In the 1982 Star Trek movie, “The Wrath of Khan,” a dying Spock comforts a grieving Captain Kirk by reminding him of social contract theory. Spock has exposed himself to lethal radiation to repair the warp drive that will save the Enterprise – because, as he explains to Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
That simple but powerful philosophy was first embraced by Socrates over 2,000 years ago. He believed that, since the laws of Athens had made his life possible, and since he had freely chosen to stay in Athens, he was obligated to accept whatever punishment the City’s laws meted out. When the City decided he was too dangerous to live, Socrates accepted its verdict and willingly drank poison.
Nearly 1,500 years later, Thomas Hobbes formulated the first modern social contract theory. Horrified by the English Civil War, which raged from 1642 to 1648, Hobbes decided that humans were so depraved that the only world they could possibly create would be intolerable. Rational people should therefore give up their freedom to a king, who would ensure the common good and protect people from the harm their neighbors would otherwise inflict.
John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704, developed a social contract theory that greatly influenced America’s Founding Fathers. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that in their natural state, humans instinctively obeyed God’s laws and did not harm others’ lives, health, liberty, or possessions. But since this peaceful state could easily turn to war if someone did transgress, a government was needed.
The government’s laws and punishments limited people’s perfect freedom, but that sacrifice was worth it to protect their lives and property – and the people retained the ultimate power. If the government failed to protect the common good, it could be rejected (as happened when America declared its independence), and the people could then create a new, more moral government.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 1712, d. 1778) agreed with Locke that in their natural state, with abundant resources and little competition, humans were moral. But population growth had forced the human race to live in communities, which led to the development of a class system. Communal living also gave rise to public values that created shame, envy, pride, and contempt when some people didn’t measure up to others’ achievements.
Personal property was a particular danger, because it created social inequality, greed, and competition. It also tempted the wealthy to create a government that protected their own property and served their own interests. Rousseau therefore proposed that all citizens sacrifice their individual rights and freedom to a collective body, whose task was to tend to the good of all.
In exchange for the many benefits this body provided, citizens agreed to put the common good ahead of their own interests. They also agreed to a strong democracy, which required that they know each other, live close enough to meet frequently, and not be so different that they couldn’t agree on laws.
Which brings us to modern America: more than 331 million people, from hundreds of different cultures, all spread out over 3.8 million square miles. Rousseau himself predicted that his social contract theory could never work here – but 200 years later, we are still proving him wrong. The Ukraine whistleblower is just the latest example of that. He or she has sacrificed the life they knew, and possibly even their personal safety, because – like Spock, like the majority of Americans – they believe that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”