We might look at contracts as cold and boring or tiresome things, but aren’t they also a powerful sense of mutual commitment? This sense in which two or more parties have agreed to uphold something with a specific end in mind. Isn’t there almost a joy to the notion that humans might freely commit to tie themselves into the terms and conditions necessary to bring something worthwhile to life?
Looking, in broad brush terms, at the development of Western society, it seems that contracts, character, bonds, obligations and trust were always quite central ideas: this sense in which society was conceived as an agreement, a contract between citizens and the machinery developed to govern their lives (Notes One). That the conflict of times past would be replaced by the relative peace of clear terms.
Isn’t it all woven into notions of trust? That the ideas behind “all this” were right, trustworthy, and would lead to a better world. That society was filled with people whose word could be trusted, who would uphold their commitments and do all they could to permeate society with the kinds of thinking and attitudes that would serve it well. That we were in this together, and our path paved with mutual concern. (Notes Two)
Don’t laws, idealistically, aim to delineate how this ambitious contract should work? Sketching out all the areas where we must rein ourselves in and bear the interests of others firmly in mind. This delicate web of mutual regulation whereby the existence of each individual is respected, protected and, hopefully, enhanced. The fine print for exactly how our lives can come together in a vision of perfect harmony, perhaps.
Of course, we’re perhaps not entirely conscious of that – this being an almost invisible, largely unspoken contract we’re essentially born into rather than something we’ve read through and decided to sign up for. A sort of inherited engagement we’re loosely aware of unless we choose to delve more thoroughly into its limitations.
Maybe that’s the thing? There “could” be joy in contracts, provided we feel they serve us well. If people are feeling this particular inheritance isn’t offering them much opportunity, maybe it’s only natural they’d rail against it and seek to redress the terms. If people, through no fault of their own, inherit an impossible hand in life, what are we to ask them to make of it? (Notes Three)
Getting back on track, though, aren’t contracts – in principle, at least – beautiful pictures of reciprocal commitment? Of individuals engaging to take part in a dance of give and take for the sake of everyone’s ultimate benefit. Although, perhaps only if terms are freely entered into and benefits are real and mutual.
If advantages are storing up on one side while obligations stack up on the other, can that be fair? If things are leading into a future that benefits some while coming at great cost to others, might it not be that the original spirit of this may have gone terribly awry?
Notes and References:
Note 1: “Quest for a Moral Compass”
Note 1: Contracts, social or commercial
Note 1: The self within society
Note 1: Obligations and contributions
Note 2: Situations which ask us to trust
Note 2: Codes of behaviour
Note 2: Mutual awareness and accommodation?
Note 3: Value and meaning in our lives
Note 3: Humans, tangled in these systems
Note 3: Advantage people don’t want to concede
Note 3: Desire to retreat, need to engage
Thinking of contracts as akin to the realities our lives all form part of, there’s also Systems, their power, whose hands?