Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Science of Human Nature and the Social Contract

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Science of Human Nature and the Social Contract

Article excerpt


The moral foundation for any "legitimate" (i.e., consensually acceptable) society is social justice, an insight that traces back to Plato--the very fountainhead of Western political philosophy. Social justice also goes under the heading of "fairness," and in an organized society it entails a system of reciprocities commonly referred to as a "social contract."

After more than 2,500 years of inconclusive philosophical debate about social justice and the social contract, the emerging science of human nature, along with recent theoretical insights from a number of scientific disciplines, are shedding new light on the subject. Here I will revisit Plato's foundational argument and will then provide a brief overview of the contributions from various disciplines. I will argue that these important scientific findings point to three complementary normative principles --equality, equity, and reciprocity--that together can provide a scientifically-grounded framework for social justice. I refer to it as the "biosocial contract," and it is developed in depth in my 2011 book The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice. (1) Among other things, I will argue here that this framework allows us to finesse the otherwise debilitating naturalistic fallacy, as well as providing concrete guidance for the formation of social policy--fulfilling Plato's aspiration for a political philosophy that truly informs and enlightens our politics.


A philosophy that loses touch with reality is no better than superstition, a self-indulgent and possibly dangerous pastime. But a philosophy that is informed by "science" in the broad sense can be a powerful and useful tool, providing guidance about how individuals and societies can confront the many challenges of living, ultimately enabling them to thrive. A philosophy informed by science can become a discipline with a higher social purpose.

An underappreciated role-model for such an empirically-grounded philosophy is the very progenitor of Western political thought, Plato. In his classic dialogue, the Republic, Plato posed the right questions about social justice, and he based his responses (through his spokesperson Socrates) in the best available evidence of his day. Plato's analysis and prescriptions remain a useful starting point even today. So let us begin with Plato.

Plato was born in Athens in about 427 B.C., at the tail-end of that ancient city-state's legendary Golden Age, and he grew to maturity during Athens' disastrous 27-year Peloponnesean War with Sparta. (2) It was a period of great suffering and social stress for the population (including a devastating plague), and it ended in a humiliating defeat for the Athenians and occupation by the Spartans. In the aftermath of the war, an impoverished, demoralized, angry population became deeply divided politically, and economic tensions ran high. Most of Athens' wealth was now concentrated in the hands of 5-10% of the population, while 60-70% lived in more or less severe poverty. Some historians describe the post-war oligarchy (the so called Thirty Tyrants) as a reign of terror. Eventually Athens' vaunted democracy was restored in name, but it really amounted to another radical oligarchy. Political extremists on both sides had become the dominant players in shaping public policy. This was the Athens that shaped Plato's perspective.

It is no wonder, then, that Plato chose not to use Athens as the model state in his great dialogue, the Republic. (3) Instead, he went back to the drawing board and tried to design an ideal state that he believed could resolve the fundamental problem of social injustice. Indeed, the little-known and seldom-used subtitle of the Republic is "Concerning Justice." Call it social engineering.

To anticipate my bottom line assessment of the Republic, Plato had the right diagnosis but the wrong prescription. …

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