Humanity's Duty of Care, Research Time, 01/02/2017

I want to dive a little into Moses Mendelssohn’s account of the theoretical social contract here. Because even though most undergraduate educations in philosophy and political theory seem to ignore him, he offers a unique and remarkable take on the concept of the social contract.

And his vision is rooted in the fundamentals of Jewish ethical education. Those principles include:

Mendelssohn's conception of humanity as an inherently benevolent
creature can seem laughably ridiculous today, but only because we've
been so long accustomed to thinking that the corrupt and destructive
is normal and natural. Or natural because we've made it normal.
1) Humans are inherently social creatures.

2) Because society can only function in an atmosphere of general benevolence, humans are basically good creatures.

3) Our anger, hatred, and drives to violence and destruction are corruptions.

So where does that leave the state? How does it come to exist if it isn’t fulfilling that Hobbesian function of the monopoly on legitimate violence to protect us from our naturally violent and paranoid selves?

States emerge from societies when those societies become too complicated to organize without authorities and regulations. Mendelssohn doesn’t start from the traditional chaos and paranoia of social contract theory’s state of nature – his state of nature is a place of chaos and confusion, but not violence or fear.

Humanity’s state of nature is a society where no person or institution has any legitimacy to tell me how I’m to help my neighbours. Where no one has any right to tell me how to spend my surplus wealth and power to aid my friends and my society.

Which is fine for small group of a few tens, or even a couple of hundred. But when society becomes any more complicated than this, it can be genuinely confusing to find the best way to help the wider world.

We've let ourselves be suckered in by popular visions of humanity as
cruel, vindictive creatures.
We can never be sure if we’re giving what we’re able. Or maybe we can’t be sure if we’ve arranged our own situation to be able to give all that we’re able – if I were more ingenious about how I lived, maybe I could give more.

Most insidious, it’s difficult to know whether my acts that, from my perspective, help someone don’t actually cause indirect and systemic affects that end up harming many other people. As my social world globalizes – if only to the next neighbourhood over – I can no longer be sure of the effects of what I do.

And so government becomes the institution through which we give over our autonomy in this regard. We don’t give over all our freedoms – that model of trading freedom for security has no place in Mendelssohn’s vision.*

* Or, of course, the Jewish vision of social ethics.

Government is the institution that can mobilize the resources required to study and understand all the processes and relationships – economic, ecological, social, institutional – that constitute our complexifying society. So it’s the only institution that can mobilize the knowledge required to provide most efficiently and fairly for the common good.

Mendelssohn provides a radical vision. Especially given the mainstream political presumptions of the modern West, where government is anything but efficient. Where government is an impediment on the real source of efficiency – the market of self-interested businessmen.

We can no longer live with the cynical presumption that humanity is
inherently cruel and violent. The prospect of real violence dominating
our society is too terrifying to accept it anymore.
Mendelssohn’s thinking is a rebuke to those presumptions that a chaotic system of greedy, self-interested, short-sighted people will actually produce the most efficient, beneficial results for society.

On his premises, self-interest and greed are corruptions of the fundamental benevolence required for society to exist at all. So expecting the optimal good and benefit to come from the competitive jockeying of greedy people is a ridiculous paradox.

And Mendelssohn’s own place as a Jewish German thinker of the 1700s don’t prevent him from informing contemporary political thinking. No more than Thomas Hobbes’ place in 1600s England prevents him from being a centrepiece of introductory political theory classes today.

Mendelssohn’s concepts can fit well with some of the political theories of governance I’ve discovered over the last year. Partha Chatterjee, for example, provides an analysis of the many benefits in economic, ecological, and liberatory development government can provide when all people seek to use such institutions for overall good.

What we need today are vibrant traditions of political and moral thinking that provide a place for the productive role of governance as a means to enrich and benefit us all. Moses Mendelssohn – and the Jewish traditions of morality underlying his thinking – can be such an inspiration.

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