The most basic requirement of participation in a society is the fulfillment of social contracts. Social contracts are applications of the cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude; mainly justice, of course) as charitable acts are applications of the theological virtues (peace, joy, and love). Because Christians believe in following both the cardinal and theological virtues, we are required to adhere to social contracts, and we are further called to perform charitable acts.
For me at least, performing charitable acts is much easier than fulfilling social contracts. The latter is plagued with a number of difficulties. First, it’s rarely enforced, except in cases like paying taxes. Second, because it’s an obligation, one’s sense of fairness is immediately aroused; it’s easy to convince oneself that if someone else isn’t upholding his or her part of the contract, or if you don’t like the terms, the contract is void. Third, the lack of enforcement makes it feel like a charitable act, and as charities go, social contracts make pretty poor ones because their beneficiaries are other members of the contract, not endangered species and probably not starving orphans either. Actual charities will always feel more important.
Nevertheless, I believe it’s our obligation to fulfill social contracts before performing charitable acts, because dodging such obligations undermines the whole fabric of society. This is why you can’t steal money in order to give it away. Failure to fulfill social contracts is one of the reasons so many people need charity; many acts of charity amout to stepping in and completing a social contract that someone else failed to uphold (such as, for instance, caring for an abandoned child).
The rule of thumb for whether an action is part of a social contract is the question, “What if everybody else stopped doing it?” If it results in the tragedy of the commons–a situation where everyone individually stands to gain from not doing it, but if nobody does it, everyone suffers an even greater loss–it’s a social contract. For example, the Metro trains in Los Angeles don’t have turnstiles yet. You buy tickets on the honor system. An individual rider would benefit from not buying a ticket: he would get a ride without paying for it. However, if nobody bought a ticket, the trains would not be able to run, and everyone would lose out.
The tragedy of the commons is also why someone else’s failure to uphold the contract doesn’t void it for you. If somebody cheats you, that doesn’t give you the right to cheat other people, or even to cheat him or her back. Voiding the contract will inevitably make the world worse for everyone, including you.
Here is a list of the social contracts that I think everyone who desires to live among fellow human beings must obey.
- You must be honest. That means no lying, no stealing, no cheating, and no breaking your word.
- If you benefit from an institution, you must support it. Obviously this means paying your taxes and (once again) not stealing. It also means that if you benefit from something you aren’t made to pay for–say, a church or a nonprofit radio station–you should donate to it. This donation is not charity; it’s paying for something you gain from.
- If you have benefited or will benefit from an institution, you must support it even when you are not actively benefiting from it. This is applies to things like Social Security and Medicare.
- If an institution provides a large web of services benefiting a wide range of demographics, you have to support the whole thing, not just the parts you benefit from–and not even just the parts that you approve of. In other words, you have to pay all your taxes, even if the government is doing something you don’t like.
- Finally, if an institution provides the sort of necessary stability that society needs to keep running smoothly, you have to support it, even if you will never benefit from it. If you are a fat cat CEO, for instance, you must provide fair wages and job security to your workers, even though you would profit more by exploiting them, because society needs a secure, well-paid working class to function properly.
Once you have fulfilled all these obligations, you can and should move from the cardinal to the theological virtues and perform charitable acts as well, but charitable acts performed at the expense of social contracts are not laudable at all.