The Social Contract We Enter When Living Communally

Happy Sunday, goal-getter!

brave sunday social contract

I’ve spent a lovely weekend binge-watching The Politician, a Netflix original starring Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and her marvelous jewel-toned caftans. The plot follows Platt as Payton Hobart, an ambitious aspiring politician as he and his team try to win a high school election and, in season two, a state Senate seat. (At this point, I’ll take a brief aside to note that two of the episodes in Season 2 are titled “Conscious Unthroupling” and “What’s in the Box?”, chef’s kiss tongue-in-cheek nods to Paltrow).

In Episode 6, Payton’s girlfriend, Alice, questions him about his apparent lack of ethics and how he disguises his disregard for others as “just what politicians do.”

“When we go to the movies, you put your jacket on the chair next to you so no one can sit there… it’s the principle. We are members of a community in the theater. you are putting your comfort over the comfort of everyone in that theater… There’s always a rationalization for everything.”

The concept Alice is describing in her overly-affected voice is called the social contract: “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection.”

The social contract is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as restaurants and bars re-open and Chicago starts to come alive again. In my neck of the woods, masks are becoming less frequently worn, and I’ve been following the cries of those who feel wearing a mask stifles their individual freedom.

I’ve also been thinking about the social contract as I take my six-month-old puppy to off-leash dog parks. When I open that gate, I’m trusting other dog owners that their dogs are playful, friendly, and won’t cause harm to me or my dog—and at the same time, I’m vouching for my pup that she won’t be aggressive or scare little kids (fat chance as she’s the biggest scaredy-pup you’ve ever seen).

So what’s that got to do with your high school social studies class?

When you choose to live in a society, philosophers and government administrators argue, you’re agreeing to abide by society’s rules of decorum, of what’s acceptable, and what everyone has to contribute to keep society functioning. Hence, taxes, and “No shirt, no shoes, no service” signs in storefronts.

The philosophers who wrote about the social contract—big names like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant—each took slightly different stances towards it, but their main point was that law and order (cue the theme song) weren’t naturally occurring states; instead, they were man-made creations.

And here’s the kicker: the social contract only works if everyone buys in. If everyone pays taxes and wears shirts.

Your challenge this week: Uphold the social contract in an area that’s decidedly inconvenient for you.

It’s tempting right now to forgo the mask, to throw your coffee cup in the trash instead of the recycling, to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter if you personally show up to a protest or share a Black content creator in Instagram—to do the easy thing that benefits you instead of the right thing that benefits many.

This week, take note of areas in your life where you’re willfully turning your head away from the social contract. Acknowledge the inconvenience and remind yourself that your extra couple seconds of work are not for you, necessarily, but for the people around you. Have compassion and do your part in keeping your fellow Earthlings healthy, safe, and equal.

COVID-19 Live

About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.