Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York

The Corliss Lamont Chapter of the American Humanist Association

Why Humanists Should Reject The "Social Contract"

The following is a rebuttal to an article by Robert Grant entitled "The Social Contract and Human Rights" which appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of The Humanist magazine.

by Thomas Riggins

Robert Grant's "The Social Contract and Human Rights" while well intentioned cannot, I believe, be the basis for a Humanist outlook.

The main thesis, that "human rights are inherent features of our nature as human beings" the author fails to establish. When he discusses our "nature" it seems that it boils down to being the nature of "an animal that is a predator with needs for food, clothing (!) and shelter". The author shows confusion in this definition as "clothing" is certainly a social construction as is the "need" for it in many instances.

He improves on this definition, based on his understanding of Rawls, by presenting Rawls' ideas on the original condition of human beings — "stripped of their accidental characteristics: gender, age, race, nationality or tribe, social status, wealth or poverty, good health or disability." This imaginary predatory animal happens to be "rational, able to think at a very abstract and symbolic level." This last feature is too far-fetched to be realistically considered. It took our species a long time and many ages of development to arrive at "rationality".

The author is aware of this and allows that the original condition leading to the social contract is only a theoretical condition not an historical one. This is a thought experiment — and not a very good one. It means that the actual people (or person) rationally constructing the contract is in fact of a particular gender, age, race, nationality, etc., and most important lives in a particular historical period in a particular socio-economic formation. For Rawls and our author that formation is late capitalism as it developed in the United States after the extirpation of the native American cultures, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and the war of conquest waged against the people of Mexico.

It is this society's concept of "human rights" which Mr. Grant thinks is "universal" and general "in their application to all people and at all times." Mr. Grant only discusses John Locke, John Rawls and the US Constitution as the sources of his ideas. Those societies that don't embody these universal values must have a problem. They do, and Mr. Grant tells us that it is due to the fact that "the degree of knowledge and understanding of these rights and duties will vary" by culture. This is a very, or not so very as you choose, polite way of saying that societies not agreeing with our values (which are after all universal or catholic values) are backward.

And what are these values? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This pursuit includes "the right to acquire and own property" — a right the "backwards" aboriginal tribes were lacking when they met up with the followers of John Locke who, exercising their universal rights, gave them their first lesson regarding the unalienable rights of man.

I believe, as humanists, we must understand and learn from other traditions while seeing them as historically conditioned — and this includes our own tradition. What we must not do, and I think the Grant article is guilty of this, is elevate our own tradition to the status of "universalism". This is just rehashed cultural imperialism and has its roots in the dogmatic religious outlooks of the past and present. If you are looking for universal human rights and duties go to Rome and ask the Pope. Humanists should realize that we create our own values, reacting to the times and climes, and rational people can disagree on what these values are.

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Robert Grant is a practicing attorney and former judge living in New Rochelle, New York. He is a lecturer and the author of American Ethics and the Virtuous Citizen, published in October 1999 by Humanist Press, a division of the American Humanist Association. The book expands upon and develops the ideas in his article.

At the time of writing, Thomas Riggins was Chapter President of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, the Corliss Lamont Chapter of the AHA. He teaches History of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and at New York University, was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was involved with Students for a Democratic Society.

The article discussed above originally appeared in the January/February 2000 (Volume 60, Number 1) issue of The Humanist magazine (ISSN 0018-7399), published by the American Humanist Association, Washington, DC 20009-7125.

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This page last revised:  January 7, 2012.

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