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Richard John Neuhaus on the Social Contract

"The Public Square" in First Things 107 (November 2000): 69-88.

The myth of a covenant, we are told, is simply no longer believable. From Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century through John Rawls in the twentieth, it was replaced by the myth of the social contract. I expect people counted the myth of the social contract more believable because it was a myth of their own creation. It was a fiction pure and simple, but it had the attraction of being our fiction. According to this story, human beings emerged from a “state of nature” in order to constitute society. Or, in the case of John Rawls, they are behind a pre-social “veil of ignorance” making deals with one another according to their calculated self-interest and thus bringing “society,” with its key idea of justice, into being. No matter how sophisticated, or at least complicated, theories of social contract may be, they are as thoroughly made up as nursery tales. In fact, there are not and never have been human beings apart from societies. The individual person does not emerge from isolation into society but from society. Some societies are called primitive and some are called advanced, but society is the constant in the human story. The “state of nature” and “veil of ignorance” are fables; nobody has ever encountered, nor can we even plausibly hypothesize, persons apart from society.