Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes.
The very fact that something is determined as a limitation implies that the limitation is already transcended. – Hegel
Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and most recently Rawls have all been exemplary practitioners of contract theory.
As is well known, all four of these political theorists began with a particular conception of the state of nature or put into other words man’s original existential situation prior to all forms of government or social contract.
In each case, the state of nature is pre-historical because pre-political.
How each thinker viewed man’s primary condition dictated the course of their further arguments concerning humanity’s fundamental political decisions and actions.
This profound intellectual tradition led most famously to the political beliefs and institutions that founded the United States (at least in theory if not in future practice) and later supplied the world, in part through the consequences of the French Revolution, with today’s democratic principles and ideals especially as they relate to Universal Human Rights.
Although, practically speaking, the fruits of contract theory have by no means been fully applied they nonetheless have provided and arguably still provide the intellectual and spiritual resources for critical projects of reform and even revolution.
Important also is the fact that each of these thinkers, as we inevitably all are, were the “sons of their time”. Hobbes was obsessed with the incessant fears and palpable evils produced by civil war, Locke with the proper separation of governmental powers and the role of parliament therein, Rousseau with the prevalent vices and weaknesses of the Ancien Regime, Kant with the perceived threats to conventional religion and morality as posed by the Enlightenment, and finally, close to our own age is Rawls’s concern over not only political equality but social and economic fairness as well.
However, what we are preoccupied with today is not so much the past or even the present but the future.
To be more exact, we are preoccupied with an apocalyptic future the likelihood of which is not at all clear even if it can be presently conceived as a distinctly frightening possibility.
Thus one of the challenges for a possible renewal of future contract theory would be to place its theoretical starting position not in some imaginary distant past, but in a very possible dystopian future.
Thus, the starting premise of a global social contract might be how best to organize ourselves with a view to both human and planetary justice to avoid a future scenario of ecological disaster.
For if anything, the Twenty First century suggests that justice has widened its scope to cover the social and political relationships between humans and nature. Justice must operate within and between both spheres of existence, if there is to be any human existence at all. Historically, The Rights of Man have led inevitably to The Rights of Nature.
What political arrangements? What institutions? What principles? How can humanity live in sustainable fairness to both itself and that which ultimately supports it?
In a Kantian frame of mind, should we make universally applicable maxims out of whatever insights and institutions sustain and strengthen both human rights and the environment?
For indeed, it would be a strange and devilish path to salvation that would require draconian/dictatorial action. But of course, if a new social contract between ourselves and the planet is not soon forthcoming, a new and terrible kind of necessary tyranny may be what is in store for us all.