Civil Society Is Not An Instrument

Errors in political philosophy and public policy frequently involve errors in philosophic anthropology. In order to best govern men we must first know who we are. This insight is core to the disposition present in American Conservativism which has long held that human society and political economy are irreducibly complex. Reality, that great mugger, will expose the error of your theory. To know how man is to be governed, we must first know who man is; and to know how to govern society, we must know what a society is. The modern conversation surrounding the place of civil society in American life largely takes its cues and vocabulary from Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville defines civil society as a network of intermediate institutions that stand between the individual and the state as networks of meaning and solidarity. These networks, being closer to the ground to the problems of life, are supposed to be more efficient than the state or other modes of organization for solving social ills. Tocqueville, for all his praise of civil society, never elevates it beyond the status of an instrument. It is a way to organize a good, but not necessarily a good in itself. This is in contrast to the contention of Catholic Social Doctrine.

Catholic Social Doctrine regards societies as having a real existence, a unity of order which contrasts with a mere instrumental assemblage of persons on the one hand, and a unity of substance, something like an individual person or an animal on the other hand. Societies can be harmed in addition to the persons that make up a society. Societies are what is called an “n + 1” person and have a good that is common to the society itself. That is, in a society there are the good of the members, but there is a common good that is not the good of the members but the good of the society as society. Though these accounts intersect, they both pinion the state and limits its scope, the difference between society being an instrumental good, or society being a common good is not a minor difference and it is worthy of examination.

Catholic exegesis into the first chapters of Genesis is somewhat analogous to the use of a “state of nature” in the work of Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It sets the stage for reflections on the nature of social orders and the origin of institutions like sacramental marriage. Similar to a “state of nature” analysis present in modern philosophy, to understand man in society, we must begin at the beginning.

In the opening chapters of Genesis God creates the universe from nothing in a succession of substances and ordering of natural kinds. God then brings Adam into existence and the focus on the text shifts to him. We learn that Adam has the power to name the animals, and we also know it is not good for Adam to be alone, and thus we know Adam is both a rational and relational animal. Rational, because Adam can name and abstract universals from particulars, and relational because he cannot be perfected and achieve the good for him alone. God creates Eve to be in union with Adam. God calls everything he creates “good” but creation is not called “very good” until the union of Adam and Eve. To quote Russell Hittinger: “Creation is not crowned with a new natural kind. Creation is crowned with a society.”

But what is a Society? Russell Hittinger defines a society in this way: “Wherever there are plural rational agents, aiming at common ends, through united action, and where their unity is one of the intrinsic goods being aimed at, we have a society, something distinct in dignity.”

There are two parts of this definition that separate the union of Adam and Eve from that of union of say, two pair bonded lions producing children. The first is that they are “plural rational agents;” Adam and Eve have the power to name, and thus the power to abstract universal truths from particular things. Adam and Eve also have the power to will decisively and to consider the good. It is their use of this rational power toward common ends and unity itself as a common end that is our second part of the definition. Adam and Eve aim toward the perfection of one another and they aim for this through united action. Adam and Eve further aim to prefect their unity. That this unity is capable of being perfected, that is it something that can exist in greater and lesser degree, is evidence of its real existence. Thus when we speak of Adam and Eve in marriage we can speak of the persons Adam and Eve, but we can also speak of their group unity, of the marriage itself. We can speak of Adam and Eve as well as Adam-and-Eve. God calls creation very good after the creation of Adam-and-Eve because God has brought into existence a society, what we have called above an “N + 1” person.

The one flesh unity of Adam and Eve is a unity of order, a society, a proper ordering that can exist in greater and lesser degree and thus bears relationships of justice to other moral actors. However, Adam and Eve retain their individual personhood. It must be emphasized that the unity of order is not the unity of substance. A unity of substance is like the unity of a human body. If it were the unity of substance being aimed at, then Adam and Eve would not have a one flesh unity, but would rather be merely approximating the unity of substance present before the jealousy of the gods in Aristophanes speech in Plato’s Symposium.

Aristophanes means to explain love as the reuniting of two substances into one. Human beings existed as two headed creatures with two sets of gentalia, sometimes male and female, other times male and male, and other times female and female. The jealousy of the gods lead Zeus to disunite this unity and mankind therefore looks in love for their other half in order to be reunited. This unity however is ultimately futile, because we cannot rejoin in substance what the gods divided. There is therefore a note of tragedy in love as we try to put ourselves back together.

There is none of this tragedy in the Genesis account, the one flesh unity of Adam and Eve is a right relationship that makes creation “very good” but does not reach up to the relationship of identity present in Aristophanes’s account of love. Adam and Eve are real and distinct. Their identity is never dissolved into their union, but their union is real and distinct all the same.

That there is a reality to the personhood of societies belongs to the domain of things that the philosopher J. Budziszewski calls “What we can’t not know”. It is a matter of common language and common sense that we can meaningfully speak of the actions of The United States of America, Oklahoma State University, or Holy Family Cathedral as unities and not merely as aggregations of parts. This language of treating organizations like countries, sports teams, universities and churches as a real unity is not just present in our common language but also in our laws. F W Maitland writes:

“If the law allows men to form permanently organised groups, those groups will be for common opinion right-and-duty-bearing units; and if the law-giver will not openly treat them as such, he will misrepresent, or, as the French say, he will “denature” the facts: in other words, he will make a mess, and call it law.”
When I use the word person when referring to society, it mean it precisely in the sense that Maitland intends. Societies are “right-and-duty bearing units” and as such exist in the order of justice and thus can be morally harm or be harmed. For example: A university is a duty bearing unity that exists for research into truths about the world and for the education of these truths to its students. A university owes its students an education and thus at least has rights insofar as they allow the university to fulfill its duty. Thus the university can harm me by not being in right relationship with me insofar as it fails to fulfill what is my right by agreement, namely an education. Similarly I can morally harm the university itself by not being in right relationship with it, say if I refuse to pay it on the grounds that university does not exist and is a mere aggregation of professors, administrators, janitors and so on.

Since we can talk of the personhood of Adam and Eve’s marriage in the sense Maitland describes, and since we can also talk of the personhood of a university, sports team, or parish in the sense Maitland describes, we can also talk about the good of those entities. Since Adam and Eve seek the perfection of their marriage, we can talk about the good of the marriage qua marriage. Similarly, since universities seek their own perfection, we can talk about the good of that university qua university. And if the actions of these unions are not reduced entirely to the actions of its members, and we have seen that they cannot, then it makes sense to talk about a common good. A common good is the good of some society qua society. It is the good that perfects the society in itself and it is not merely reduced to the good of its individual members. Societies are group persons, and can be morally harm and be harmed. The converse is also true. Societies can be good and seek the good.

An example of this principle, of a good being properly speaking common and not private to its members, is to consider marriage once again. If a couple dissolves their marriage, they cannot divide it up. You can divide up the private goods within the marriage with one spouse getting the house, the other spouse getting the car and so on. But you cannot divide the marriage itself. You cannot go to a judge and say “I would like to keep 60% percent of the marriage”. The good of marriage, being common, cannot be cashed out. It is an all or nothing sort of institution.

In this way, societies are distinct from what we may call partnerships. In a partnership, two or more rational agents unite for common action but only seek private ends. The distinction can be confusing since partnerships can be elevated into societies and societies can become mere partnerships. An example is illustrative. Russell Hittinger in his lectures and essays often uses the example of selling motors to Honda. When Hittinger sells motors to Honda in contract, he does not aim at a society but merely at mutually agreeable ends that involve him being paid and Honda getting the motors he sold them. Crucially, if he fails to give the motors to Honda, the partnership ends. This is all well and good. Partnerships are not bad things. It would be suffocating if every trade partner I engaged with constituted a society and had a common good. But nonetheless, what separates partnerships from societies is the aiming at unity for its own sake. The crew team does not dissolve after losing the race, the church choir does not disband after an off key performance, the nation does not become a failed state after a failed trade deal and so on. The aim toward unity and the perfection of that unity is what distinguishes a partnership from a society and distinguishes a basket of private goods from a common good. With the concept of partnership and society in place, we can discern the objection the traditional case for civil society made by critics like Tocqueville against the idea of the Sovereign State.

The doctrine of the Sovereign State is summarized effectively by Thomas Hobbes “For power unlimited is absolute sovereignty. And the sovereign, in every Commonwealth, is the absolute representative of all the subjects; and therefore no other can be representative of any part of them, but so far forth as he shall give leave.” This view is also summarized in Article 3 of Declaration of the Rights of Man. “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

For Hobbes and for post-Revolutionary France the seat of all fraternity resides essentially in the nation state. Other civic organizations may exist, but only insofar as they serve the legitimate interests of the state. Societies such as churches, families, clubs, universities, think tanks and so on do not exist as independent agents distinct by reason of dignity, but rather as extensions of the power of the states. The state, in the interest of efficiency, social order and so on, allows these entities to be treated “as if” they are group persons, when in fact they exist through and for the interests of the Sovereign State.

Therefore the Sovereign State does not so much recognize the existence of families, churches, clubs, corporations etc. as it devolves authority to those entities in the economic interest of efficiency. A good example of this model is modern China. China does not take itself to be righting an injustice when it opens it markets. China rather takes itself to be pursuing its ends, the material prosperity of its people, the increase in power of the Chinese state and Communist Party in particular, by the most effective means. If allowing for the competition of economic actors were not the most effective way to make China rich and the Communist Party strong, then China would do something else. The recognition of entities other than the Sovereign State is always done with a lens of “what have you done for me lately?”

Most defenses of civil society essentially fall into this frame. They tell the state what it can to for them. Ernest Gellner describes civil society as a “miracle” in Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals, but he also describes civil society as the “social residue after the state is subtracted.” Gellner’s description of civil society is not unique to him. On this view, civil society is an essential instrument, a wonderful instrument, but only an instrument. It is the residue that is left when the state is subtracted. The problem with this view according to Catholic Social Doctrine is that it does not allow for defenses of civil society that focus on intrinsic perfection. From the point of view of Catholic Social Doctrine, the instrumentalist conception of civil society reduces true societies to mere partnerships. They regard entities with their own common good as being merely a coordinating device to get at certain private goods.

This is fine as far as it goes, but in the case of China we typically regard it as an injustice, and not merely an inefficacy if they were to get rid of all their free trade zones tomorrow. This distinction between and injustice and an inefficacy is the core of the objection of Catholic Social Doctrine to instrumentalist defenses of civil society. If societies are mere partnerships, then we can only talk about whether societies are efficient achieving their private ends. We cannot talk about whether there is an end in itself for a given society such as marriage or church. When we talk about the good of marriage qua marriage, or of church qua church, we are leaving behind the instrumentalist analysis into an area it cannot tread. These and other arguments are properly arguments about social ontology, about what a group-person is and what rights and duties it can bear. On these questions the instrumentalist defense is silent. The instrumentalist defender of civil society can bring forth commendable charts and graphs about the positive externalities of marriage, but is unable to tell us what a marriage is in any deep sense. If we only know what social entities can do and only recognize them for what they can do, we are liable to forget what they are. We can, to paraphrase Maitland, denature the facts. We can make a mess and call it law.

3 thoughts on “Civil Society Is Not An Instrument

  1. Pingback: Do Groups Make Choices? - Front Porch Republic

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