Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Deneen on Social Contract Theory and the American Founders

From Patrick Deneen's essay, "Ordinary Virtue," in his collection of essays, Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents 52-55 (2016) (footnotes omitted):

When one thinks back on those men who moved the nation to declare independence, cool reflection forces one to think not of how much they stood to gain by gaining independence from England--for it's not obvious that many, if any, stood to gain much at all--but how much they stood to lose by committing this act of treason in the eyes of England....

These were men with a great deal to lose--including, for most, significant fortunes by the standards of those days....What is all the more remarkable was their willingness to pledge their lives--which several did lose in the course of the revolution. The signers were keenly aware of the likelihood of execution for signing the Declaration....

The willingness to pledge their lives for the sake of independence is remarkable especially because the first part of the document is based extensively on the philosophy of John Locke. Locke famously argued that political community was the result of a social contract that people formed in the State of Nature. Because the State of Nature is eventually so disadvantageous to individuals--perhaps not as awful as Hobbes' conception of the state of nature, who described it as "nasty, brutish, and short," but not a condition that ultimately accords human beings with sufficient guarantees of security, much less justice--natural men sacrifice some of their natural freedoms to form a government that will act as an impartial judge and protector of the contracting agents. The government is charged with preserving the rights of citizens--among them "life, liberty, and property" in Locke's version--and when government encroaches too much on these rights, then we reserve the right to revolt against that government, and revert back to a State of Nature to form a new social contract.

What one has to notice is that there is a basic tension in the basic fabric of this theory. Social contract theory is based on the premise that we value, above all, self-preservation--even more than we value our total liberty, since we give up some liberties from the State of Nature in order to institute a government that can protect our lives from the depredations of others. Hobbes, for one, so feared reversion back to the State of Nature that he concluded that government could demand anything of its citizens except to force anyone to be willing to die....Locke is a bit more ambiguous about what conditions would justify outright revolution, but the conditions have to be much worse than the worst conditions of the State of Nature. And yet, for the men who signed the Declaration, this was clearly not the case--their lives were not personally in danger before they declared independence, and their lives suddenly were in grave peril afterwards.

Liberal theory has always had a bit of a hard time dealing with this conundrum, that is, how to call on the willingness to sacrifice even one's life for the sake of one's core principles of liberty, since liberalism itself places a very high premium on self-preservation. Under such a set of philosophical presuppositions, how can one be encouraged to value liberty even more than self-preservation? Tocqueville noticed this difficulty during his visit to the United States in the 1830s, remarking that democratic citizens had a tendency to justify every act in terms of self-interest, even those acts that might be justifiably construed as inspired out of generosity, sacrifice and duty, even the willingness "to sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth to the good of the state." Tocqueville surmised that, over time, the language of self-interest would exert a formative influence upon democratic man's self-understanding: "for one sometimes sees citizens in the United States as elsewhere abandoning themselves to the disinterested and unreflective sparks that are natural to man; but the Americans scarcely avow that they yield to movements of this kind; they would rather do honor to their philosophy than to themselves."

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2017/05/deneen-on-social-contract-theory-and-the-american-founders.html

DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink