Social Contract Theory in the News, or Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised that Baltimore is Burning, We Should Be Surprised South Carolina Isn’t

Social Contract Theory in the News, or Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised that Baltimore is Burning, We Should Be Surprised South Carolina Isn’t



Every once in awhile, something happens that seems to be completely inexplicable to the pundits and reporters who claim the authority to explain the world to us, but which makes complete sense to anyone with even a modicum of philosophy in the back of his or her brain. Right now, the self-proclaimed good patriots who are paid millions of dollars to tell us how to be patriots too seem utterly confused by the fact that people are rioting in Baltimore. Why would anyone burn and destroy property like this, Sean Hannity asks?[1] Since Sean didn’t let the person he was asking put three sentences together without interruption, those watching his discussion are left at least as uninformed as when they started. But philosopher Katrina Sifferd explains it pretty well, when she writes:

John Austin famously claimed legal rules were threats backed by sanctions – “if you x, we will punish you.” H.L.A. Hart, however, showed that such sanction-centered accounts ignored an essential feature of law: the “internal point of view.” In a stable legal system, Hart said, citizens don’t just feel obliged to follow the law because there is a gun pointed to their heads. They feel obligated to follow the law, in part because they benefit from it – they believe their lives are better off overall due to the rule of law.[2]

I can’t really blame Sean Hannity, or most people, for having never heard of J. L. Austin. He is one of my favorite 20th Century philosophers, but by the 20th Century philosophers had been largely confined to universities like dangerous animals are kept in zoos: there when anyone wants to look for awhile, but controlled and muted and unable to cause any real harm. But I can, and do, wonder how all these hyper-patriots justify not knowing anything about John Locke (except that he was a character in Lost). After all, John Locke was the philosopher Jefferson, Franklin, and virtually every other Colonial intellectual read right before saying, “We should have our own country.” No John Locke, no American Revolution. If you want to understand what the patriots were talking about when they said King George was a tyrant or people have inalienable rights, you have to understand John Locke; and if you don’t care enough to find that out, you should shut the hell up about politics and patriotism. Why listen to a self-professed chicken farmer who doesn’t know what an egg is?

Dr. Sifferd’s description implies a parallel between John Austin and Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher and eventual namesake of a very popular tiger.[3] Thomas Hobbes was an early Enlightenment philosopher and ardent supporter of absolute monarchy. Hobbes argued that people are irrational, selfish and fearful creatures, totally dominated by their fears and desires; therefore, the only way they could live together was if some powerful king or perhaps a small oligarchy took charge and terrified everyone into living peaceably with his or her neighbor. The State is thus the maker of laws and the enforcer, but is itself above all law; the citizens accept this because the alternative is violent anarchy. Not surprisingly, Hobbes was popular with the king and nobles who believed that the State should have absolute and unchallenged rule over the stupid, vicious masses.

H. L. A. Hart, on the other hand, more resembles John Locke. Locke’s family had opposed the very monarchy Hobbes supported, and his father even fought in rebellion against his king. While Hobbes was writing to support the necessity of having a king who would ruthlessly suppress all dissent and bend all wills to his own, Locke’s father was fighting for the Parliament elected by the people to be their voice in government, and their check on royal abuse. Locke’s own political philosophy reflects his family history. He argued that a civilized society was a sort of contract between the people and the government. It is as if they all existed in a “state of Nature” without any legal system or political structure. They would still be humans, and therefore would still be guided by reason. They would have complete liberty, since with no laws there is no control; they would have complete equality, since there would be no social structure or authority. They would have natural rights to life, liberty and whatever they could produce by the sweat of their brows and the genius of their minds. However, living without law courts, police, or any other political structure, they would find life difficult and conflict hard to avoid and harder to resolve once it began. Therefore, they would want to establish rules, laws, and thus would need legislators and magistrates and the other elements of civil government. However, the whole reason this government exists is to protect those rights the citizens created it to defend, much later described as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Life was to be protected by laws and designated judges and police (or those with official police powers). Liberty was protected by the fact that the government would rule only by the will of the majority, so the will of each individual would count equally and the final policies would be the expression of the sum of their wills. With the rule of law and popular sovereignty, a government would thus be established to protect the welfare of each individual and to guarantee that one had a right to the products of one’s own labor. Thus, in Locke’s understanding, government does not rest on the threat of punishment; it rests on the voluntary consent of the governed. Or, as Hare put it, government rests on the people’s belief that they are better off with the rule of law.

The other side of this is that the State exists to serve the people, not the other way around; and if the State fails to serve the people, they have every right to get rid of it and form another.[4] True, the social contract is majority rule, and we all agree to abide by the group decision; but since the whole motivation to remain a citizen is to protect one’s “inalienable rights” such as life and liberty, if the State is not doing that there is no motivation for one to stay in it, and every reason to leave. And, Locke says, a group that has thus felt disenfranchised has every right to join together and resist the rest, by violence if need be. Again, this is a fundamental principle of the United States. We did not wait for the majority of Great Britain to decide to give us our rights; it is not up to the oppressor to decide whether or not the victim is really oppressed. The oppressed acts on that feeling, and if enough others also feel oppressed then one person’s disaffection can become a group’s dissent, or even rebellion. Locke’s generally optimistic view of human nature seems to assume that if the disagreement were really private or irrational, the disaffection would not rise to the level of organized armed rebellion; if enough people joined together against their former government, it probably was for a good reason.

Thus, Locke’s philosophy suggests, if enough people start to feel threatened and tyrannized by their own government, not only is rebellion likely; it is in some circumstances the only rational choice. One such circumstance would be if the police forces ostensibly created to protect one’s inalienable rights began systematically violating them. In South Carolina, for example, a police officer shot an unarmed black man who was fleeing.[5] One can argue that anyone who runs from a cop deserves to be shot; the officer himself, however, apparently did not think so, since he both handcuffed the dead man and apparently dropped his Taser nearby, both actions that seem to serve no purpose except to create the false impression of a struggle. As a nation, we have seen a series of these sorts of incidents, recorded on cell phones by private citizens exercising their Constitutional rights as defined by the highest courts in the land. Sometimes, as in South Carolina, the video seems to contradict the police officer’s story and his superiors discipline him. That may be what has saved South Carolina from Baltimore’s fate. Where people can have some faith in the legal system to protect them, the rational thing for them to do is to try to work with that system. In other cases, police instead arrest the people who are recording their actions.[6] When Eric Garner died while being arrested, and the only person arrested for what the medical examiner called “homicide” was the person who had recorded the arrest, people in that community felt that the social contract was no longer protecting them. They were being told to uphold their side of the tacit agreement between citizen and State, but the State was not keeping its side and instead was punishing anyone who might expose this failure.

Due to the growing influence of social media, video recordings of possible or confirmed police abuse are broadcast worldwide in minutes. This has an amplifying effect, no doubt. Just as one news story about a shark bite can lead to national apprehension about sharks (when the odds of a fatal shark attack are somewhere between the odds of winning Powerball and waking up on the Moon tomorrow), video of one unarmed man being shot can seem as if it happened just around the block. The difference is, when I see a news story of a shark attack, I don’t think to myself of the time a shark circled me, and none of my friends talk of being bumped by sharks, etc. because these things almost never happen. But in many minority communities, a news story about a “police attack” can lead to people remembering and recounting how many of them have been stopped and frisked for no particular reason, excessive traffic fines used to fund a city government that doesn’t even provide for their inalienable rights, and numerous other grievances and slights, many petty, some severe, but all-to-common in any case. Nationally, crime rates have been falling for many years, but police tactics and legal punishments have only gotten harsher despite the decreasing threat.

I’ve been stopped by the police, and I hated it. I’ve also had many police officers as students, and they have been exemplary. They do a job that is necessary to any civil society, as Locke would point out, and it is a difficult, dangerous, stressful, underpaid and often unappreciated job that I could not do and would not want to try. Even when I find them inconvenient, or even unjust in some instance, I know my community would be worse off without them. And I have a hard time understanding why anyone who wasn’t guilty of something pretty bad would try to run from an armed cop. But whether you believe the feeling is justified or not, it is a simple fact that too many communities feel oppressed, disenfranchised, and disaffected. And when anyone concludes that the government is not working for him or her, it is hardly surprising when that person stops cooperating. Our entire nation was founded on the principle that people have a right to resist if they are being oppressed. And it is not for white people to tell black people that racism is dead, if that does not match their own experiences, any more than it was King George’s place to tell the American rebels that their complaints were unjustified because the majority of British people all agreed with him that the Americans were ignorant and unreasonable.

The question, then, is not “why is Baltimore burning?” A man who was already arrested and restrained, of no possible threat to anyone, wound up dead of bodily injury. The community this man came from does not view this as an isolated incident; they see it as a pattern in their community, just one more example of harsh and unequal treatment by the justice system. And many in this nation do not see it as an isolated incident either. Too many see video on social media, reflect on experiences in their own lives, and conclude there is a systematic campaign by the police to oppress them. To many white people, this seems paranoid and irrational. I come from Florida, where a primarily white, conservative government enacted some of the most sweeping stand-your-ground laws in the nation to defend against a systematic abuse of people’s rights to defend themselves. The primary example of that systematic abuse, it turns out, did not occur.[7] Arizona implemented some of the strictest immigration policies in the nation in response to beheadings by immigrants—which in fact never happened.[8] Across the nation, new Voter I.D. laws are being enacted, which are shown to have denied many legal voters the right to cast a ballot. All of this is to prevent people from impersonating legal voters. This taxpayer expense prevents a crime that no one has ever proven to be any sort of serious threat to any election, and which in fact could not possibly threaten the results of any election; it would simply be too difficult to pull off on any scale sufficient to sway an election. I think we white people just lost the high ground on the whole “you’re being paranoid” argument. Laws are being written to protect against crimes that are not being committed, while the black and brown people who claim they are not being protected produce video recordings—-and are told they are being paranoid and unreasonable. There is more documentation for the claims of racism and systemic oppression by protestors than there is to justify “stand your ground,” voter I.D. and anti-immigrant hysteria combined. Anyone who isn’t willing to repeal those laws must admit that the black community has even more cause to demand laws be written and enforced to protect them from the dangers they feel they face.

Today in the U.S. there are only two accepted reasons to riot: a major loss in a sporting event, and a major victory in a sporting event. Neither of these will cause any pundit to wonder, “Why are those thugs burning their own city?”[9] But in fact, your team losing a basketball game is not a violation of the social contract. There is no justification for such behavior, which is tolerated and even expected because it is so common. By contrast, being threatened and harassed and having a neighbor killed without a trial are legitimate reasons for revolt, by John Locke’s standards or anyone’s. So the real question isn’t, “Why is Baltimore Burning?” The questions we should be asking are, “Why aren’t more cities burning, how can we stop the problem from getting worse, and are our present actions helpful?”

Based on this analysis, the answers to these questions are:

  1. The reason more cities aren’t burning is that, as the famous video of Baltimore Mom illustrates, most minority people still feel that they are better off with the status quo than with either anarchy or open warfare.[10]
  2. Creating situations where more people feel that their inalienable rights are protected and their basic liberty and equality can be exercised is an essential element in promoting civil calm.
  3. As shown in this article, the current political trend is towards laws that deal with imaginary problems and irrational fears of white conservatives, while creating real problems and real cause for fear among non-whites (and to some extent, non-conservatives). At the same time, there is a major media-industrial complex devoted to downplaying those real concerns while exacerbating those irrational conservative fears. As a result, many conservatives feel disenfranchised because they have been repeatedly told they are being persecuted; and many non-whites feel disenfranchised because, well, they are literally disenfranchised, denied the right to vote, denied due process of law and denied basic rights. Increasing the sense of social alienation will increase social unrest; and our nation’s grandfather, John Locke, would tell us that we should expect this will lead to a troubled future.

[1] Joanna Rothkopf, “Sean Hannity Shamed by Baltimore Protester;” April 28, 2015 ( ) accessed April 29, 2015

[2] Katrina Sifferd, “Why is Baltimore Burning?” Pleas and Excuses, April 28, 2015 ( accessed April 29, 2015

[3] “Calvin and Hobbes” was much funnier than John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes

[4] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government” (1690)

[5] Michael Martinez, “South Carolina Cop Shoots an Unarmed Man: A Timeline;” CNN ( accessed April 29, 2015

[6] Bill Briggs, “Can the Cops Cuff You for Filming an Arrest?” NBC News ( accessed April 29, 2015

[7] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but that Story has been Distorted;” Tampa Bay Times, April 14, 2012 ( accessed April 29, 2015

[8] Robert Farley, “Gov. Jan Brewer Talks of Beheadings in the Arizona Desert,” Politifact.Com April 29, 2015 (, accessed April 29, 2015

[9] Frank Vyan Walton, “Carl Stokes to CNN’s Erin Burnett: Thugs? Just Call Them N#ggers Then…” Daily Kos, April 28, 2015 ( accessed April 29, 2015

[10] Baltimore Mom: “I Just Lost It” Seeing Son at Riots with Rock in Hand;” CBS News April 29, 2015 ( accessed April 29, 2015

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