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Obligations and Social Interactions

Let’s say you have a friend named Alan that is sometimes a little annoying. You all get lunch every now and then and you enjoy his company, just not all the time. For whatever reason, you just rather not hang all the time. In fact, when you hang out with other friends, they don’t want you to invite Alan. You’ve heard them tell Alan before fake reasons we didn’t invite him. For the half of us that say “So what? No big deal,” then why be dishonest or subversive about it? Is there not a time where excluding Alan goes too far? For the half of us that actually feel bad, why not be more upfront? Why take on a friendship you can’t truly uphold?

Selfish or Selfless Society

On one hand all we have is our own self to take care of. No one can make us think but ourselves. While we can be forced or coerced to do things, our thoughts are still of our own creation and free will. To live in the world, we have to make sure we’re doing what we can to survive. We have to survive and take care of ourselves before we can tend to others. That infers whatever is in our own best interest generally comes first. This logic is somewhat of an objectivist mentality to which Ayn Rand created and was illustrated in her book Atlas Shrugged.

However, what if we’re taking care of a baby? They can’t take care of themselves, they always need someone else to take care of them. How does to play out in a completely objectivist world? Ideally everyone who takes care of the baby wants to do so for their own selfish reasons, but ideal and reality aren’t always the same. There seems to be some cases that we have an obligation to others, where we have to remove or ignore whatever we see as in our own best interest and do something for another like having an unexpected baby. This is as close as we can get to selflessness and there may not be many reasons for selfless acts, but there seems to be an instinctual place for them.

The ways we decide to interact with others will be based on our selfish desires and also whatever obligations we adhere to for more “selfless” reasons. If we adhere to an obligation for the sake of ourselves, then that obligation is still just a selfish reason, however the times we adhere to an obligation for someone else, that is more of a selfless reason. Although some may disagree, the fact remains not all obligations make sense if we were only selfish.

Social Contracts

Essentially every interaction we make is also an agreement or social contract with others. By interacting with each other, we are agreeing to some basic values like “don’t attack other people”, “be respectful”, “say thank you” or “feed the baby”. If we interact with a store clerk, we could say our implicit agreement is that they help us with finding out information about the products, purchases and returns in the store and that we are a paying customer that will not steal or damage any merchandise and we won’t waste each other’s time.

Notice how many assumptions were made in that scenario? Every interaction may have a social contract, but there are a large number of implicit agreements that may not hold for everyone. Add to the mix that we may have selfish desires mixed in, having nothing to do with whatever implicit agreements are made. Our intention may be that we just want to talk to someone who works there. In that case, we probably shouldn’t expect the store clerk to help us with much of anything.

If we’re at a store and we see the cashier on their phone not paying the customers any attention, it may not have anything to do with “not caring”, it could just be their assumptions is that customers will speak up if they need something. It won’t make sense if we blame them for not caring when they have a different social contract in mind.

Doing What What is Right and Lies

Going back to our friend Alan, no matter what we may or may not have inferred, there’s no telling what he believes the friendship means without interacting and finding out. We may have gotten here in a very round-a-bout way, but ultimately the answer is to do whatever we think is right given our “social contract” from both a selfish and selfless standpoint. Which is no different than just saying do what you think is right.

The problem is that, what is “right” is a matter of perspective and we’re arguably a little biased. For example, when our friends lie to Alan about why he wasn’t invited, we may not have said anything. If Alan stays ignorant and everyone is happy, we could argue that is “right” because we didn’t lie specifically, no one is hurt and everyone stays happy.

Yet, staying consistent in the application of the social contract methodology keeps things simple, there’s no deliberation, there’s no stress about what to do, we literally just follow whatever we ultimately agreed to or knowingly break our agreement and change the dynamic of the interaction with Alan. Anything in between is arguably “not right”. For example lying to Alan to keep the peace with him as well as your other friends is still violating Alan’s trust even if he doesn’t know about it.

When we lie we ultimately are perpetuating an inconsistency both in our mind and in our actual interactions. From a logical standpoint, our minds identify inconsistencies or cognitive dissonance as naturally as we breathe. From how we visually identify objects, to how we solve problems. When we find inconsistencies, our minds set forth to decide how to handle them often manifesting as emotions or feelings. When we’re guilty there could be an inconsistency with what we think we should do and what we did. When we’re angry there could be an inconsistency with what we want and what is reality. When we’re curious there could be an inconsistency with what we know and what we don’t know. When we’re anxious there could be an inconsistency with what we believe and what we predict.

Not only is lying generally not mentally worth it, being someone who subversively doesn’t hold themselves accountable to social contracts tells everyone else that whatever agreements have been made with us are relatively meaningless. Maybe Alan doesn’t know, but the friends that we decide to hang out with do, just as we are aware of how they lie as well. Do we unconsciously make any judgments? Maybe not, but the fact that there is an inconsistency in how we are treating someone we consider a friend is more than likely an underlying perception.

Obligations 

Friends hanging out and excluding others is a pretty minor problem in the grand scheme of things. Yet, there’s a good chance the way we handle those situations will also resonate with how we handle all of our interactions with others. Here’s a summary and quick tip reminders:

  1. We should take care of ourselves first and foremost, but at times there may be obligations we make that require we override our own needs.
  2. Every interaction with others, every relationship is a social contract. Whenever we break the implicit or explicit terms, we change the dynamic of the interaction. We have to acknowledge that we can’t break terms and expect relationships to stay the same.
  3. Doing what is right means we adhere to both our own selfish obligations as well as our obligations we’ve made to others. That means both creating obligations and breaking obligations should be done in a way that limits conflicts between them. Patching any inconsistencies with lies or other subversion will only make things worse mentally and often in our interactions as well.

So, next time your friends try to exclude that one annoying friend, tell them it’s all good as long as we aren’t lying or hiding about it. Be upfront and if any of them no longer want to be your friend because of it, accept the consequences.

Thoughts?

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