The 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes is generally regarded as the founder of the modern social contract theory. Hobbes often joked that he was born prematurely when his mother heard the approaching Spanish Armada in 1588. "Fear and I were born twins," he said, reflecting his conviction that the fear of death and the need for security are the basis of social organization.
Social contract theory tends to a radical individualism. It maintains that individuals are driven by self-interest to form the state. Society and government are artificial constructs formed when people delegate their right to conduct their affairs as they please to a government that will provide them with security.
Hobbes believed the best form of government was that run by an all-powerful Leviathan who controlled every aspect of people's lives. But most people today who assume that society is a contract among individuals tend to argue for as little government as possible. "Give us an army and police to protect our lives and property, and then leave us alone."
Catholic teaching is clear in rejecting this understanding of society. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church argues that social contract theory is based on a false understanding of human nature. The origin of society is not found in an agreement among individuals, but in the natural disposition of men and women to live in community (see footnote 197).
Instead of seeing society as a conglomeration of the rights and desires of individuals, Catholic teaching sees the common good as fundamental. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII wrote, "Every civil authority must strive to promote the common good in the interest of all, without favouring any individual citizen or category of citizen."
A question arises. If there is a tendency in social contract theory to see society as the creation of individuals, does not a theory of the common good do the opposite – make the needs of the individual subordinate to those of society? The short answer is no, but. . .
The teaching on the common good does not make either society or the individual primary. Rather, it says the nature of the human person is social. The Second Vatican Council put it this way: "The human person . . . cannot fully find himself or herself except through a sincere gift of self."
One implication of that understanding is that the fully human person is not simply passive, waiting to be served by others. To be fully human means to give of oneself. The Compendium says the common good "requires the constant ability and effort to seek the good of others as though it were one's own good" (n. 167).
The responsibility for ensuring the common good – not just individual goods – lies not only with individuals, but also with the state. If there were no common good, there would be no reason for the state. The state is not simply a referee among competing interests, but a guarantor that those with no voice or power will have their needs met. It should have a bias for the poor and the marginalized.
The state should also look to the common future of society to ensure that the common good continues to be realized for future generations. A government that bankrupts the future to pay for the present is not meeting the common good. A government that does not adequately ensure the education of the young is also ignoring the common good.
Canada's sponsorship scandal – and many other examples of governments being used to serve individual interests rather than the common good – shows that the role of the state can be easily perverted. But such corruption should not lead one to conclude that government is a necessary evil. Rather, it is a necessary good.
The four cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance should regulate the actions of government just as they should govern the actions of individuals.
Thomas Hobbes tried to reduce the human person to a bundle of fears that could only be allayed by a powerful government. Jesus repeatedly told his followers, "Be not afraid." When we give of ourselves to others, we shed our fears. We transcend ourselves.
When many people rise above fear, it becomes possible to realize the common good. We are not just a group of self-seeking individuals who enter agreements and contracts to meet our needs. Real community becomes a possibility.