Egalitarianism, has it run amok?

By Will Baker


I attended a presentation the other day, which featured a thought-provoking speaker. One of the gentleman’s central themes was his belief that, egalitarianism, at least as it relates to our society, has run amok. By conjuring vivid imagery he hammered home his position that, with individual rights, comes a corresponding obligation to act responsibly. A lot has been written regarding this so-called, social contract, whereby one is granted the privileges and benefits of society so long as they are not abused. However, his presentation manner was so dramatic that it caused me to turn the matter around in my mind to take another look at it. And in re-examining the issue I found myself looking at it from a different perspective.

My approach to thinking about complex matters is to avoid seeking a resolution right away. If one comes, well great, and if it doesn’t I am perfectly content to continue thinking about something, off and on, for a very long time. You could say that as far as ideas go, I am in it for the long haul. Therefore it should be of no surprise that I have been thinking about social contracts, and the issues surrounding them, for quite some time. While I would whole-heartedly agree with much that the speaker said, I am currently at a slightly different place in my thinking than he. Of course, for obvious reasons, I agree that most social contracts are probably a good thing. For example, if everyone ignored traffic signals, travel by automobile wouldn’t be possible without risking serious harm to one’s person.

It is egalitarian to advocate for social and political justice. Were it a crime, I would hope to be found guilty. However the very fact that advocacy is required to address issues of social and political justice corroborates what my common sense tells me, that social contracts, such as the one cited above involving rights and responsibilities, are human constructs. They are other than what was present in nature to begin with. And I believe that history has demonstrated that, for the most part, these social contracts have been constructs of convenience. For example within the context of the Old Law, "thou shall not kill" applied only to members of one’s immediate tribe. Outsiders could be killed without consequence. My point is that the main reason why the law existed at all, was that without it, the "every man for him self" rule would apply, and It takes teamwork for a tribe to function well. But that is where it starts to get fuzzy.

I believe that inside us all dwells the potentiality for loving deeds (and terrible ones too), and to a degree this potential for love is fueled by our capacity to access an innate sense of empathy that we all possess, which becomes even further developed through our life’s experience. An example of the consequences of this would be the development of a global realization that slavery is wrong. But what came first, egalitarianism or the social construct within which it is practiced? It seems to me that societal advancements in various technologies have resulted in more leisure time being made available, therefore it has become possible for ideas like egalitarianism to be developed and applied, along with the arts and sciences and philosophy etc. But it is impossible to demonstrate whether this innate sense of empathy existed within the hearts of women and men in pre-history--one cannot cite historical events such as the freeing of the slaves, yet I believe that it did exist. However, without a social contract, even a primitive one based solely on convenience, it seems to me that, if it was an "every man for themselves" situation, our ancestors in pre-history would simply not have had an opportunity to address social and political issues by applying concepts such as social and political justice. Concepts such as these probably didn’t exist yet.

After the presentation I sipped a tall gin and tonic and chatted with a new friend, who had attended the talk with me. We were sitting on the deck of an establishment perched on the shore of Lake Champlain, at what is referred to as the broad lake. The Adirondack Mountains could be seen in the distance, the sky was deep blue, and the breeze was warm with sunshine. The presenter’s words still echoed in our ears. He said that we live a blessed existence, and we seem to be taking it for granted. As I sat there, enjoying   conversation with a fascinating new acquaintance, sipping cocktails along the shore of perhaps the most beautiful lake in the world, I had to agree. However I disagree with the connection that the presenter was attempting to make between taking our blessed existence for granted, and the apparent rise in the number of breaches of the implied social contract involving societal benefits vs. responsibilities.

It seems to me that there are a great many folks who do not feel plugged into the society in which they live. Whether these folks have been disenfranchised by society, or have done it to themselves does not matter. My point is that this is the reality of the situation. Based upon discussions that I have had with acquaintances of mine in this category, I believe that a real disconnect exists in the lives of a lot of folks, and this disconnect directly relates to the breach of the implied social contract we have been discussing. For instance, an alarming number of my acquaintances do not vote. When asked why, many of these folks will respond that they simply feel that it does no good, or it is a waste of their time. The speaker would argue that this is just one more example of people shirking their civic responsibilities. I would argue that in some cases this is true, however for the vast majority of cases it is not. I believe that our society has evolved into an almost caste-like system, whereby the thought of voting, to some, is unthinkable. I would further argue that many folks do not feel blessed at all, and considering their circumstances, it is not surprising.

The speaker related a story of how he berated a young man in an airport for wearing a shirt which had a profane expletive stenciled on it. But was this an example of egalitarianism run amok or free expression by a disenfranchised individual? It occurs to me that I will just have to continue thinking about all of this. I also suspect that there is a solution in the offing.


 (Essay Collection)