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The societal contract

Is it not time for society to mature beyond the egocentric concept of individualistic human rights and define a contract of reciprocal responsibilities between society and its individual members? In essence, this would mean that society has a set of responsibilities that define its duty to nurture and care for its individual members and individual members have a set of responsibilities that define their duty to contribute to and live in harmony with society.

If we define nurturing as providing equal opportunities for every individual to explore and develop their talents and care as something that is given in proportion to the needs of the individual, while taking account of the constraints on our physical resources, then we do away with the requirement to define a separate equal opportunities act and establish the foundation for social security. Fundamentally, citizens would be guaranteed food, shelter and safety but not for doing nothing. An unemployed citizen would be required to engage in whatever social work he was capable.

Furthermore, if we include future generations in our definition of society, then we build sustainability into every decision that we make and action that we take. In so doing, we implicitly include the responsibility of society and its individual members to protect and restore the ecosystems vital to our future well-being. We will also have to define our responsibilities to respect and protect the diversity of Life, understanding that each part of it, even if it seems redundant today, may prove to be a vital component of our planet’s adaptation to future changes. As society matures further we will, no doubt, learn to respect and care for every creature, recognising our common connection with all things, whether it be through having a common Creator or a common Source and Process from which and through which we have evolved to our current state.

Violations, redress, restitution and rehabilitation

Having defined our mutual responsibilities, it naturally follows that we must have mechanisms of redress when the we feel that society or individuals have neglected their responsibilities. Such mechanisms should start with the opportunity for the accused party to make up for its neglect and then, if necessary, attempt to resolve remaining differences with the facilitation of a competent arbitrator. Only if both of these fail to give satisfaction, would it be necessary to resolve matters in a adversarial manner in a court before a respected judge and/or jury of peers. No matter at what level redress is accomplished, society should learn lessons from its weaknesses and failures and seek to constantly improve itself.

How would this work in practice? Take, for example, the case of a pedestrian who is killed by the driver of a vehicle. In this case, society has fundamentally failed in its duty to care for the victim. The death could have been prevented by ensuring that pedestrians and potentially deadly vehicles are kept separate from each other. If this had not been possible due to constraints on resources, then society would have had to define guidelines and regulations that minimised the inherent risks when pedestrians and vehicles share the same routes. In this case, either the driver or the pedestrian might be at fault for violating the regulations. Blame and restitution would be determined either by mutual consent or the judgement in a court. To prevent recurrence, the pedestrian/vehicle interface could be redesigned. If the driver was at fault, in addition to making restitution he could be prevented from driving until such time as he had proved his competence and commitment to respect the regulations. Only if the driver had attempted to maim or kill the pedestrian with intent would he need to be removed from society to protect its other members and only released when he had been rehabilitated to the satisfaction of a competent authority.

Discretionary contracts and religious laws

While entering into the societal contract defined above would be mandatory for all citizens, discretionary contracts can be made between individuals and/or associations. While secular procedures would apply by default, if parties concur, then they could establish contracts, in marriage or business for example, according to religious laws. In such cases, redress would follow the appropriate religious procedures, requiring the establishment of religious courts, while recognising that their jurisdiction would be limited and their judgements could not violate the provisions of the wider societal contract.