Can’t we all just get along?

I’ve been attending an interesting “Bucket Course” with this title at Grinnell’s Drake Library given by Dr. J.R. Paulson. This quote by Rodney King, actually, “Can we all get along?” poses some challenging questions about human behavior. One of Dr. Paulson’s main themes is,

“Belief comes first, explanations for beliefs follow.”

The only problem I have with this is it demonstrates what Dr. Paulson calls the “framing bias.” The word “Belief” implies we are talking about something the individual believes to be true. I doubt that I am only speaking for myself when I say my beliefs are hardly ever grounded in truth and almost always represent a concession I have made “just to get along” in society. This makes Mr. King’s statement more an enigma than a question.

Chances are you speak and act as if you believe money has real value but you don’t really think this is true. You lie because you think your world is a better place when we all pretend it’s true. And this is okay because we’ve all agreed to lie about this. If you and I both were to say we believe in God, the existence or nature of the agreement may not be so clear. Do I mean I believe in a singular omnipotent being who is jealous of my attention to other gods? Or do I believe the Universe must have had a planner? Perhaps I just think our world is a better place if all of us at least pretend? Just because we may share a “belief”, does not necessarily mean we are really on the same page. So I had to look for evidence that at least some of us are.

Raised on a farm west of Gilman, in 1950 the radio sitting atop the Frigidaire was the closest thing we had to the internet. It told stories of crime and drugs and wars, far removed from our small rural community. It told stories of justice dealt out in proportion to the crimes and it was invariably “fair.” But it must have been about that time it told a story of a man falsely imprisoned a possibility that had never occurred to me. This unforeseen vulnerability in my unwavering principle of fairness created for me a moral dilemma with no apparent resolution. This certainly wasn’t my first such dilemma, but perhaps the most frustrating one.

I would imagine the first was when I was just months old and I started hearing the word “no” which would have been entirely inconsistent with my belief that “I should always get whatever I wanted.” Through a process that might be called “disruptive morality” this belief would give way to negotiation and ultimately a more sophisticated “fairness” principle transcending mere selfish motives. Although I didn’t think of it this way then, I had made a new “social contract”, unspoken and written only in grey matter, yet harder than stone. And now that same fairness principle was under assault by the fear of uncertainty. Fairness would only be defined by a fuzzy line as wide as the margin of human error.

 It must have taken me another two or three years to make the leap to the “appearance of fairness” principle. Not that I had abandoned the fairness principle, but by measuring the overall good to the community I could now draw a clearer line between right and wrong. Society depends on the appearance of fairness in its justice system, so this social contract carried with it a higher standard of duty. Although I knew that pursuit of justice was no guarantee, it was essential for society to accept the verdict and move on. The solemn duty to defend the verdict even in the face of doubt was a part of this social contract. In fact the details of this contract are so intricate that I doubt my attorney could sum it up in a dozen pages.

By the age of eight I had undoubtedly made thousands of social contracts, but these two mark a major societal distinction between the liberal “fairness” principle and the more pragmatic conservative “appearance of fairness” principle. We were all liberal once which may explain why, according to a recent PEW study, conservatives understand the what drives liberals so much better than liberals understand conservatives.  The real test would come when the first DNA test proved “someone else committed the crime” in a death row case. So with the very real threat that new technology might show the judicial process had repeatedly failed the “appearance of fairness” principle was in jeopardy. How would its defenders, some of the brightest legal minds on the planet, respond? In the face of mounting evidence that perhaps many innocent people had been and/or could be executed balanced against damage to faith in the justice system many of these defenders waged a hopeless battle to block reconsidering cases with DNA evidence. Thus my suspicions were confirmed.

I really don’t think “social contracts” is a revolutionary idea. It’s an evolutionary idea that has helped us cooperate and survive in groups long before we had language. I recall a Reader’s Digest story of a male cardinal who had marked off his territory during mating season (a social contract). While fleeing from a hawk and just feet from the safety of the woods he came to the edge of his territory and took an ill-fated dive rather than cross this boundary. The point is we are survivors because we have become genetically disposed to be receptive to and fiercely protective of simple often arbitrary rules of cooperation (like driving on the right side of the road). But like the cardinal our survival may also depend on our ability to know when to break free.

The most curious thing is that while legal contracts carry weight only when written, the power of a social contract lies in its silence.  Its body of law is a composite of signals and codes transmitted through body language carving out space and boundaries.  Much more ancient than the spoken word, its sanctity is sustained by secrecy.

I will venture a guess that none of you have ever put the terms of your social contracts in writing. There’s a lot to be learned by doing so. Would you lie to defend the principle? Does the principle make the world a better place? Does it transcend mere selfish motives? Of course, unlike me you won’t want to publish it on the internet.

Remember we don’t lie about important things, just the really important things!