I. The Myth: A State of Nature Is A State of Anarchy
With law comes order. And from order comes security: the kind of security social contract theorists name crucial to the preservation of liberty not as an abstract idea but as a tangible, exercisable object. Absent a powerful central authority, the individual possesses those liberties that are his birthright, but has no surety that these will protected against the aggression of his neighbor. In an anarchic state, so the arguments run, a man’s neighbor might come and raid his pantry in times of privation, or come and impress him into service. Unless he is bigger and stronger and his neighbor. And then there is no safeguard against that man harassing his neighbor but whatever moral compunctions he chooses to heed. In the anarchic state of nature, force gives the strong license to act with impunity. They need fear no retaliation from the weak nor justice from any higher power, for in a state-less state brute force is the only law and “might makes right” the only civic creed. Effectively, this means liberty exists to the degree the strong permit. And only in the forms the strong permit.
A state of nature is, therefore, a state of oppression. But is this true? Is anarchy necessarily tumultuous? Does the barbarous moral precept of “might makes right” really beget a cavalcade of strongmen bent on domination? And if so, is this anarchy, or merely a degenerate form of oligarchy?
In the colloquial political lexicon, anarchy is precisely this: a lawless land of violence, danger and chaos wherein the individual is constantly under threat from those on the prowl for greater power and personal enrichment. It is a sentiment that receives tacit support from such illustrious thinkers as Machiavelli and Locke, whose statement that ordered liberty, which requires a central authoritative body exercising oversight powers over the actions of those who live within its borders, is the only way to truly secure liberty by making it exercisable. By implication, any society not implicitly rooted in a social contract, wherein citizens exchange some freedom for the promise they will be secure against aggression, is inherently deleterious to liberty.
But such a view, though rooted in natural law, does not take a comprehensive view of it. The assumption that aggression will prevail absent the checks of centralized power is rooted in a negative view of self-interest. Man’s primary good is in his continued survival; this can be a justification for any action taken against another, no matter how heinous, if it improves one’s own security. But survival also requires order. Man fears the unknown because he does not know from where the threats to his person might come. This is the reason he takes steps to insulate himself from inequity in the material world: it is why he stores food and builds shelters. Viewed in the long-term, self-interest makes man passive: one does not alienate oneself from the people on whom one’s survival may depend. Yes, man might become aggressive in response to a perceived wrong or in times of existential crisis, but security comes from order. In an anarchic state, man must look to his own affairs: he must ensure he has the material goods he needs to feed himself and those for whom he cares. There is, by implication, a nascent order to anarchy that has as its root the same desire for security others use to characterize the natural order as violent and aggressive.
What’s more, while defenders of social contract theory, do so under the guise of making freedom tangible, they also reduce freedom down to a mere transaction. To tie liberty to a political order where individuals require the arbitration of an intermediary body is to propagate a system that alienates the individual from the rights he or she holds. Freedom cannot be attained except through the protection of a body external to oneself. This is no different than the state of nature, wherein liberty takes on whatever form the strongest actor decrees.
II. The State of the State of Nature
A. The Natural Morality of Man
That man’s survival instinct informs the primitive morality that, in turn, drives action in the state of nature is nowhere disputed. What this self-interest says about the moral constitution of man is, however, a matter of greater dispute. On the more negative end of the spectrum is Thomas Hobbes of Leviathan fame, who notoriously declared the state of nature is a war of all against all. The survival instinct, according to Hobbes, is an unassailable justification for any act of aggression, giving to man moral carte blanche in regards to his relations with his neighbors. He names the right of nature “the liberty each man has to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life, and consequently of doing anything, which in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest mean thereunto.” Man, in Hobbes’ state of nature, desires that which is unobtainable: security. Absent any overarching authority, he has only his reason to govern him. And this reason, which has as a guidepost only the primitive moral precept of his continued existence as a sole good, gives him a right to whatever tools he deems necessary to this end, even the body of another. It is this fact that makes security unobtainable. Thus develops Hobbes’ fundamental law of nature, “That every man ought to endeavor peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of war.” For Hobbes, man may not be innately evil, but the absence of any governance external to man prevents the development of any complex code of morality that might cause him to consider the prudence of his aggression. Man is naturally, then, drawn into evil acts because of his desire for self-preservation.
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the very question of where natural man fits within a good-evil dichotomy is inappropriate. According to Rousseau,“One can desire and fear things only by virtue of the ideas one can have of them, or from the simple impulse of nature; and savage man, deprived of every sort of enlightenment, feels only the passion of this latter sort. His desires do not go beyond his physical needs. The only goods he knows in the universe are nourishment, a woman and rest; the only evil he fears are pain and hunger.” Man, in this view, needs something external to himself to inspire in him anything that resembles moral feelings. Rousseau still believes man is motivated by his survival, but he has a very narrow definition of his own being; absent any high-minded moral or philosophical ideals, the complexities of which Rousseau believes come only from society, man thinks only in the short-term: “His soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the single feeling of his own present existence, without any idea of the future, however near it may be, and his projects, as limited as his views, hardly extend to the end of the day.” Rousseau takes Hobbes to task over assigning to primitive man a multitude of interests represented in his desire to preserve his life. These imply foresight, whereas Rousseau insists the savage sees only the immediacy of the moment. This tempers somewhat the excesses man is willing to take out of his duty to the survival instinct. He cannot think in the long-term and so does not recognize the need to take steps that will ameliorate his conditions in future. This makes him more complacent in Rousseau’s view, as does his belief that pity is an abiding instinct in man, a disposition he names “fitting for beings that are as weak and as subject to ills as we are; a virtue all the more universal and all the more useful to man in that it precedes in him any kind of reflection.” Good and evil may be moral ideas Rousseau believes to be antecedent to the existence of primitive man, but he grants him one moral instinct: pity, which acts as a temper on his actions. Rousseau’s natural man may not be good, but this tendency towards pity makes him more reticent to the evils which Hobbes claims he is, by nature of the environment in which he finds himself, prone.
It is John Locke who paints the most rosy picture of natural man’s morality. In Locke’s view, the total freedom given to man by the state of nature is not a justification for hedonism. While men, he writes, “in [the state of nature] have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Like Hobbes, he believes the capacity to reason is innate to man. But unlike Hobbes, Locke does not believe this reason gives sanction to any and all activities man deems necessary to his survival. Unlike Rousseau, Locke believes natural man can conceive of something beyond the immediacy of his own being; this is implicit in his moral mandate to save the things in his possession for the nobler purposes to which he believes they can be applied. This is proof that primitive man, at least to Locke’s mind, can think in the long-term. His reason, bound up in his being, thinks of his survival in this larger time-frame. Man should look not only to his survival, but to his comfort and to his purpose. Can he achieve something greater than subsistence with the tools available to him? Then he should work to do so and to thrive, rather than survive, in the future. For Locke, the introduction of a civic state does not fundamentally alter man in any way, as Rousseau and Hobbes would suggest is the case, but merely ensures his survival is better secured by promising retribution for any wrongs done. Wrongs may still be done in the state of nature, but there is no surety that they will be avenged.
B. The Rise of Government
The point of social contract theory is to propagate a political order that breaks from the instability and aggression allowed by the anarchy of the natural order.. For Locke, society gives to man security, but does not fundamentally alter his nature. For Rousseau and Hobbes, society gives to man a framework that not only stabilizes but lifts man out of himself and gives to him moral passions and ambitions. For Hobbes and Rousseau, virtue is not an innate quality of man outside of the primitive concept of the good found in his continued existence.
All three, however, are united in their belief government is necessary to order and liberty. Government, under social contract theory, is cast as a neutral, dispassionate arbiter, contrasted against the self-interested motives of man, from which inequities arise. It represents a break from the natural order and while it is not imposed on those who are ruled by it—their consent is necessary to its legitimacy—because it exercises power over them, it nevertheless sits above them. The social contract relies on hierarchy: the people are subservient into the government. The fact that individuals agree to this subservience supposedly makes it legitimate. But assenting to the judgment of government arbitration, even though motivated by a desire to secure for individuals the ability to freely exercise their rights, separates individuals from their rights and creates a system of dependency.Implicit in this arrangement, however, is a new form of consciousness. In the state of nature, property begins with the self, and particularly with consciousness. It is from this that the self-interest centered conception of moral good springs. Man has no property—and no freedom—if he is not master of himself. While the introduction of a civic state does not attempt to alter this, the broader context of society demands a new framework for understanding the self. The basis of society, after all, is contractual. While man still acts for his own good, he simultaneously exists as a member of the body politic, which means he has interests which exist apart from those interests which relate directly to his self. Man, as Locke notes, “has given a right to the common-wealth to employ his force, for the execution of the judgments of the common-wealth, whenever he shall be called to it; which indeed are his own judgments, they being made by himself or his representative.” And this implies that there must be some sort of political good tied up in the collective entity of the body politic.
There are two parts to this new social conscience which man, by agreeing to enter civil society, must adopt. First, he must understand that his good is bound up with other men’s, meaning that, even in exercising his own interests, he also acts in the broader interests of society. The moral imperative of the state of nature—self-interest—contains an additional element: collective interest. Man has a duty, not just to himself, but to all his fellows to whom the social contract binds him, “to cultivate and improve those Gifts of his Creator which he finds in himself, that they may answer the end of their Donor; and to contribute all that lies in his Power to the Benefit of Human Society.” This idea that man's individual duty is, seemingly paradoxically, to be found in a duty to bettering his fellow men, comes from French philosopher (and critic of Rousseau) Samuel Pufendorf. By lifting up his fellow men, the individual contributes to his own good. Because, if the collective is better off, the individual—who is a constituent part of the collective—is also better off. Similarly, civic organs, since they exist to protect liberty, also have a vested interest in discerning and acting towards a good that promotes the collective body politic and, by extension, the individual. There is, then, a degree of separation between individuals and their rights necessarily introduced by government and the task with which it is charged by the social contract. Paradoxically, this develops from a desire to secure rights. But, in attempting to create security, the social contract invents a third-party that serves as a neutral third-party. Charged with regulating society and creating conditions that make rights exercisable, government inveigles itself into a position where, because it is responsible for accomplishing these tasks, it is the arbiter of rights. Because individuals have no security outside the state, they owe their prosperity to the state. And that, eventually, comes to mean the state undergoes genesis and starts to think of itself as being responsible for proactively creating the economic and political conditions that ameliorate conditions. In a way, this is a genesis of the social contract theorists’ argument for the state: it merely redefines what security means, taking it from the abstract philosophical realm and taking it into the tangible material realm. If the state is responsible for creating a stable societal framework in which citizens can exercise rights, there is no reason why it shouldn’t provide materially for citizens and create a level of prosperity wherein citizens are in an economic position that allows them to better exercise their rights. The problems this are compounded by the fact that, while foundational members of the order created by the social contract actively assent to submit themselves to state authority, subsequent generations are denied this opportunity. Their birth into society is implicit assent to its authority. There are no real ways to dissent without running up against the law.
The alternative to the social contract is simply to allow the natural order to progress. It is to allow the primitive moral commandment of self-interest to become extrapolated and codified into emerging political structures. “Might makes right” becomes the first precept of law. This need not be, as Hobbes might suggest, an endorsement of hedonism and aggression. “Might” could simply be the combined forces of a group of restrained men, who exercise it only in defense of their property; this is effectively no different than the operational philosophies of many Western nations. The quest for strength is a quite natural outgrowth of the desire to survive. It is rational for men to bind together and pool their resources that they might more easily fend off any would-be aggressors. The nature of any government that might arise from such a situation is difficult to define, as it will be dictates by the goals and personalities of the people who make it up. It will be a product of context. Though, for a generalized picture, it is prudent to turn to Machiavelli, who in The Discourses on Livy, outlines a cycle of government that grows from the desire of men to band together for the purpose of their mutual survival: “Variations of government are born among men by chance: for in the beginning of the world, when its inhabitants were few, they lived at one time dispersed and like wild beasts; then, when their numbers multiplied, they gathered together and, in order to defend themselves better, they began to search among themselves for one who was stronger and braver, and they made him their leader and obeyed him. From this sprang the knowledge of what things are good and honorable, as distinct from the pernicious and the evil: for if someone were to harm his benefactor, this aroused hatred and compassion among men, since they cursed the ungrateful and honored those who showed gratitude; and thinking that the same injuries could also be committed against themselves, they made laws to avoid similar evils and instituted punishments for transgressors. Thus, the recognition of justice came about.”
The downsides of such a political arrangement are obviously numerous. Effectively, the bounds of government power are ever-shifting, as they depend upon the edict of leaders; those edicts may be motivated by a desire to help the people under one’s care. Faithfully serving one’s dependents is a surefire way to ensure one’s power is secure. Power, in such an arrangement, is an extension of the survival instinct. But those edicts may also be motivated by less charitable ends. Marrying personality to ultimate political power contains the same implicit dangers as does the state of nature: there is no security. In the state of nature, the only check on power is natural: the limited ambition of the strong and the limited resources upon which he can call. The birth of a political order in which power hinges upon the judgment of an individual means it is limited only by the ambitions of that leader and the resources upon which he can call. The law is whatever the leader in whom the ultimate power lies decrees. For the citizenry, the uncertainty of the natural world is carried forward to life under such an order: from day to day, the basic laws that govern their life may change, leading to uncertainty. This places survival in jeopardy.
To define virtue in relation to personal behavior creates an interesting dynamic. It emphasizes the importance of context to political rules and conceptions of justice. Politics, it must be remembered, is not only contextual, but is the sum of its constituent parts. Aristotle, as we will explore in the next chapter, suggests a tie between justice and different types of friendship. There is resonance, he believes, between the structures of government institutions and different types of personal relationships. If this is true, the similarities between social contract theory, which attempts to create a government that is a neutral arbiter of grievances between its citizens, and Machiavelli’s model wherein government evolves from the natural order are more prominent than might initially appear. Social contract theory changes, necessarily, because the conditions that lead to the adoption of the social contract change the reality in which men find themselves.
This leads to the need for a new set of rules. So while the social contract is entered to secure the individual’s ability to hold and exercise rights, the creations of a third-party—the government—changes how those same rights are held and exercised. Government becomes the adjudicator of rights. Without its actions, the citizenry exists in a state where rights are in jeopardy, meaning, even though rights belong to individuals, they are effectively unattainable without government’s actions. Charged with protecting its citizens rights, government becomes concerned with on-the-ground material conditions and the effects these have upon the people, whose interests are coalesced into “the general will.” When this is served, government succeeds. And this means government gains cognizance: it is no longer a neutral arbiter, it is a proactive player in society, working to create the conditions men need in order to exercise their rights. Government cognizance means the individual wills of those whose actions give energy to the organs of power become codified through law. This, effectively, is no different than the primitive tribal government Machiavelli describes. In both political orders, virtue is defined in reference to the welfare of the people: the survival instinct remains a primary driver of societal machinations. It simply gains more nuance.
The genesis government undergoes when the social contract is the basis of government is similar to the one Machiavelli describes in The Discourses. Power develops from the need to secure one’s being: leaders are selected because they are strong and brave; good is defined in relation to these qualities. But, as men leave the state of nature and becomes more secure, their priorities change. And the definition of virtue changes too. As Machiavelli writes, “later on, when [men] had to elect a prince, they did not select the bravest man but rather the one who was most prudent and most just. But when they began to choose the prince by hereditary succession rather than by election, the heirs immediately began to degenerate from the level of their ancestors and, putting aside acts of valor, they thought that princes had nothing to do but to surpass other princes in luxury, lasciviousness, and in every other form of pleasure.” Virtue, in this arrangement, is found in physical displays. Followers require evidence of the superiority of their leader because their survival depends on the ability of their chosen leader to protect them. But virtue becomes more abstract as man becomes more materially secure and his priorities change. Leaders can more easily look to their own material comfort—for the ability to do so is a sign of the prosperity they have brought about, which in turn is a sign of successful leadership—than to the welfare of the people. But this shift in priorities in turn leads to resentment from the people, who begin to see smaller and smaller shares of wealth. This change in priorities is not unlike that which the social contract brings about. Leaders look more towards satisfying the general will created by bringing people together into a civic polity. They can do so because they have created an order that allows wealth to be amassed and eradicated fear of day-to-day material security. In one sense, this is a sign of success. But in another, it is an implicit threat to individual rights. For the individual has ceded some of his ability to define his own welfare for himself; it is assumed to lie with the general will, represented by the government. As government secures rights and creates the conditions in which man can live free from fear, the individual owes some deference to the authority of government.
III. Whither Rights Under Government?
The most important takeaway is this: it is impossible for government to be a neutral body in society. And this affects how individual rights are held and exercised. Social contract theory does not create a neutral body that simply arbitrates cases of alleged abuse between individuals. It leads to the development of a political order that holds as its primary responsibility the securing of conditions that make life more amenable for its citizens. This infringes on the ability of individuals to define and seek out their own good. Survival does not become less of an issue once man leaves the state of nature; its definition merely changes. As does the entity responsible for securing it. In the state of nature, individuals are responsible for their own welfare. Under the social contract, government assumes some responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, which infringes upon the sovereignty it is supposedly designed to protect.
If government cannot be neutral, then it, like any other actor in society, must be controlled. This is an issue we will explore moving forward. Philosophically, the parallels between power in relationships that develop in and out of government has bearing on politics and the virtue it attempts to uphold. These are ideas that are part of the foundational to the structure of American government. James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, famously spoke about faction. Contained in his writings are ideas about how representative government must involve the playing off of one interested constituent group against another. This arrangement not only checks government’s power by putting its members at cross purposes, but gives to the individual voice a platform in which their interests are influential over the decisions made by government. Madison clearly does not believe government can be a neutral arbiter, but he does believe certain practices are crucial to creating a government that is proactive in pursuing certain and simultaneously protecting the rights and interests of citizens.
Rights, clearly, are not uniquely secured by the adoption of the social contract theory. Given how much of personality is necessarily imbued into government, it seems securing rights is something of a Sisyphean task where government is concerned. But the answer is not anarchy, for though there is clearly some order implicit to anarchy, security is not found here either. Given that no satisfactory solution can seemingly be found, it is perhaps relevant to question whether we are asking the wrong question. Government cannot secure rights. But politics, as we know, is contextual. So, should we be looking at the relationship between individuals and government in such breadth? Or should we be concerned more with context? So far we have spoken only of federal governments. But what of lower-order political bodies? These are tasked with different purposes and their relationship with those whose lives they affect differs because they interact in different ways. Politics, as we have said, is the sum of its constituent parts. We ought to examine, then, those constituent parts. Each has a unique purpose. And virtue, if it is to be found, will be determined by examining each of these unique purposes. Morality, certainly, is an absolute. But because mankind’s life is individualistic, the way in which each individual perceives that morality is different. Good is primarily to be found in one’s own survival. And that good hinges upon the conditions of one’s life. This does not change certain moral precepts, which are found in reason, as Locke points out. Need does not justify taking for one’s neighbor, for this establishes a precedent that jeopardizes one’s own security. Thus, while morality is absolute its implementation is relative. The same, perhaps, can be said of government machinations: certain principles ought to dictate and limit government, but context matters. We will explore this idea in the next chapter.