My son was home from college over the holidays. Because he is very focused on his schoolwork (that’s what he tells me, anyway), he has not read any of my blog posts. Even so, he was trying to help me with blog post ideas. He is, like me, a policy geek. But his interest is international relations, emerging democracies, and national security. Mine is community and the social contract. So when he suggested I write about Aung San Suu Kyi’s plans to elevate herself above the president, I thought… yeah, not happening. Aside from my complete ignorance on the topic, I didn’t think it fit with my theme: ordinary virtues make civilized communities.
Except that it does.
Philosophers since the ancient Greeks have pondered why we agree to live under government’s authority. The theory is, we create constitutions and laws, citizens tacitly consent to obey the laws, the laws protect the citizens - we enter a social contract. It's a win-win. We agree to stop at stop signs, and we are protected from being in a demolition derby on the way to work. While contemporary issues such as feminism and racial equality have forced us to look at the nature of the social contract differently than Socrates or Rousseau did, it is still generally about being governed.
I’ve always held a broad interpretation of the social contract. That any kind of relationship, not just the governed and the government, is bound together by a social contract. I was going to write about how it’s just ordinary virtues on a grand scale.
We create other frameworks – religion, the Golden Rule, manners, other social and moral constructions – that allow us to cohabit with each other. They govern relationships between family members, friends, colleagues, and strangers. I would call those frameworks ordinary virtues.
Why practice ordinary virtues? We don’t get legal protection, as we would by obeying the law under the social contract, but when we choose ordinary virtues, society functions more or less predictably and people at least tolerate each other. You stop for a stop sign, you don’t get hit. Treat people with respect, and typically there is a positive outcome. It’s not that different from the social contract. But I don’t think that’s all.
My new friend Pete and I have been talking about ordinary virtues. We agree that there is, as he said, “simplicity and beauty in that kind of ‘religion,’” the practice of ordinary virtues. Nietzsche wrote:
“Among the small but endlessly abundant and therefore very effective things… is goodwill. I mean those expressions of a friendly disposition in interactions, that smile of the eye, those handclasps, the ease which usually envelops nearly all human interactions. … It is the continual manifestation of our humanity, its rays of light, so to speak, in which everything grows. … Good nature, friendliness, and courtesy of heart… have made much greater contributions to culture than those much more famous expressions of this drive, called pity, charity, and self-sacrifice.” (From Human All Too Human.)
That works for me. Small but significant. The manifestation of our humanity in small acts of goodwill.
Pete and I also agree that while we try to practice what I call ordinary virtues and he calls the Golden Rule, we both sometimes fail. Terence, an ancient Roman playwright said, “I’m full of cracks, I leak all over.” We follow the social contract and ordinary virtues, but sometimes we fail. Sometimes I run the stop sign, sometimes I’m snarky, sometimes I don’t forgive easily. And then I try to do better.
Back to Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi. Although she’s the leader of the elected majority party, the constitution bars her from becoming president. It was written by her opposition – a military junta that ensured compliance with the law not by offering protection, but with threats and violence. It seems like she is violating both the social contract as we understand it, and ordinary virtues. Yes, the constitution is arbitrary and illegitimate. While she has a legitimate claim to the leadership position, why not wait until her party is in power and write a less arbitrary constitution? Deciding to place yourself above the president just seems like a bad precedent in an emerging democracy. And since she has a lock on power, why not respect the system, show grace with an orderly transition, and change the constitution legitimately? To paraphrase Montaigne, I’m clueless. Unlike Montaigne, I really am. But maybe now my kid will read my blog.
What kind of picture goes with the social contract? Beats me. I chose one with simplicity and beauty, to go with Pete's eloquent words. Photo of Lake Michigan courtesy of www.pointnorthphotography.com. As always, thanks for reading. You can subscribe to blog posts at the bottom of any page at www.ordinaryvirtues.com.