Beyond the Social Contract Myth

Science should move beyond a contractual relationship with society and join in the quest for the common good.

In January of 1803, six months before Napoleon offered him the Louisiana Territory, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress for an appropriation of $2,500 to conduct a scientific and geographic survey of the North American West. In his letter to Congress, the president emphasized the commercial advantages of the venture: the possible discovery of a Northwest Passage and the capturing of the British fur trade. In contrast, in his personal instructions to Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson highlighted the scientific bounty of the trip: contact with unknown Indian cultures, discovery of biological and botanical wonders, and the identification of the geographic and geologic features of the region. The result of these dual charges was one of the classic journeys of exploration in U.S. history.

Almost a century and a half later, in August of 1939, scientists Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein, and others proposed a program of atomic research to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although the most immediate stimulus was to beat Nazi Germany to the atomic bomb, for Szilard especially atomic physics was a means to H. G. Wells’ vision of endless energy in a “world set free” from toil. Indeed, Szilard thought it might even be a way to overcome international violence by uniting all nations in a common cause greater than politics: the conquest of space.

Did the Lewis and Clark expedition embody a social contract between science and society? Or was it more the expression of a vision of the common good, with political, economic, and scientific components? Similarly, in the case of atomic energy, didn’t both private industry and the government support this research in order to win the war and to advance knowledge and human welfare in a broad and mutually reinforcing synthesis?

During the past two decades, it has become popular to discuss the relation between science and society in terms of a “social contract.” Scientists, public policy analysts, and politicians have adopted such language in a largely unchallenged belief that it provides the proper framework for considering issues of scientific responsibility and the public funding of research. But neither of the cases mentioned above, nor a multitude of others that might have been chosen, involves a relationship that can be adequately described in terms of a contract. In fact, the language of a contract demeans all the parties concerned and belittles human aspirations (not to mention political discourse). Neither scientists nor citizens live by contract alone.

The social contract language is a legitimate attempt to step beyond the otherwise polarizing rhetoric of scientists and citizens in opposition. The idea of a social contract is a clear improvement over formulations that stress either the pure autonomy of science or its strict economic subservience. We believe, however, that the range of public discourse must be widened beyond that of contractual negotiation, even at the expense of opening up questions that lack simple answers. Surely human ideals demand as much attention as military security, physical health, and economic wealth, especially in a world where material achievements are greater than ever before in history. Scientists and citizens alike should strive to identify the common or complementary elements of a vision of the good, rather than discussing the quid pro quos of some illusory contract.

Testing a theory

It is ironic that social contract theory has been adopted to explain the relations between science and society just when that theory has been largely rejected as a framework for understanding politics in general. Indeed, a brief review of the rise and fall of the political philosophy of the social contract may help us appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of the notion of a social contract for science.

Social contract theory was first given modern formulation by political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There are subtle distinctions among their different versions of the theory that need not concern us here. According to all versions, society originates when isolated and independent individuals make a compact among themselves to limit their freedoms in order to increase security. Before entering into their compact, individuals exist in a state of “perfect freedom” (Locke) unconstrained by any obligations to each other. The competition that results from this state of perfect freedom readily gives rise to a “war of all against all” (Hobbes). It therefore becomes desirable to subordinate individualism for the unity of a “general will” (Rousseau).

So conceived, the contractual relationship for both politics and science presumes independent parties with divergent goals. Neither future citizens nor scientists are thought to have any ties to one another before the creation of the political or scientific compacts. Nor does either group have responsibilities to the common good. Further, by definition there are no obligations that exceed the terms of the contract, for either society or science.

These factors identify the strengths of contractual relations: They clearly protect personal freedoms and limit governmental powers. But such strengths also expose the limitations of social contract language for understanding the place of citizens and scientists in our complex and interdependent society. Surely scientists have obligations both to each other and to nonscientists prior to any formulation of mere contractual relations.

The upshot of the social contract theory was to advance the argument for human rights and the justification of enlarged democratic participation in government. The application of social contract theory to a discussion of science policy has had the similar effect of defining and protecting the rights of scientists and inviting democratic participation in the setting of broad scientific research agendas. It is nevertheless significant that such language has been largely rejected in political philosophy, for at least two interrelated reasons.

First, there is no evidence that anything like a social contract ever took place in the formation of any society. The same may be said with regard to a social contract for science. Historically, the relations that we describe ex post facto in social contract terms were never created by explicit contractual means.

Second, the social contract theory presupposes atomistic individualism as its theory of human nature, a conception that is highly problematic psychologically and sociologically. As Aristotle argued, we are fundamentally political animals in that most of the features that make us distinctly human are products of the community. Language and culture are fundamentally social rather than individual creations, although individuals obviously contribute to the furtherance of both. At the very least, the emergence of individuals is a dialectic process, involving the creation of the individual through the blending of individual initiative and communal mores.

Science and the common good

A truer account of the science-society relationship is found in the conception of the scientific and political pursuit of the common good. Consider the issue of professional ethics in science. A scientist’s ethical responsibilities are typically seen as beginning with a well-established set of obligations internal to the scientific community. Most conspicuously, these include maintaining the integrity of the research process through the honest reporting of data, fair and impartial peer review, and acknowledgement of contributions by others. But scientists also have what might be termed external obligations to avoid harming human subjects and to use their knowledge for the good.

To illustrate, compare the relation between scientists and their fellow citizens with that between physicians and their patients. When a physician saves a life, no cash payment can offer adequate compensation. One balks at describing such a relation as contractual: The nature of the exchange defies the possibility of clear and unequivocal recompense. Patients owe their physicians more than money, a fact symbolized by the social respect accorded the physician’s role. Moreover, the set of obligations is reciprocal: Whereas patients and societies honor physicians, physicians take on lifetime commitments to their communities. If an illness suddenly worsens on Christmas morning, the physician must leave hearth and home. The life of the physician is closer to one of covenant and commitment than contract.

In recognition of this fact, physicians are referred to as “professionals”–that is, ones who profess or proclaim their commitment to live in accord with ideals beyond those of self-interest and the cash nexus, at least insofar as they practice medicine. One does not, for instance, expect everyone to keep confidentiality as strictly as we expect physicians to do. Similar notions of professionalism hold for lawyers, members of the military, the clergy, and engineers. The common denominator of all these practical professions is that they involve activities that go to the heart of the human condition, confronting matters that lie beyond the prosaic: issues of life and death, freedom, justice, and security.

Scientists and citizens alike should strive to identify the common or complementary elements of a vision of the good.

Curiously, however, scientists are seldom denominated professionals in quite the same way. Scientists may be thought of as theoretical professionals. Scientific societies have, for instance, been slower than medical, legal, or engineering societies to adopt professional codes of ethics that increasingly affirm social responsibility above and beyond any contractual determinations. Moreover, when scientists are called professionals, this is often done to promote an independence that may be at odds with the social good, thus calling for qualification.

The good in science, just as in medicine, is integral to and finds its proper place in that overarching common good about which both scientists and citizens deliberate. Politics in this sense is more than the give and take of interest groups. Instead, it is that reflective process by which citizens make informed choices on matters concerning the shared aspects of their lives. Politics denotes the search for a common good, where people function as citizens rather than only as consumers.

From this perspective, the good intrinsic to science consists not only in procedures that are designed to preserve scientific integrity. It also expands into the goods of knowledge, of the well-ordered life, of fellowship and community, and the wonder accompanying our understanding of the deep structure of things. Indeed, there are even aesthetic and metaphysical dimensions of the good in scientific research. During the moon landings, the beauty of Earthrise over the lunar landscape and the collective sense of transcendence we felt in watching humans step out onto another world may well have been the enduring legacy of the moon missions, rather than any of the varied economic and technological spinoffs.

Although few politicians would admit to voting for a scientific project on its aesthetic or metaphysical merits alone, much of science has precisely such results. Contract economics must not be allowed to crowd out recognition of more expansive but absolutely fundamental motivations. Reductionism may not be a sin in science, but it is in politics.

Conceived under the sign of the common good, scientists have much broader obligations than those of simple scientific integrity. Indeed, even internal obligations find more generous and inclusive foundations in the notion of the common good than in the language of social contract. From the perspective of the common good, it is incumbent upon the scientist to preserve the integrity of science, treat all experimental subjects with respect, inform the community about research under consideration, provide ways for the community to help define the goals of scientificresearch, and report in a timely manner the results of the research in forums accessible to the nonspecialist.

Practical implications

The shift from thinking of science as involved in a social contract to science as one aspect of a continuing societal debate on the common good broadens science policy discourse. It also deepens reflection on the science-society relation in science and in politics.

One major limitation of the idea of a social contract for science is that it has implications only for publicly funded science. Science policy discussions emphasizing social contract language exclude a large segment of the scientific community not funded by government. Science policy discussions focusing on questions of the common good (without denying important distinctions between privately and publicly funded science) will include concerns of a far larger constituency. For instance, shouldn’t we be asking questions about the goodness of human cloning, not simply whether the tax dollars of those who oppose human cloning should be used to fund it?

For scientists themselves, working in both the private and public sectors, trying to articulate a common good will point beyond justifications of science merely in terms of economic benefit. What science can bring to society are not just contractual benefits but enhanced intelligence and even beauty. Using the language of the common good, scientists will be encouraged to make a case for science as a true contributor to culture. E. O. Wilson’s defense of biodiversity through “biophilia” and his notion of a “consilience” between science and the humanities are but one salient expression of such an approach.

Of course, using the framework of the common good opens science to being delimited by other dimensions of human experience. Science is not the whole of the common good, and as part of that whole it may sometimes find its work restricted in order to serve more inclusive conceptions of the good life. Liberal democratic societies restrict experimentation on human subjects because of a good that overrides any scientific knowledge that may result from such work. But surely this is a vulnerability that science can survive, and should affirm. This approach will also help take public discussion out of the framework of a hackneyed contest between reason and revelation, as in the evolution versus creationism controversy. It is possible, after all, to have a reasonable discussion on the nature of the good life without constant reference to the facts of science or the claims of fundamentalism.

The new vision

Given the extraordinary effects of scientific discoveries and technological inventions during the 20th century, effects that will only increase throughout the 21st century, social contract theory cannot give a sufficiently comprehensive account of the science-society relationship. Scientists, like all their fellow citizens, must be concerned not just about advancing their own special interests but more fundamentally about the common good. This broader obligation is operative on two levels: that of internal professional responsibility and that of citizenship.

Professional responsibilities commonly described as internal as well as external have become unavoidable for the scientist today, especially for the scientist employed or supported by federal money. Appreciating such demands–acknowledging the claims of community without compromising the integrity of the scientific process–has become a central issue for practicing scientists and for those engaged in science education.

This transcontractual view of scientific responsibility challenges the long-held belief that the integrity of the scientific process is founded on the exclusive allegiance to facts and the banishment of values of any kind. It has been an honored principle that scientists qua scientists must not attempt to draw political conclusions from their scientific research and that their work should be isolated from political pressures of all types. With scientists recognizing their own citizenship, and citizens realizing the scientific fabric of their lives, these claims become tenuous.

First, as the social contract language recognizes, there are inevitable, and increasing, places where the scientist and the public interact. This is a result of a wide set of changes in society. These changes include the loss of a clear consensus about societal goals with the end of the Cold War and the state of emergency that it fostered, more rigorous standards of accounting for the spending of public monies, and the increasing relevance of scientific data to various types of environmental questions and controversies. This means that scientists’ responsibilities include understanding the concerns of the public as well as being able to explain their work to the community.

Second, it is a truism of recent philosophy of science that although the scientific research process can and must be fair, the full exclusion of values is an unattainable and even undesirable goal. Human interests are always tied to the production of knowledge. The collection and interpretation of data are constrained by a variety of factors, including limitations of time, money, and expertise. The most rigorous objective scientific procedure is motivated by personal or social values, whether they be economic (generating profits or gaining tenure), political (nuclear deterrence or improving community health), or metaphysical (the love of understanding the deep nature of things). Finally, various types of methodological value judgments inevitably come into play, such as the perspectives one brings on the basis of past experience and training.

The social contract language has arisen in an attempt to take account of such factors. But it is only the principle of the common good that can do full justice to them. In 1970, during testimony before Congress, A. Hunter Dupree, the dean of U.S. science policy historians, called for the creation of a new kind of Manhattan Project. The World War II Manhattan Project had brought together a spectrum of atomic scientists and engineers to create the atomic bomb. Dupree’s new Manhattan Project “would do away with the conventional divisions between the natural and social science and humanities, and by drawing on people from many disciplines . . . would provide the enrichment and stimulation of unaccustomed patterns.” The goal of such a pluralistic project might well be described as a full and rich articulation of the common good, for scientist and nonscientist alike.

Dupree opened his testimony with a quotation from John Wesley Powell, one of the founders of public science in the United States and the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Charles Groat, the current director of the USGS, in a recent interview echoed Dupree by calling for a future in which science “is more cooperative, more integrated, and more interdisciplinary.” It is not the refining or renegotiation of a contract that will lead in this direction, but public discussion of the common good of science and of society.

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Cite this Article

Frodeman, Robert, and Carl Mitcham. “Beyond the Social Contract Myth.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 4 (Summer 2000).

Vol. XVI, No. 4, Summer 2000