Selflessly honoring the social contract


“In moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best, a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard. Maybe, especially when it’s hard.”

President Barak Obama spoke these words Tuesday at a ceremony to award Army Capt. William D. Swenson the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Swenson’s receipt of the honor marks the first time in half a century that two service members have earned the Medal of Honor during the same battle. Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer was previously recognized for his heroism at the Battle of the Ganjgal Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The conflict claimed the lives of four American soldiers, 10 Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter.

Obama’s remarks extend far beyond the bravery of individuals awarded the nation’s highest military honors. We are best when we look out for one another and when we meet our obligations.

The idea of mutual obligation and interdependence is hardly new. Philosophers often speak of this as the “social contract” — the view that our moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon an implied contract or agreement among us to form the society in which we live.

The first formal explications of a social contract concept goes back to Socrates. Condemned to death, Socrates provides a convincing argument as to why he must stay in prison and accept his penalty, rather than escaping to live in exile. To do so, he personifies the Laws of Athens; and speaking in their voice, explains that he has acquired an overwhelming obligation to obey the laws because they have made his entire way of life, and even the fact of his very existence, possible.

Our modern understanding of the social contract owes to the work of the 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argued that the social contract binds us together and protects us from the “State of Nature” in which life is largely a free-for-all of unfettered appetites and egoistic desires.

Hobbes argues that society is only possible because we assent to being mutually bound and obligated. According to Hobbes, the Social Contract is the most fundamental source of all that is good and that which we depend upon to live well. Hobbes outlines a choice: either we agree to abide by the terms of the contract; or return to the chaotic State of Nature.

If we step back, we can see proof of Hobbes’ argument. The more we allow ourselves to act out of greed or self-interest, the more problems we have as a nation and a community.

Sir Walter Scott’s famous lines about “the wretch, centered all in self” really come home to roost.

As people — like the six recent Congressional Medal of Honor recipients (from Afghanistan and Iraq) — demonstrate, we have the capacity to act beyond ourselves. We are each imbued with the potential for charity, empathy and courage. Whether we act upon that potential determines the kind of person we become and the kind of society in which we live.