear and lucid empowers every person to be responsible to themselves, others and our planet. It also helps to transfer knowledge to next generation, who having learnt from their ancestors, can solve problems their parents could not.
One of the things we are hardwired for is consistency. Imagine waking up in a new hotel every day, or very often, and the hassle of … finding your way, where the utilities are, how the taps work, etc. Human brain wants consistency in behaviour, and a warning when there is an expected deviance.
To be confident and productive, we need to know the accepted gradations of behaviour, and consistency of judgement in its application.
Finally, a contract appealing to reason will likely sustain trust. For this to happen, the bedrock of our interactions with people around us must be based on truth, facts, or the best available evidence.
Helping achieve this will be tools of reason, be it Naas (with its higher notions of human behaviour) or science (with its remarkable ability to uncover and reach material truth).
A structure or framework can be built from this concept: a social contract that is transparent, clear, lucid, consistent, reasonable and based on reason.