Why Invent a Social Contract?

Consider two stories about how government came to be.

The first pictures persons existing wild and free, roaming the forests and the grasslands of a pristine world unburdened by obligations of any kind. But this edenic life carried the germ of its own destruction, for the license that saw no obligation also imposed no restraint. Theft, pillage, and rapine followed as night follows day, so with heavy hearts individuals came together to offer up their freedom at the feet of a ruler in exchange for protection from each other. In this way they created a government ab initio, the surrender of self-sovereignty both a compromise and reminder of their original power.

The second story is less uplifting and direct. In this version, humans were always included in a matrix of government, first as members of a family, then as associates of a clan whose elders provided for group welfare. Bound by extended ties of consanguity, clans intermarried and grew into villages, towns, and cities. Diversity bred complexity, and so these nascent social units developed by trial and error the political arrangements they found most satisfactory to their needs (see “Needs Anchor Morality“).

You might think these nativity stories too similar to make much difference, particularly thousands of years later. Why ponder which is the accurate history after fifty centuries of development? But you’d be wrong. The political creation story you accept will dictate your judgment on the proper role of the state and of the individuals who accept its laws. Here is why.

The first story is, of course, the tale of the social contract, first clearly enunciated by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 and revised repeatedly by Locke, the American founding fathers, Rousseau, and Rawls among others. The second is the explanation offered by Aristotle in his Politics published two thousand years earlier. So we are immediately faced with an issue: surely these early advocates of the social contract were familiar with Aristotle’s version of the founding of polities. If they found it lacking, shouldn’t we? Or to put it another way, why did they find it necessary to articulate a completely different version of the origin of the state?

Like all things modern, the idea of the social contract was rooted in the bloody ground of the Reformation. Hobbes had lived through the darkest years of the English Reformation, from the suppressions of James I to the execution of his son in the revolution waged in the name of Puritanism by Cromwell, the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649, and the abolition of a monarchy of eight hundred years’ duration. European history had fallen into an orgy of sectarian bloodlust dating from the German Peasants’ Revolt in 1519. The most destructive war in European history to that point, The Thirty Years’ War, had ended only three years before the publication of Leviathan. And nothing was settled. The restoration of the Anglican monarchy would take another decade and the Jacobite rebellion of the Catholic James II was still a generation away. As late as 1780, the Gordon Riots demonstrated the sectarian anger lying just beneath the conventions of English life, and many now living recall the Northern Irish troubles only recently suppressed. So the social contract theory was breeched in an atmosphere of religious fanaticism. It is only against this setting of savage religious strife that Hobbes’s story of what moved persons to establish the commonwealth in the first place can be understood (see “Premodern Authority”).

I wish to stress that the Reformation did more than wrench political theory from its traditional roots. Over its fifteen-decade span, it called the most common and settled warrants for truth and goodness into question, whirling two thousand years of inherited wisdom into history’s dustbin. Among the dead on the battlefields stretching from Bohemia to Ireland were millions killed in sectarian conflicts. Medievalism died there too and from its ashes modernism endured its protracted and painful birth (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). But modernism from its infancy proved sickly, so authority as a warrant for truth and goodness claims suffered round after round of competitive assault until its inability to settle dispute became apparent to the exhausted combatants of Christian heterodoxy. Hobbes’s account of the social contract was the first structured modernist attempt to renegotiate the terms of the relationship between ruler and ruled at a moment in history when the warrant of divine right of kings was suffering the same fate as all the old medieval warrants based on authority.

In that moment when anarchy and tyranny struggled for control, the venerated Aristotelian explanation that had sufficed for saner times seemed absurd. Viewed through the lens of the disintegration of all reliable knowledge in the face of doctrinal war, the meaning of reason itself seemed as doubtful as the more powerful warrant of authority. And nothing was more reasonable than the accounting of our relation to government that Aristotle provided.

He argued in his Nicomachean Ethics that persons desire not merely to live but to live well and fully, and he extended the argument in Politics to include their relation to their government. He saw no need to posit the invention of the state for the very simple reason that the state had existed as long as humans had. It was merely the mechanism for them to meet their needs for security and prosperity that lay beyond their individual abilities. Its existence was organic and integral, though not instinctual. Our desire from birth is to practice a form of tribalism whose essence is the separation of persons into ours and the others. The germ of political participation lies in our interaction with family, which after all is a little state with its own rulers, ruled, and laws, so our inclination is to collaborate because we see the family as fundamentally ours. It meets our need for love and through subsidiarity assists us when we cannot meet our other needs. Such relations are entirely tribal and instinctual. They require no exposition. The problem lies in extending that affiliation to those outside the instinctual units we find so natural, in transposing those in clan, village, tribe, and city from the others to ours. This also involves a complex reorientation of moral duty, for our relations with strangers cannot grow from loving those we cannot know and cannot reliably assist. It must instead rely on a strict notion of justice, meaning what they are due. And that is anything but instinctual, though the contributive needs that inspire it are. Our natural relationship with family takes justice as the minimum of our relations with them, expanding most naturally to relations built upon love (see “The Moral Bullseye“), so justice has to be rationally calculated and culturally instilled. Instinctive social norms are inadequate to the task of reorientation, and so conventional means to build on nature have to be put in place to regulate what is due and from the beginning were put into place as tribal units grew ever larger.

But the nature of this conventional relationship was not at all what the social contract envisioned, for the classical vision’s notions of convenience lay in the means of political affiliation rather than in its ends. In the contractarian view, the entire conception of government had to be invented and imposed in a state of crisis, for only crisis could induce individuals to give up the total circumstantial freedom that is their most prized prerogative. That must scar the polity it creates. In contrast, the classical view saw governments as an entirely natural extension of the family, though clearly they could not be based on realtions of love. Their conventionality derived from the kinds of relationships they fostered between ruler and ruled, which could be of many forms so long as they satisfied the needs of all involved, just as families may operate by a variety of rules so long as they meet the needs of their members. As the great classifier, Aristotle found these efforts grouped themselves into all the political categories he saw exemplified in city-states: aristocracies, oligarchies, monarchies, and democracies. Just as families share a common culture that bind their members together, so too did early polities in Greece and elsewhere find conventional substitutes for the naïve congruities of the family. Any means that facilitated the identification could work. Chief among these was religious unity, and so we see a universal appeal to divine support of not only political leaders but of the systems that installed and maintained them in power. It bears repeating in the recounting that the conventional component of this aggregation of political authority was its manner of extending the tribal identity to groups larger than the family, something that was inherent in the effort of human beings to satisfy their needs. Some means of expanding tribal identity was inevitable because, as Aristotle maintained, “Man is by nature a political animal.”

From a recent perspective, we can see other ways to glue tribal identity. The Reformation demonstrated the brittle quality of religious authority in heterodox environments that challenge the trust that is its sole foundation. It is utterly unable to reconcile conflict using its own mode of warrant because trust challenged is trust destroyed, requiring the resubmission of rational and moral agency to individuals who formerly had willingly surrendered it (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). Other kinds of bonds had to be employed. Dynastic loyalties worked well to unify peoples who might have little else in common, for they conventionalized rulers as distant “little fathers” and mothers with familial obligations to their subjects as the empires of the Caesars, Charlemagne, the Hans, and the Empress Victoria attest. Marx attempted to sketch out the natural affinity of economic class as a strong adhesive to group identity, and we see echoes of that attempt in references to classism or “class warfare” in our own age. There is, of course, resistance to such an economic identity in some quarters. We might think that national identity is as natural as the Pledge of Allegiance, but we should remember that it is a conventional mode of establishing an American tribalism and is not exempt from efforts to challenge it on its own terms because it cannot succeed in forcing strangers into tribal associations by even the most determined appeal to blood or soil, “fatherland” or “founding fathers.” States’ rights argues that “natural” units should be smaller while efforts to propagate international law and jurisprudence maintain that such units should be larger. And these forms of tribal identity are hardly discrete forms of conventional affiliations, so we see deified Pharaohs and Roman emperors, Charlemagne’s coronation by the pope, and frequent reminders that the United States is, after all, a Christian nation. Recent history reminds us too that what glues one tribe together may leave others cold. Efforts by Western powers to build nations in the Middle East break upon the rocks of religious identity that itself also might sunder upon sectarianism, as Hanbali and Wahabi contend among Sunnis, which brings us back to just that kind of contention that so moved Hobbes to argue for the social contract (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?“). In this respect, contrarians have a point: tribalism is insufficient to glue social identity. This has profound implications for appeals for strangers to love one another (see “Empathy: a Moral Hazard”). They can’t, and so any appeal by government to tribalism is bound to be a dilute form of the real thing, as Stalinists and Nazis discovered. One of the many requirements of totalitarian rule is a constant reiteration of the tribal relation of state to individual, as sickly a shadow of familial love as all commands to love strangers must be.

The impossibility of such a foundation for a polity could hardly have been more clear to Hobbes, the inheritor of a century and a half of savage sectarian war. He certainly could see no natural bonds linking persons in a political landscape marked by war of each against all. It is little wonder that he dismissed Aristotle’s analysis. “Scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy…nor more repugnant to government than much that (Aristotle) hath said in his Politics nor more ignorantly than a greater part of his ethics.” Where Aristotle had seen political association as a natural expansion of our search for eudaimonia, a good life, into a public sphere marked by cooperation for mutual advantage and the means to promote political affiliation as the conventional means to accomplish this simple and universal goal, Hobbes saw only contention, strife, and competition. “(Agreements) of men is by covenant only, which is artificial [italics mine]; and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required, besides covenant, to make their agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power to keep them in awe and to direct their actions to the common benefit.” It is entirely understandable, though regrettable, that Hobbes mistook the mode of a natural association for the entirety of the association itself, and so sought some stronger impetus to compel consensus and cooperation and discourage the bane of his era: contention based upon differing conceptions of the good.

For Hobbes, it was persons’ security as a means of basic survival and not their own need for the good life that forced them reluctantly into political affiliation. Who can blame him for forming such a judgment in the dismal chaos of the Wars of the Reformation? But we need to ask another question: was Hobbes’s experience representative of historic civic experience or an aberration? The question expands when we add the permutations of the social contract theory of government that Hobbes launched: those of Locke, the American Founding Fathers, Rousseau, and Rawls. Each of these later writers both refined and distorted Hobbes’s original notion in a manner entirely representative of modernism’s desperate attempts to replace authority as a warrant for truth and goodness claims. Unlike authority, the use of reason and closely examined experience that modernists used in its stead provide the means to reconcile disagreement by refinement and thoughtful analysis, but at the cost of certainty and settled belief.

Allow me to lay my cards on the table at this point. If asked whether the disagreements between Hobbes’s view of political affiliation and Aristotle’s are more attributable to Hobbes’s era or Aristotle’s error, I would not hesitate for a second to blame Hobbes for a perversion of human motivation derived from the perverse age in which he lived (see “Where Do Rights Originate?” and “Our Freedom Fetish”). The false assumptions that moved him to propose a single and prehistoric contract were magnified by the inheritors of his theory that beat it into shapes more suited to their era as it is now further molded by political libertarians to this day. I argue that the social contract mistakes the mode of political association for the motive and so distorts both history and political theory. You will never find a historical state of nature, never find a primeval agreement among totally free individuals living without restraint, never find any support for human rights in such an agreement, and never find justice as the raison d’etre of government in any social contract justification for government. What you will find is a simmering resentment against government as an infringement on originalist freedom that imagined persons running wild in the rosy wilderness, leading to a perverse valuation of the autonomous individual as the fundamental unit of government somehow isolated from and superior to the community that satisfies some of her vital needs (see “Alienation of Civic Affection“). Libertarians are always blathering about their rights, yet their theory of government provides absolutely no means for them to claim any rights whatsoever except those specified in social contracts (“life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” are no more specification of rights than they are legitimized by their being enumerated in The Declaration of Independence). Rights are coterminal with government because government is coterminal with human existence. Human rights are both universal and specific and are granted neither by religious authority nor governmental power (see “Needs and Rights“). Individual rights do enable government, but to infer that their priority puts the individual and her government in tension is as pernicious as saying individuals are superior to their need of skill because that need comes from them. Government satisfies a universal human need, to be sure, just as families do, as skill does, or at least it does when government is founded upon delivering justice.  Political rights are those stemming from our political needs (see “Natural and Political Rights”). They exist regardless of the conventional forms of political bonds that join persons to units larger than the family.

We see the consequences of this error everywhere today. When libertarians argue that government is some alien “they” and that “they” can do little right, when they seriously argue that government was established to protect individual freedom rather than promote justice, we have to wonder why they think we need government at all since it seems they also see it as the greatest threat to individual liberty. Like Hobbes, they see government as a regrettable error rather than a necessary constituent of human happiness. Perhaps, like Thoreau, they also think “that government is best that governs least” (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?”). One then is forced to press the issue for today’s libertarians as one must for Thoreau. If you know what goods government exists to procure, what are those goods, and how do you know? The resentments of libertarians are hardly a statement of their values. Contrast their protests against the positive enumerations of goods staked out by advocates of virtue ethics and natural law.

For anyone who takes social contract theory seriously, I urge a careful study of the Reformation and a close reading of Leviathan, with its lengthy examination of religious truths that were in hot dispute in Hobbes’s lifetime yet which seem as desperate as his theories of human motivation to a contemporary reader. Despite his anachronisms, we seem bound by our reverence for the Founding Fathers to cling to the myth of the social contract. Just as we’ve inherited the Reformation’s dichotomies concerning justification, we also carry into our own age its distortions and anxieties. It is our painful inheritance that social contract theory as a justification for government continues to propagate the distortions that attended its creation (see “Two Senses of the Common Good“).





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