Sunday, July 6, 2014

One Holy Catholic And Apostolic Social Contract?

As one raised Catholic, I always tacitly accepted as a secular humanist that there is exactly “one holy catholic and apostolic social contract”. Now I'm not so sure...

One: Is there one single best way to structure society for the greatest benefit? One that maximizes individual freedom for those who can support themselves while providing social justice for those who cannot? Not if we are hardwired (through heredity or environment in childhood), say for risk aversion, need to belong to a group, have difficulty embracing change, feel undeserved loss more strongly than unearned gain, cannot tolerate ambiguity or chaos, need a higher purpose in life than we can ourselves construct, or fear our own mortality. Sociology emerges from psychology: different strokes for different folks.

Holy: Does the group even serve some higher destiny, beyond a utilitarian one in which the pragmatics of life unfold? Is patriotism or civic-mindedness an objective good or mere social lubricant so we don't all kill each other? You don't have to be an Ayn Rand devotee to wonder why the group has any moral legitimacy: many progressives (myself included) are baffled at Citizens United, which holds that a corporation is a person. A mob may have a moral code well below that of any of its participants and free from self-doubt or guilt about its actions. Is communitarianism just mob rule with a human face?

Catholic: Is the Enlightenment is purely a cultural construct of Europeans, or are “human rights” universal? I long thought this was obvious, until my two years in the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic where I saw near-universal endorsement of the group (family, clan, tribe) as the fundamental unit of identity, where the prosperity of the group and the strength of one's two-way ties to it were the measure of happiness, not the self-indulgent whims of the individual. I got only baffled confusion trying to explain even to my educated fellow teachers the possibility that in America young and old wouldn't naturally both want to live together in a multigenerational unit or that it wasn't the accepted duty of any adult to discipline any child (to the benefit of both). What is the social benefit of religious homogeneity among Muslims or the fusion in China of economic liberalism fused with state-enforced social cohesion? Only time and social science will disentangle cause from effect here.

Apostolic: Is humanity too precious to be left to the hand of humans? Should we embrace the Platonic ideal of an aristocratic guardian who protects us from our worst impulses, like the American Constitution that guards against majoritarian tyranny, defended by judges anchored to reason devoid of passion, with a ruling and business class propped up by the practice (if not the theory) of our voting system in which franchise is exercised at much higher rates by educated property-owning old people with money, assumed to be pursuing ideals extending beyond how to maximize their own immediate material comforts. Or is it preferable (if even possible) that we commit to universal education sufficient to ensure that the governed are equipped to choose the greater good on their own without coercion? Bread and circuses are to politics what television is to parenting: we can do better.

Social: Are laws limited to governing the group, or does the individual also need to be governed? Are there any victimless crimes, such as not wearing a seatbelt or motorcycle helmet, opting out of healthcare, or taking drugs which destroy the individual's own freedom of choice? Or are we actually our brother's keeper, whether he likes it or not?

Contract: Are interpersonal relations governed merely by contract, where voluntary agreement of the parties is necessary and sufficient? Or is there some “natural law”, a higher ideal that makes it for example wrong to kill the weak in a resource-poor economy or destroy the climate in ways that will not harm us or our children but may injure our great grandchildren? Is it true that access to abortion in the 70s was the main driver in lowering asocial behavior in the 90s, and if so what should we do with that knowledge?

Secular humanists sometimes come across as amoral elitist wishful-thinkers who believe as Hamlet that there is “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and admit like Einstein to loving humanity but hating humans. In fact, I see us as pragmatic optimists who have observed over time that society progresses when knowledge spreads, that theory bears fruit only when anchored to data empirically derived through scientific method, that we don't need to be smart enough to do if we are just bold enough to try and wise enough to assess. For us all to advance, we each have to advance, but not necessarily in the same direction, and none should be left behind.

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