Academic journal article Policy Review

Social Contract or Social Covenant

Academic journal article Policy Review

Social Contract or Social Covenant

Article excerpt

There are two fundamentally different ways of thinking about human association. Consider two phrases we associate with the Greek and Jewish traditions and their most distinguished representatives, Aristotle and Maimonides. Aristotle described man as a political animal. Maimonides described man as a social animal. Those two phrases tell two different stories about the human condition. Both are true, but they describe different aspects of our collective life and give rise to different institutions.

Man as a political animal creates the institutions of political society: states, governments, and political systems. Man as a social animal creates the institutions of civil society: families, communities, voluntary, associations, and moral traditions. As we approach the millennium, the reinvigoration of these civil institutions is the single greatest challenge facing the liberal democracies of the West.

But let me begin at the beginning: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." The biblical narrative of creation is constructed in a distinctive literary form. Repeatedly we read:

"And God said, `Let there be ....' And there was .... And God saw that it was good."

It is therefore discordant to hear suddenly, for the first time, the phrase "not good." What, in creation, is not good? "It is not good for man to live alone." The first statement of the Bible about the human condition is the sanctity of the individual as individual. Every human being is in the "image of God." But the second statement about the human condition is the incompleteness of the individual as individual. "It is not good for man to be alone."

Hence the human need for association, relationships, and for stable structures within which those relationships can grow. In fact, much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible is the story of the unfolding of those relationships, from the nuclear family of Adam and Eve, to the extended family of Abraham and Sarah and their children, to the confederation of tribes in the days of Moses and Joshua, to the sovereign state in the ages of kings and prophets.

So the Hebrew Bible begins with the recognition that it is very difficult for human beings to live alone. But as the Bible itself indicates, it is also difficult for human beings to live together. With Adam and Eve come conflict, with Cain and Abel, fratricide. And by the generation of the Flood in Genesis 6, "the earth was full of violence." How then do we move from unbearable isolation to some form of tolerable association? I want to tell two stories, both implicit in the Bible, but quite different in their implications.

The first is told in its most famous form by Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan. Hobbes, we recall, begins his story at the point which the Bible describes as the generation of the Flood, and which Hobbes called the "state of nature," in which human beings "are in that condition which is called War; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man" in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

How then, given the human tendency to conflict, do human beings form societies? Hobbes's answer: The fear of violence and death. Some of us are stronger than others, but none is so strong that we are invulnerable to attack. Indeed each of us has reason to fear the preemptive attacks of others. Therefore it is in our essential interests as individuals, as a precondition of peace and security, to hand over some of our powers to a supreme authority that will make and enforce laws. …

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