Why is Barack Obama the President of the United States?

I want to continue the discussion of how the social world is created by posing the question, “Why is Barack Obama the President of the United States?” The most popular answer to that question would probably be, “Because during the presidential election two years ago more people voted for Barak Obama than for any other presidential candidate.” What that means is that more little circles were darkened – or more little electronic switches flipped – near Barack Obama’s name than the name of any other candidate. But why do darkened circles or flipped switches make someone the President of the United States? Because the vast majority of American’s agree that darkened circles and flipped switches make someone the President of the United States, that’s why.

I am reading John R. Searle’s new book Making the Social World and in it he describes how the social world is made up of agreements – little contracts about what means what in what context. – that people hold together. The social world is built out of these little contracts and the most basic of these contracts he identifies as the ‘status function.’ The basic building block of the physical world is the atom. The basic building block of the chemical world is the chemical bond. And the basic building block of the biological world is the cell.  The basic building block of the genetic world is DNA. And in the same way the basic building block of the social world is the status function.

Society is built on the human ability to, as Searle puts it, “impose functions on objects and people where the objects and people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure.” Let’s for a moment look back at Heidegger’s example of a hammer from my last post, the function of a hammer (or at least the most common one) is to bang nails into wood. This function of a hammer can be said to be attributed to the hammer solely by virtue of its physical form. If I had no idea what a hammer was, and I had never agreed explicitly or implicitly that it was used for banging nails into wood, I might still walk up to a pile of wood sitting next to a bucket of nails and a hammer and within a short amount of time start banging the nails into the wood. That is because the physical structure of the hammer fits its function. On the other hand there is nothing about the structure of Barack Obama that would incline me or anyone else to allow him to order troops into Afghanistan unless we agreed that he could do so based on his success in getting people to darken circles and flip switches on Election Day.

By agreeing to give people or objects status function we, as a society of people, are agreeing to assign certain obligations, authorities, duties, rights, permissions, responsibilities etc. to particular people or objects. Money again is one classic example. There is nothing about a printed dollar bill that makes it worth accepting in exchange for anything else unless we agree that a dollar bill bestows upon those that have them a certain set of permissions and rights. If I go to a store and the store keeper will not accept my money in exchange for goods, I might well complain that my rights were being violated because my money is as good as the next person’s. This means that if I have money I should be granted the same rights and permissions as any other person with money.

At the start of his book Searle states that he will show how all of the complexities of society can be explained by the building and layering of the assignment and contractual agreement on status function. I look forward to reporting on what I discover as I go along.