This House Believes that the Social Contract is a viable political theory
The debate is as simple as it stands. My opponent should spell out the social contract theory in his first round (instead of using it solely for acceptance). The social contract I refer to is the one used in political philosophy - the concept of the social contract as a form of legitimizing the state.
I look forward to whoever accepts this debate for a rigorous competition. Note the debate has a smaller character limit than most - 4000 characters maximum. Moreover, the voting system is "select winner" instead of the normal 7-point system. With that in mind, I look forward to challengers.
While I'm sure that PRO doesn't expect a perfectly sufficient exposition of social contract theory in such a limited space (especially where even a Ph.D. dissertation could hardly accomplish that task), I'll seek to outline in this round -more or less sketchily- the basics of what social contract theory is.
In political philosophy, social contract theory accounts for society's origins as well as power relations between individuals and society. Social contract arguments posit that the legitimacy of society's exercising power over the individual stems from individual's tacit or explicit consent "to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights." (1) Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and later Rawls are among the best known proponents of social contract theory. (2)
I'll await Stephen's outlining his framework for what constitutes "viability" as it applies to political philosophy in the next round, as well as his arguments against social contract theory as such.
I will address the social contract theory as incorrect, based on my opponent’s explanation of it. Specifically, I shall focus on one particular point: “social contract theory accounts for society's origins”. Like all theories, the social contract makes metaphysical, as well as normative, claims. I will ignore for the purposes of this debate about whether the social contract is a nice or nasty idea. Instead, I will focus on whether its testable claims are in fact accurate. The claim in question is whether the contract is a correct account of society’s origins.
Beginning with basic biology, all humans came from parents. Secondly, to repeat the social contract theory, everyone signs individually to the contract of society to form authority (authority, distinct from power, is the ability to get others to do as you want willingly). However, as Filmer pointed out, the first authority was the father. The state of nature lacks is entirely indivdiuals devoid of family. Filmer aptly notes: “I cannot understand how this right of nature can be conceived without imagining a company of men at the very first to have been all created together without any dependency one of another, or as mushrooms they all on a sudden were sprung out of the earth without any obligation one to another”. Aristotle similarly pointed out how societies are formed by the grouping of families, not individuals. Society is formed from families coming together, not individuals. Before the contract, authority still exists within families. Plemenatz summarises this: “men are born of women and into families, whose members have obligations towards one another; and children owe obedience to their parents.” Obligation exists before society, yet the social contract requires obligation to be created with the political sphere. Therefore, the individuals needed for the social contract is not the origin of authority, but the parent.
Hume continued to explain that, if it was a contract, then the ruler must have consented to this contract himself. Yet “We find everywhere princes who claim their subjects as their property and assert their independent right of sovereignty, from conquest or succession”. Rulers constantly rule because they see God choosing them, they inherited the country as property, or they conquered the land and people. Social contract theorists want to say they are part of the contract, but when they explicitly reject it, how can they be the originator of society? The contract cannot be the origin of society, because many leaders – and subjects – reject the contract.
Finally, I want to return to Filmer’s argument against Locke. While “he lives in our memories because he was Locke’s victim”, he makes many arguments that “Locke, when he comes to ‘demolish’ Filmer, never troubles to answer”6. The strongest argument is that of who consents. Of course, children do not consent – they cannot conceive of the notion. Indeed, most do not understand the social contract theory. So how can they consent to that which they have never encountered nor understood? Yet this is the precise people who are said to consent to the government. Similarly, unless we want to argue that those who have not studied the intricacies of political philosophy are immune from legitimate punishment from law, then we must conclude that they are not participants to the social contract. And if so, there must lie a different explanation for the origins of authority.
With these three points in mind, I wait for my friend’s response. I look forward to hearing it.
 Filmer, ‘Patriarcha’ in Political Works, p1-132
 Filmer, ‘Observations on Mr Hobbes’ in Political Works,
 Aristotle, Politics
 Plamenatz, Man and Society Vol. 1
 Hume, On the Original Contract
 Plamenatz, Man and Society Vol. 1
There are three basic problems with CON's argument. The first is that he's under the impression that political theory could be accurate or inaccurate -it can't, because social contract theory (hence forward referred to as SCT), as a political theory, is a normative theory, not an empirical one. The second is his assumption that even if social contract theory could be accurate or inaccurate, that inaccuracy is sufficient to render SCT not viable as a political theory. The third is that his argument doesn't actually even speak to SCT's viability as a social contract theory, but instead posits three clever but insufficient normative arguments against SCT which do not render SCT not viable as a political theory.
Let's notice CON's absence of a framework for what makes a political theory viable. The impact is simple: he doesn't give me a way to know what "makes" a political theory viable. So, I'll offer my own, from Princeton: "Political theory is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from two different perspectives: the history of political thought, and contemporary political philosophy." (1) While political theory can build on empirics, it's not necessarily based on empirics -but what 'should' have happened for things to get the way they are. (2) That doesn't mean that political theory has to describe, with perfect accuracy, what happened -but rather to normatively account for how or why political events and institutions should have developed, how they presently develop or how they might develop in the future.
Political theory, then, is epistemologically not much different from a well thought out opinion. Insofar as it occupies the intellectual terrain of 'opinion' (and not fact) we can't say that it's accurate or inaccurate. But, we also don't expect that of any individual political theory -meaning that we can't expect it of SCT, because SCT is not empirical theory. Said another way, this is the stuff of philosophy, not hard science. For example, SCT doesn't work quite the same way as, for example, evolution. It's not based on evidence but contemplation. It's not based on empirics, but reflection on the conventions and institutions that govern our lives. SCT is just one of many accounts of how the process of structuring society works.
But to move forward in this debate, I've got to know what makes a political theory viable. So, let's define "viable." Oxford tells us that to be viable is to be "capable of working successfully" or "feasible." Referring earlier to our understanding of what political theory is, we can deduce a standard for any political theory's viability and conclude that a political theory is viable -which is to say it 'works' as a political theory- if it accounts for the "concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions." And SCT does that, because SCT "addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual" by positing "that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights." (4) Though certainly a simplified explanation, it demonstrates that SCT meets the standard for what makes a political theory viable.
I hope to explain in more detail in subsequent rounds...
Firstly, I want to thank my friend for his opening round. I will address two main points by my opponent: firstly, that political theory cannot rest on empirical facts, and secondly his discussion of viability. I wish to have addressed his third point, but it simply was not brought up, and so I won’t have the ability to respond. However, keep in mind that, no matter how nice an idea is, that does not make an idea true.
To respond to my opponent defining viability, of course I accept viable as being synonymous with feasible - I never knew the word was so contentious! The debate arises when he says that ‘empirics’, or evidence, is irrelevant to political theory. As someone in the field, I can promise you this is simply not the case. Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Hegel, Augustine, Nietzsche, Bakunin, and more all discuss psychology – they discuss human nature. Locke, Hobbes, Grotius, Bodin, Rousseau, Hooker, Filmer – they all discuss the origins of society – history. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Marsilius – they all discuss natural law, using biology to inform their political opinions. These are all points which can be factually analysed. Hobbes for example says people without ties are naturally prone to selfish short-termed decision making. Aristotle says people are prone to forming political societies. Augustine says people are prone to form societies yet are selfish short-termed decision-makers. Filmer says people are born within society. These are all able to be tested.
To give an example, suppose we meet Augustine who says human naturally do only evil without God. We can test this claim, by seeing atheists do good. This concept was alien to Augustine, yet his entire political philosophy is based on this empirical fact. Similarly, Hobbes based his political philosophy on the claim that humans are ruled by passions, and use reason to pursue their passions. And in that respect, we have animalistic desires, and a lack of care for forming society willingly. However, by contending that reasoned creatures have different ‘passions’ than reasonless creatures – in other words, reason changes our passions – we can contend Hobbes’ claim that we are just made up of animalistic desires. To Social Contract Theory: if it wishes to claim that society was originally made up of individuals, we can point to (as Filmer does) how people are born naturally in families with authority already existing. So it can be shown factually erroneous to say that authority stems from the contract only, when families indeed are the primary generator of authority. Hume further notes that the contract requires either tacit or explicit consent. Yet those who have not conceived of the contract in this way – either by being too young, or not educated in the social contract theory, or not believing in the contract – cannot possibly be argued to have consented. How does one consent when one cannot conceive of consenting? Both Filmer and Hume object persuasively to the contract’s factual basis.
These facts can of course be debated: Rousseau contends that children in a state of nature (i.e. before the contract) leave their parents forever as soon as they are able, and the parent had no authority over them. Yet this seems extremely unlikely – Rousseau even noted this was a fictional understanding. However, simply denying facts their place in this debate is an unreasonable claim. My opponent’s only burden would be to show the contract is a nice idea. Whether it is nice or not though is irrelevant – the question, as always, is whether something is true. Utopianism is a nice idea, but we live in the world of reality, not fiction. Social contract’s factual claims on the origin of authority is dubious at best, ludicrous at worst, and with that I urge against the resolution. Vote CON.
It's also important to note, here, that for lack of character space I was not able to specifically 'mention' Stephen's third point -even though I negated it by implication. Let's return to that, now. Donning Filmer's -normative- critique of Locke, Stephen claims that Locke's social contract doesn't quite 'work' because it doesn't account for familial structure's being prior to society and it overlooks consent. Like Filmer, Stephen erroneously assumes that consent in SCT works the same sort of way that consent to a legal contract or to sexual relations might work among individuals. And yet, even if the family were prior to society, that is not to say that SCT is not viable as a political theory because SCT distinguishes between the family and general society. Likewise, as I mentioned in Rd. 1, consent may be either tacit or explicit -and in that as the our own social order is always prior to ourselves (meaning it existed before we were born), our consent is assumed in our not choosing to leave it. Like Filmer, Stephen is muddying between two distinct 'kinds' of consent, and his argument is insufficient to indicate that SCT is not 'viable' as political theory because even if you bought his/Filmer's criticism, it only impact's "Locke's" social contract. It says nothing of Hobbes, Rawls, Rousseau, etc. After all, SCT is far more than Locke.
Regretfully, I'm quite low on character space -but equally regretfully, Stephen's argument against my framework for viability still falls by the same token as his first point in the third round. I didn't say that "empirics" were irrelevant to political theory. I said that empirics weren't all that was relevant. His rebuttal presupposes that if the empirics on which some SCT writers based their postulations on could be shown to be not the case, that SCT falls. That's simply not the case, because while Locke may draw on observations of the world, even Locke didn't base his SCT only on empirical observations of the world. And indeed, some SCTs originate not from the physical world, but from hypotheticals of how the world should be to decide what's just -Rawls, for example. Stephen's final point in the last round takes issue with what he perceives my limited BOP to be. Indeed, I've got an easier time here than he does -but that's because of the way he (the instigator) articulated the resolution and not because of any choice I made. I've framed what viability means for normative theory, and shown that SCT is, in fact, viable. He has not even remotely demonstrated that SCT is not viable. I've met my burden, he has not. Do vote PRO.
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