…ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. — John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, Jan 20, 1961
ONE of the interesting aspects of contemporary discussions on political obligation and the problems of national and social cohesion is the way in which dialogues about our obligations are rooted in the language of the social contract.
At times of political crisis and unease, there are calls both for this social contract to either be renewed or revisited and perhaps changed.
Much contemporary discussion of political authority derives from this notion of the social contract and the obligations and duties of individuals and groups towards the state.
The benefits of a social contract are usually thought of in terms of what individuals, groups or “the people” get out of it: protection, welfare, rights and so forth. We, in turn, accept certain obligations to the state and acquiesce in certain arrangements.
Underpinning the idea of the social contract is a rational model of human motivations. We enter into a contract as rational agents to achieve certain goals and agendas.
What strikes us is that the language of the social contract, — which admittedly derives from several sources, most famously from Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and in more recent times in the work of John Rawls and David Gauthier — is that in its commonplace usage pictures an agreement, a brokered deal or settlement which can either be verified by reference to some empirical point in the founding of a nation or understood as a plausible theoretical construct which captures the essence of the founding of a nation and its state.
What I want to suggest is that understanding our political and civic obligations within the social contract cannot simply be assumed to solely arrive out of or be sustained only on the principles of rational calculation.
The metaphorical abacus is not the basis nor does it provide the sustaining emotions necessary for us to bind together as a society and as a nation.
Rather at root of our buy-in lies deeper emotions and sensibilities which when compared to the calculative rationality of assessing gains and benefits may appear irrational or at least non rational.
If the idea of a social contract is to make any sense, it must not be reducible to mere calculative interests.
National cohesion and the idea of a social contract or settlement cannot be understood purely in terms of a rational choice model of human motivations.
We accept our ‘social contract’ and obligations because we see each other as belonging to something which cannot be understood by mere calculation of benefit. We accommodate and accept each other’s needs and understand each other’s aspirations through living in a national community.
We are tied by bonds of friendship and regard for each other as members of something bigger and more significant which bonds us through our emotions and feelings in ways that cannot be explained by utility maximisation.
One critical aspect and key sign of this emotional bonding is our preparedness to sacrifice for the common good. Our readiness to give up things, accommodate where necessary is a key constituent of a successful social contract.
The core idea I want to introduce here is the concept of sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that the root concept behind nation-building and the necessary ethic that informs and sustains it, is the idea of sacrifice for something greater than our individual or group benefit.
We sacrifice because we believe and have a sense of obligation to each other and our community and nation that cannot be simply reduced to a simple calculation of our interests. In short, what we give up and how we accommodate to each other, not what we gain lies at the root of our sense of obligation, loyalty and belonging.
We have a sense of our imagined community, a sense of our bonds and belonging to something greater than our own selfish aims. Without this, no social contract is possible.
For here is the thing; — underpinning the rational logic of a social contract with its legalistic sounding discourse and its rationalistic appearance is the fact that for a social contract to work it must rest on the establishment and power of non-rational motivations, our sense of belonging or striving for something beyond ourselves and our capacity to sacrifice our self and our own interests at times for this. Great nations and great nation-building projects have always been rooted in sacrifice and faith in each other.
When we think of the Malaysian case, perhaps a more productive and inspiring way to tell the story of the building of the nation from Merdeka onwards is to tell the story of sacrifice, accommodation and faith.
Nation-builders who were all prepared to give things up for something greater than themselves; parents who put all their efforts into their children’s education; teachers who worked long hours underpaid and often in difficult circumstances; and soldiers who put up with hardship and danger in the service of their country.
If we think of national development, we see its basis in the discipline and sacrifice of Malaysians who gave up a lot so that future generations could prosper. The nation was built by men and women who believed and sacrificed.
One of the critical problems of much liberal theory is that in placing so much emphasis on the idea that the problems of obligation and justice in a society rest on a fair distribution of benefits is that it tends to view “the social contract” as simply a negotiation and agreement over benefits and spoils.
In this way there is a tendency for us to think that if only we renegotiate the spoils, redistribute the benefits, the problems of fraying social contract will be addressed. However, beneath the problem of distribution lies the issue of belonging and ultimately the issue of belief and faith in each other and in our community.
In the words of Danielle S. Allen (Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education): “No democratic citizen, adult or child, escapes the necessity of losing out at some point in a public decision.” Our willingness to give things up rests ultimately on some kind of belief that we belong to something of higher value than our own individual or group interests.
The problem of a frayed social contract is thus also not simply or only a problem of who gets what. While distribution of benefits and opportunities is important, indeed critical, the deeper concern is an issue of sacrifice, accommodation and commitment to something more than just getting a benefit. What do we give up? To answer this question we need to consider the following questions as a guide. Is there a nation and a binding community to which I feel a sense of belonging? Are we still prepared to give things up for the greater good? Do I view my countrymen and women as my fellows and part of something that transcends my material interests?
Here lies the irony. Behind the important social and political negotiations and understandings about authority, and distribution of benefits that make up a consociational democracy lays a less profane and non-calculative issue of belonging, sacrifice and a sense of shared destiny and obligation. When this frays, when we no longer have a sense of community and friendship that informs it, we no longer have the basis for accommodation and sacrifice. The Malaysian experience of nation-building shows us the power of an ability to sacrifice for the greater good and a sense of obligation that was not rooted only in profane interests.
The breakdown of social solidarity and national cohesion, which concerns many, rests in some measure in the reduction of our obligations and sense of national identity simply to individual interests and wholly material objectives.
It is not simply what you can get from your country that defines the extent or depth of ones obligations or our sense of belonging. Nations are built upon sturdier and deeper features.
An ability to sacrifice self-interest, and accommodate each other are the characteristic features which underpin a successful social contract. A society that is characterised by these things and actively cultivates them is worth belonging to and its social contract will be strong.
James Campbell New Straits Times Learning Curve 2014/04/22