Monday, March 7, 2011

Social Contract: a discussion

I'm going to begin by assuming that we can agree on an evolutionary approach to human and animal behavior here. I'm going to approach things as contemporary anthropology and social psychology do, and assume that homo sapiens sapiens is biologically related to other primate species, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Thus, we might gain some insight into human social behavior by looking at the social behavior of other animals.

Humans, like chimpanzees and gorillas, would seem to be social animals. We organize ourselves into groups. I'd postulate that this is done because the individual realizes some benefits for doing so. That is, group organization is pro-survival, both for the species as a whole, and for individuals within the group. We might realize gains by sharing resources withing the group, by exercising co-operative rather than competitive behavior. Quite likely, there may be an ingrained need in people to socialize and experience interactions with others of the same species. As well, grouping facilitates the mating and pair-bonding processes.

It would seem that all social groupings have rules. Some behaviors are permitted, others are promoted, and others are discouraged. In particular, behaviors that are pro-group survival are encouraged. Usually, the central guiding principles are the efficient management of resources within the group, and seeking to reduce the amount of intra-group infighting.

Many times, group members are called on the sacrifice pro-individual behaviors in favor of pro-group behaviors. Wolf packs, for instance, share kills collectively. Crows permit only one breeding pair per territory, with other individuals contributing to the feeding, raising, and protection of the young. Gorillas exhibit harem behavior, where the strongest male of the group claims all the females as breeding partners, in an attempt to promote the most viable offspring.

To put this in terms of libertarian political philosophy, every group has rules. People join groups because they need to, want to, or enjoy some benefit from doing so. However, joining a group requires a tacit or implicit agreement to follow the group's rules. This means that one may have to sacrifice some liberty to contribute to group harmony; only by giving up some liberty can one enjoy the benefits of inclusion within the group.

Among non-verbal animals, the rules of group behavior are not explicitly stated. Young animals either understand the rules instinctively, or they learn them through observation, imitation, and modeling other successful group members. The rules are nowhere spelled out, and new group members are expected to learn them in other ways. Humans are unique in that we can sometimes manage to explicitly define the group rules. Among non-humans, the rules for group membership are always tacit, implies, or unstated.

Agreement to the groups rules is an unstated condition for joining a social grouping. Outsiders wishing to join the group must learn all the behaviors expected of them. This is true of crows, of wolves, and of chimpanzees, for instance. The young are also expected to the learn and follow the rules as a condition of group membership; those that cannot are exiled or killed for opposing pro-group survival.

Among humans, a similar mechanism underlies the social contract. Humans that want to be members of a social group must abide by the groups rules. Those rules may be explicitly stated as laws or ethical principles, or unstated as etiquette and private morals, but pro-social behaviors are expected as an underlying condition for group membership.


And I have two questions.

How does one distinguish when they have agreed to follow the rules from when they have not agreed to follow the rules (it makes no sense to say that everyone has agreed to everything anyone else can imagine--at that point, 'agreement,' as a concept, makes no sense)?

First, let me be clear. My stabs at a defenition here are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, I'm attempting to model how I believe things do work, not necessarily how things should or ought to work.

With that being said, here's how i thing things generally go. Let's say that I'm a lurker here on I'd like to become a full-fledged and accepted member of the community here. Before I do, I must demonstrate that I accept the rules for being a member of this community. That includes not only the explicitly stated rules of the forum, but also any number of unspoken and unstated rules of netiquette and other social forms that I must observe.

While registration is easy enough, that's just the first of many steps. To really be accepted as a member of this community, respected by other members and not castigated as a clueless newb, I have to behave in the proper fashion. Any posts I make should be relatively well written, my thoughts coherent, and m,y ideas helpful. I ought to avoid too combative a demeanor, and generally exhibit 'cluefulness' in some vague sense. While straying from this pattern of behavior won't necessarily get me banned, it will mean that Iwill be rejected by the community in other ways. People will not respond to my posts, my questions will not be answered, and my ideas will be met with skepticism and even socially constrained hostility.

Further, not only am I agreeing to the rules and customs as they exist in the community at the time, I am also agreeing in some sense to any future rules or customs that may develop. I may not agree to any of these rules, but failure to do so may see me attacked, socially shunned, or even the target of official enforcement action. Such is the price of agreeing to be a member of the community.

My only real solution is to establish myself as a respected member of the group. One of the ways this is done is by consistent adherence not only to the stated rules, but also to the social mores. In time, I may find that deviations from those mores are dealt with more flexibly, and I may in time become something of a 'tribal elder', given some small role in producing, affecting, and effecting the social standards of the forums.

How does one determine what those rules are, to which they have agreed?

Through the basic mechanisms of learning. I watch others interact withing the group, and see which behaviors are accepted, which are actively reinforced, and which are discouraged by corrective enforcement. Usually, members new to a community - newbies in an online community, or children and adolescents in a terrestrial township, for instance - are allowed a greater leeway in experimenting with new behaviors, and the corrections to deviant behavior are more gentle. For example, a nine-year old chewing with his mouth open at home is reprimanded by a parent; an adult who does so consistently is whispered about and possibly ostracized by 'polite company', he may have fewer friends and fewer mating opportunities. A wolf cub that shows dominance behavior towards its mother will be nipped at and held down until the cub shows submission. An adult who does it to the alpha male probably will face a fight or exclusion from the pack if it doesn't 'take it back' and submit quickly.

Humans, of course, also have recourse to verbal communication. This allows us to communicate some rules by abstract communication. Although I would argue that such abstract rules do not communicate their full meaning unless ant until they are illustrated by actual modeling. At the very least, people seem to need to see that the rules will be enforced and how strictly, and how the abstract rules will be interpreted and adjudicated before the person can really understand exactly what is expected of them. It is not enough, for instance, for rules to say "Spam will not be tolerated," New users need to see examples of what is and is not considered spam, and how strictly the rule is enforced before they truly understand the rule and how it will be enforced.

Verbal communication also allows people to learn behaviors from models who are not present, and in the case of fiction, not real. The stories we tell each other are all ways of saying, "This is one way to behave, and the possible consequences of behaving in this way in this situation."

Meaning, if two contradictory sets of rules are put forward, how does one determine which applies (Sitting Bull and General Custer disagree--there has to be some standard to determine which is correct,
I would approach this differently. This is a conflict between two different social groups: the U.S. Army and it's leadership, and the Native tribe (Dakota, wasn't it? I don't remember off hand.) They're striving to see which group will have control of resources.

or else the idea of a 'social contract' is meaningless; it is put forward as an ethical standard and the purpose of an ethical standard is to resolve conflicts, to show that one side is right and the other is wrong; if the 'social contract' fails to be able to achieve this standard, then it cannot possibly represent an ethical standard, at which point it is being misrepresented as such)?

I would agree that the purpose of enforcing a social contract is to resolve conflict. Further, the social contract for a given group is supposed to indicate how conflict is to be resolved - whether it's an appeal to tribal elders, a fight to the death or submission with the alpha male, or some sort of acceptance of accolades. In the worst of cases, the group's social contract should prescribe the manner in which the group calves off subgroups, in a way that ensures survival for at least one of the groups involved. The social contract exists to channel and resolve conflict in a pro-group survival manner. Few groups survive as groups if internal conflict is allowed to degenerate into a war of 'all against all'.

See, I had taken such a possible definition as you put forward into account when formulating my original definition, and I don't see yours as substantively different, if it achieves the same goals as the one I posit. I think you imply for the concept of 'legitimate rulers' to still be there, but only as a foundation for some other concept (most likely the 'rules' to which people have agreed--if only some people decide what the rules are, then they hold the place of 'legitimate ruler' in my original definition, and my original arguments still hold sway).

Yeah, I'm still kind of working on that. I think of what I think you are considering 'legitimate rulers' as being two separate concepts (that often fall to the same individual or individuals): 'leadership' or the direction and coordination of the group as a whole in order to accomplish those goals that the group appoints for itself - namely group survival, growth, and prosperity - and enforcement of the group's social contract.

As best as I can tell, we can consider that the social contract itself establishes provision for appointing leadership and enforcement mechanisms. At it's most basic level, it seems that most groups allow parents to enforce correct behavior on their offspring. Most seem to give a certain amount of enforcement power to any adult member in good standing with the community. And many social groups centralize some enforcement functions to a particular individual or individuals: a breeding pair, pack alpha, silverback, or similar.

'Legitimacy' is a stickier issue. Fundamentally, observing various groups, it seems that if an individual has the power for enforcement, and uses it, without in turn being corrected by other more powerful members of the group (individually or collectively), then the enforcing member of the group has as much 'legitimacy' as the group allows. That is, if I can correct your behavior, and no one can correct my behavior in correcting you, then I must have legitimacy in some sense. Further, if you accept my correction and modify your behavior in response to it, then you must be in some sense accepting my legitimacy. Further, if you can't convince anyone else with enforcement ability to restrain me, that would suggest that the group as a whole accepts my legitimacy.

Again, I must stress that I'm attempting to be descriptive here rather than prescriptive. How does the alpha wolf achieve alpha status? By all the other wolves acting as though he is alpha, and through the ability to correct all the non-alpha wolves without fear of correction himself.


Googlebombing for a cause:

1 comment:

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