Does the name Crito bring a memory? He was Socrates’ friend and, when Socrates had wrongfully been condemned to death, Crito tried to persuade him to escape. But Socrates refused. He argued that such action would be against the laws of Athens. Breaking one law would in effect be the same as breaking any other law. He had chosen to live his life in Athens, and he had enjoyed the benefits of that, including those laws. He had therefore no right to break them.
Whether we agree with him or not, we are still faced by the question of the Social Contract. That is, we all accept the laws of the country even if we dislike some of them. By choosing to live, and benefit from, our society we undertake to accept the rules of that society – which are intended for the society’s welfare.
Philosophers have argued the Social Contract over the ages. Starting with Aristotle and Socrates, other names are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and, in the 20th century, Nozick and Rawls. We find it implicitly in the Bible: the social commandments, such as “Thou shalt not steal”, are principles derived from the Social Contract.
Something so fundamental is likely to have an element related to evolution. And that is certainly so. In primitive times it was necessary to be a member of a group, otherwise survival would be unlikely. It was also necessary to be wary of other groups: there was always danger from “foreigners”. It follows that those humans who favoured being in a group, and being wary of strangers, were more likely to survive and, more importantly for evolution, to breed and protect their young. So our inherited tendency is to live in a group and to share that group’s assumptions and values.
It is not all sunshine – there are dangers, too. The most obvious one is our tendency to share the views of our group. We accept unthinkingly, and we find it painful to question, and perhaps reject, the views of our group. We see a distorted version in the current use of social media whose validity is not based on logic and evidence but merely on the numbers who agree.
We also find it inevitable to make broad judgments about identifiable groups. These are myriad. They can range from gender: “typical of men’, ‘typical of women’ to ‘typical of the Irish’, typical of the Italians’, to accent: ‘upper class’, ‘working class’. We simply don’t have the time to investigate, we need to generalise. Most of the time such judgments result in mere stupidity rather than maliciousness. But not always. How do people generally judge Catholics, or atheists? And, of course the Jews and the Muslims – you do not need me to develop the outcome of that.
How do we cope with our tendencies to generalise? Perhaps readers will have some ideas. But I know that we must start from accepting that we do generalise, and in fact that we need to do so in practice. Once we recognise that, it becomes possible to review our judgments in the light of that. And that is a difficult habit to maintain. At this moment I am aware of this need – because I have been thinking and writing about it. But tomorrow, if I am not careful, I will slip back to my guilty habit of prejudice.