The Social Contract


I thought some interestingly different ideas came up in the discussion a couple weeks ago when I posted on the writer/reader contract. Some feel that writers owe them a good story—and some feel that the writer owes the reader nothing beyond the story they want to tell.

Lately, as I look at the news about the largest migration of people across Europe since the end of the second World War, I’ve been thinking about the social contract, and how various groups are communicating about what we owe, or don’t owe, our fellow humans.

I do not want to get into the politics end of this situation—too often political discussions turn into rants and anger, nobody listening, just getting louder as they try to hammer down those who disagree. So I’d like to explore the social contract in miniature, that is, what we owe, or do not owe, to those we know in our immediate circles, and how we translate that out.

One of the most interesting things a writer (whatever she thinks she owes the reader) can look into is the evolution of the social contract. Put at its simplest—though it can be a very complex subject indeed—we agree to live, if not in harmony, at least without harming one another. I won’t throw my garbage into your space, and you won’t enter my house and help yourself to my things.

Then there is the matter of social control: assuming we’re not calling 911 on neighbors, co-workers and family members whenever we disagree about social issues, how do we see to it that the contract is observed?

In a lot of discussions the word duty comes up: we have a duty to our fellow human to abide by certain communally accepted rules. But some can define duty in various ways–such as obligation. I’m obliged to accept my neighbor’s noisy Friday night parties, which in turn my neighbor doesn’t let go on much past midnight. My neighbor is obliged to accept that my dog barks when I leave on an early morning walk and we surprise another dog outside on the sidewalk, but I either bring the dog inside or hustle in the other direction to end the encounter. Obligation = duty in this regard.

I’ve long felt that obligation, when defined as expectation of gratitude is one of the most insidious weapons of social control. (The worst, I think, is the use of pain.) This is not the obligation you freely agree to as part of a contract. I’ve seen this type of obligation used to control people; it seems to be a learned habit or custom. And at least in my experience, it’s been women who wield that weapon a lot more than men. Who have plenty of other weapons.

Maria Theresa, emperss, ruling her household

This isn’t just in real life, but in my readings of history when I look for the lives of ordinary people. The laws denied women power. Through reading journals, letters, and memoirs, I’ve looked at how women went about making a place for themselves in social settings and in families.

Generally speaking, they had to use every weapon they had, and obligation/gratitude was perhaps the strongest if one did not have rank or wealth or the charm that turns everyone into followers. Obligation is very powerful, especially teamed up with shame. “Look what I did for you! You owe me!”

Women of power sometimes used it as well. For example Maria Theresia of the Holy Roman Empire—she could have used the Austrian equivalent of the Bastille on recalcitrant relatives, but preferred not to. But in everyday life,  where husbands and fathers could rant, or take a stick to their wives and children, women who used their tongue too freely could end up more humiliated than their victims, as laws made by men protected men.


Back in the seventies, I knew several what is now called first wave feminists who strongly wanted to escape from the perceived stranglehold of obligation taught girls in the fifties, much of which centered around “Being a lady.” So they invented a system that had nothing to do with bad girls, good girls, or “ladies” but instead relied on an exact accounting of who owed what to whom. A helped B to move, therefore B owed A, and when A needed something, she expected B to pay that debt.

If the debt was help moving, that was pretty clear-cut, but what if A expected B to tell C something extremely unpleasant that A felt C should know?

“Hey, A. If you move, I’m there, but I don’t want to get into that mess.”

“Sorry, B. I don’t intend to move. You owe me, and this is how I expect you to repay that debt.”

consciousness raising

I watched friendships break over that—in spite of any number of consciousness-raising talks.

The most extreme case was a person who talked a great deal about about how she martyred herself in service to her friends, even though she didn’t particularly like them.

She had been raised in a background where moral superiority was perceived as one’s greatest strength. Because she was convinced of her unassailable moral superiority, whether they wanted it or not, she had a duty to tell people what was wrong with their lives, and because (she felt) her motives were pure, and because (she felt) her insights were better than anyone else’s, her recipients were (she felt) obligated to listen.

What a terrible thing when gratitude, which can be such a powerful, wonderful rush of emotion, becomes a weapon! But some social groups are tightly wired together by built-in reins of gratitude and obligation…and the emotional fallout of people straining against those reins can be sad, and terrifying when it builds decades of repressed anger.

In the business world, I’ve seen the tension when people talk about how to deal with the overlapping of professional and friendship roles online. How to handle it when your family decides to helpfully mix it up with your professional colleagues, because though people can create filters, no one can control what gets linked or retweeted? Or you end up in a situation where your new boss is your ex, or your significant other ends up on the other side of the bargaining table?

Tales_of_wonder_by_James_Gillray (satire on gothic novels)

The inner and outer details of guilt and gratitude can infuse novels with the horrible fascination of a trainwreck. We want to see transgressors get what they deserve, and while in real life, that so seldom happens, the desire for emotional or social justice can be the stronger. That is, if we understand the invisible rules.

Books that examine the to-us-moderns hidden layers of expectation, obligation, and gratitude can be fascinating. But they can also be opaque, or read entirely differently than the writer intended, out of ignorance of cultural mores of the time.

Readers of historical novels who know period history roll their eyes at the errors of usage that modern writers not as well versed in history are unaware of. Conversely, in older books, the obligation, the guilt and gratitude, are so much a part of the social fabric that many modern readers are puzzled by what readers of the time understood. For example, read modern readers’ reactions to Fanny Price’s objection to producing the play “Lover’s Vows” while her uncle was away, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

mansfield couple

Fanny gets criticized for being humorless (not true–she displays more humor than both Anne of Persuasion and Elinor of Sense & Sensibility together), judgmental (she understood and sympathized whereas she was surrounded by judgers, including her beloved Cousin Edmund who spent a lot of the book judging Mary Crawford in spite of his crush), hypocritical (astoundingly untrue—she was the least hypocritical of all the characters in the book), etc because today’s readers don’t understand the moral tenor of the time, which Austen’s readers all did.

These hidden layers can extend to any period of history, or layer of society or profession: the labyrinthine layers of legal custom between solicitors and barristers; the intricacies of Church of England politics in Anthony Trollope’s novels; the fascinating glimpses of vast change gotten from the Russian novelists before the Revolution and after, just to point out a few.

We think we understand layers of cultural obligation in history, at least in countries where our home language is spoken, but we can be vastly mistaken—or confused, or alarmed, or pitchforked into reassessment as when a group of people who don’t speak our language, or live by our customs, turn desperately to us for help.




The Social Contract — 17 Comments

  1. Who was it–damn it, I hate not remembering–who was recently talking online about the old use of “friend” in terms of someone you could turn to for help in a social-safety-net sort of way. I don’t think it was you, but maybe? As in, “Have you no friend who can aid you?” (in the sense of, help you with connections for jobs or letters of recommendation)

    Whoever was talking about it was talking about how our sense of what friendship means and doesn’t mean keeps on evolving. I think now people think of friends as emotional supports and people whom they can depend on to understand their idiosyncrasies and share in their enthusiasms more than as people who will help them, say, secure a loan–though sometimes friends do those sorts of things, too.

    • I don’t know, but “friends” in the seventeen hundreds and early in the 1800s meant the people who cared about you, often your family.

  2. This puts me in mind of the book “Debt: The First Five Thousand Years” by David Graeber (which I think I’ve nattered about before) — on the surface it’s an anthropologist taking a look at the history of debt and the origins of money, but it’s about so much more, because you can’t discuss debt without getting into questions of interpersonal morality: and when you get down to it, our understanding of macroeconomics is infected with interpersonal morality in a quite toxic way. (The whole “austerity” narrative justifies piling punitive debt burdens on people who had *no say* in who borrowed what financial instruments a generation or two ago by appealing to guilt and retribution narratives and applying a spurious doctrine of collective responsibility …)

  3. As Charlie mentions Graeber’s book in this context it is also a useful perspective from which to examine a contemporary iteration of obligation and duty nexis that has grown up in culture, particularly on campuses, as described here.

  4. The fun part is that some readers simply can’t adjust their thoughts to take in a different setting and will complain about historical accuracy, and others are aware of the difference and will complain about the lack.

  5. Since I’m a teacher I often think about my obligations to students, colleagues, and parents. For the most part these are taken on freely and performed with good will. Likewise with those who have obligations to me.
    I’m glad not to be in Fanny’s position! She showed genuine courage in refusing her “obligation” to her family to marry rich Henry Crawford when he asked. Even her benevolent uncle tried to manipulate her by sending her back to her mother and father for a while.
    It can get poisonous when a really manipulative and controlling person tries to create obligations by .

  6. Some of my comment got cut off. Last sentence should say: It can get poisonous when a really manipulative and controlling person tries to create obligations by doing unwanted and unnecessary “favors” and then demanding gratitude and admiration in return.

    • I know of a situation where one person took on a lot of the chores for a group, and then used that as a club to try to get everyone to do things her way (even though her way was not necessarily fair or the best way to do things).

      The more I think about it, the more I think it’s important for people to spend more time learning about how to give and take in a social context. This is one of the important things about having clubs and related extracurricular activities in school, for example. You don’t learn how to work well with others from lectures; you do it by working with others.

      • I totally agree. This was the main reason I used to give junior high kids class projects to work on, and then monitor the give and take to make sure they didn’t fall into the usual patterns of smart-kid-does-all-the-work, or charismatic-kid-gets-others-to-do-the-job.

        When it got so they could organize themselves, it was a pleasure to watch.

  7. Just got round to reading your post here, and it prompted, as usual, lots of thoughts. These are just 2.

    I was reminded of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘Eight Days of Luke’ when Mr Wedding explains to David that in fact he doesn’t have to be grateful to people for what they choose to do for him – something David fires right back at him when Mr Wedding tries later to manipulate him. That is something that stuck with me in the same way as “People have a right to ask. You have a right to say no.”

    And I would like to thank you for sticking up for Fanny Price – a much maligned heroine, imo.
    I know it has been said, though I can’t remember by whom (who? what?) that we judge Austen’s heroines on the men they love, and poor Cousin Edmund is dull.
    But all of Austen’s true gentlemen and ladies behave with genuine kindness and consideration of and for other people’s feelings (however absurd they may be), without any expectation of return. Darcy gets to make a grand gesture, but Knightly, Tilney, Wentworth, are all given to little kindnesses and acts of compassion. It’s Edmund’s kindness that wins Fanny’s love in the first place, of course.