The Rational Agreement: Actual or Hypothetical?

The Rational Agreement: Actual or Hypothetical?

By William Soderberg

In much of the world’s wisdom literature—both religious and philosophical—one can find discussions of a rational agreement that forms the basis of religion, morality, and law. This agreement is variously referred to as a covenant or contract.

To regard the covenant or contract as an actual agreement is to fall in love with a metaphor. For example, one can become enamored of the covenant in the form of scripture, the commandments, or the person of Christ; or a person may cherish the constitution of a particular society. While falling in love with a metaphor can be deeply satisfying, it can also be profoundly devastating.

When the contract or covenant is taken to be an actual agreement, a natural tendency is to ask who can enter and who has entered the agreement. When people express this natural tendency and identify specific groups or individuals as members of a covenant or contract, a problem of exclusion arises.

When people are excluded from a group, they may be subject to shunning, excommunication, and even persecution. In these cases, those excluded are reduced to the other. The exclusion can also take the form of treating the outsiders as potential converts to a particular form of the covenant or contract. Missionaries seek to bring the outsider into the fold, for example, and advocates of democracy seek to spread the contractual form of government.

When actual agreements are formulated, they are manifestations of the extraordinary capacity to enter agreements. This capacity is glimpsed through the many forms that the agreement takes—including the choice to play the life game, the choice to play it by some rules rather than by others, and the choice of a worldview to pass on to the next generation. No single actual agreement, however, completely embodies or expresses the capacity to enter agreements.

When people view the agreement as hypothetical or metaphorical, they consider it as an invitation to create or discover the rules by which to make and sustain communities. Everyone is invited, not just a particular group or a few individuals, to engage in this process of creation or discovery.

The agreement is inclusive—that is, it includes all people—when it is viewed as hypothetical. Those who remain mindful that the agreement is hypothetical and metaphorical are conscious negotiators of the terms of the agreement. Everyone can enter and, each in their own fashion, has entered actual agreements.

No one who has entered a particular agreement can afford to rest. While a particular agreement addresses one set of problems, new problems or old problems in new forms can arise. Those capable of entering agreements must remain alert to the new problems and revise the terms of the agreements to meet the demands of the new conditions.

When new forms of suffering, victimization, and oppression occur, conscious negotiators must return to the negotiating table. Similarly, when new methods and opportunities for alleviating suffering, victimization, and oppression arise, conscious negotiators must again return to the negotiations.

A return to the negotiating table requires placing oneself in the position of the victim and the oppressed. To adopt these points of view requires imagination, courage, and compassion. When one equates a particular actual agreement with the metaphorical agreement itself, a lack of imagination, cowardice, and complacency sets in. This is commonly known as hardening one’s heart—an attitude that can perpetuate rather than alleviate suffering, victimization, and oppression.

The strength of religious and philosophical literature lies in the richness of the metaphors, stories, and parables. To treat the covenant or contract agreement as actual rather than hypothetical is to lose the power of the metaphor. To lose the power of the metaphor is to lose the power of the world’s wisdom literature.