A Catholic Defense of Social Contract Theory
Why Aristotelian-Thomists can support it.
Many Catholics, who otherwise identify as Aristotelian-Thomists, disapprove of a theory of government known as the Social Contract. The foundations of social contract stretch before the time of Christ but were popularized more recently by thinkers such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Jefferson, and others. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live”. This essay will show that social contract theory is not incompatible with Catholic social doctrines. Rather than go through the details of each thinker in order, an attempt will be made to paint a holistic picture, with references provided.
According to the above-linked IEP article, Thomas Hobbes tried to provide a middle ground between the warring factions of the King and Oliver Cromwell. Hobbes rightly discards the belief of the Divine Right of Kings, meaning that the monarch’s power comes directly from God, and should be obeyed as part of religious obligations. Hobbes builds his social contract theory in the state of nature, or as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “a condition without government”. This begins with a state of “mere nature”, where the only laws are what each individual person decides for himself. Leaving people in this state of Nature would paralyze what we would consider any progress towards normal life, or indeed, civilization.
Obviously, Hobbes’ state of nature is quite frightening, as it is, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, “fraught with divisive struggle”. That is, Hobbes puts man in a state of war. It is easy to understand his point with reference to history. Native American tribes and people indigenous to other continents show this behavior towards their enemies. While their own civilization might be quite advanced (e.g., the Aztecs), they certainly had not moved much past the state of nature in their relations with other people.
Hobbes’ view might be better explained in combination with that of John Locke. Locke’s state of nature grants freedom to each individual to do as they see fit but within the bounds of what can best be described as natural law. The state of war only occurs when men violate this through, as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, stealing, attempts at slavery, and other similar actions. Once conflict starts, it would continue, as there is no authority to stop it. This, according to John Locke, is why people contract with each other to form a government.
Aristotle expresses similar sentiments, when, by defining man as a “political animal”, he also states that only through community life with a government can the virtues be achieved. Aristotle would split with many social contract theorists, however, on what constitutes the “ideal” government, as to him that would be either rule by a monarch or the aristocracy, though, as explained by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, a combination of an oligarchy and democracy would be best for “political stability”.
Aquinas argues that because people “tend to look only after their own self-interest”, governments ought to exist to keep people directed towards the end, or “common good”. This is evident through the behavior of those in both Hobbes and Locke’s views of the state of nature. For Hobbes, devoid of natural law, people did whatever they wanted (license), which is certainly not acting towards the common good. For Locke, even with natural law, the common good would not be easily achieved without a higher authority guiding the people.
Perhaps the easiest part of social contract theory for a Catholic to accept would be Rousseau’s addition of a “fall of grace” from the state of nature. Rousseau, in his Second Discourse, paints a picture not dissimilar to traditional accounts of man before the fall. Due to his somewhat atheistic stance, there are the inevitable conflicts with Genesis, as well as the misplaced reason for the fall (which is not private property, but a deliberate human choice). For Rousseau, man was meant to be in the State of Nature, and though a return to it is impossible, governments must exist to help achieve that as much as possible.
Does power arise from the consent of the governed, as the Declaration of Independence argues? As I mentioned above, Hobbes took issue with the Divine Right of Kings, and for good reason. The rights of each individual to enjoy life, liberty, and property come before those of the state, as the individual precedes even the family, oft considered the original form of government. Even in the Bible, this is evident. The Israelites were long content to accept the direct rule of God, made manifest through a prophet or judge. Eventually, though, these men (mediators and military leaders more than rulers proper) grew corrupt and incapable of performing their duties, leading the people to ask God for a king, which was granted to them. Two things ought to be evident. First, God heard the people, investing His authority in the type of ruler they wished. Second, God seems to warn the people of the same troubles of having a monarch that Aristotle does. (See 1 Samuel 8:9.) This seems to imply that the people (or body politic, to borrow Maritain’s expression), bonded together in social contract, have the power to choose their form of government, which is then endowed with authority by God.
After all, many different types of government have existed in the course of human history, many of which coexisted with the Roman Catholic church. However, Aquinas mentions one form of government that is invalid enough to not merit the obedience of its citizens. This would be tyranny, the understanding of which also fuels his just war theory.
In terms of magisterial Catholic teaching, there are similarities between Locke’s teaching ad those in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Scholar Joe Hargrave points out that, despite obvious differences, “both Locke and Leo XIII craft their basic political arguments–especially with respect to the right to private property–based on the same assumptions about natural law, natural right, and Christian obligation”. This may be because several of Leo’s advisors were directly influenced by Locke.
Hargrave explains that the state of nature “[sets] the stage for natural rights”. It shows that even in the absence of human-organized government, there is something (natural law) that informs us how to rightly act. Not everyone will act according to natural law, even in the state of nature. Thus, once people began to own property, there was no way of guaranteeing its safety. Locke, contra Hobbes, states that property exists in the state of nature by necessity, while Hobbes puts it after the formation of a government. It is not difficult to align the various views of social contract theory with Genesis narratives.
After the Fall, Adam had to work for his survival. The fruits of his labor were his own property, to deal with as he saw fit. Government more or less progressed from individual to family to tribe to city-state to nation. Every form of government is chosen, accepted, or overthrown based on the power of its citizens, whose authority rests in God. Thus, the basic ideas of the social contract theorists complement and support a traditional Catholic understanding of government.
The only question that remains is this: What other theory is there for the origin of government that makes this much sense?
God love you!
Michael Joseph Carzon is a junior philosophy major at Ave Maria University. He hopes to do graduate work in philosophy and apologetics under William Lane Craig. He contributes to Missio Dei, Catholic365, and blogs at The Catholic Armchair Philosopher. His work has been mentioned in the National Catholic Register and at Big Pulpit. He can be reached at email@example.com.