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Rewriting the social contract: Beyond the “Rawlsian reduction”

Perhaps one of the least controversial things anyone can say in 2021 is that we are living in extraordinary times. The pandemic has been called an “unfrozen moment”, a time when people are open to thinking about social change.

Over the last twelve months, dignitaries and major organisations have been queuing up to call for a new social contract. Political debate is replete with terms and phrases like the “Green New Deal”, “Build Back Better”, or the “Great Reset”. And this is not just the elites. Mentions of a new social contract on Twitter roughly doubled between 2018 and 2019, and then doubled again from 2019 to 2020.

Given that social contract language is so prominent, it’s important to be clear about what we mean when we use it. Philosophically, there are a number of different ways of getting at the idea of the social contract. Here I propose to examine through the lens of the common good.

What is the “common good”?

The “common good” is the idea that in some way my good and your good are bound up with each other: we are better off living together in society than fending for ourselves out in the forest; we give up some of our natural freedom to make a common life possible. The social contract is the implicit agreement among members of a community to value and foster that common good in the way they live and interact.

So what might we mean when we say we want a new social contract? Out of the many things that could be said, let me make two suggestions from my own perspective — that of being both a philosopher and a religious believer.

First, renewing the contract is about the whole society. The social contract is not just between individuals, on the one hand, and the state, on the other. It includes what has often been called the “missing middle” — namely, the institutions of “civil society”. These are groups and bodies separate from the state and the corporate sector, such as sporting clubs, schools, or activist groups. But civil society also encompasses the substantial contribution of Christian institutions. A 2019 Pew Research Center global survey found that people who attend religious services at least monthly are often more likely to join charities and clubs, and more likely to vote in elections. It is by no means insignificant that four of Australia’s top five charities are faith-based.

It is in civil society that crucial relationships are fostered, and where common purpose is forged among people who would not otherwise associate. As we gather and collaborate in these institutions, we cultivate concrete relationships that develop the values of trust, mutuality, engagement, ownership, and loyalty — all of which the social contract needs. Consequently, if the institutions of civil society are missing from our attempts to rewrite the social contract, what we end up with is a vision that relies exclusively on new laws and regulations. The result is a contract, and a society, which is gutted of trust, mutuality, engagement, and responsibility.

Second, renewing the social contract is about the whole person. One dominant understanding of the social contract seeks to exclude religious convictions from public discussion. The philosopher John Rawls is almost single-handedly responsible for reviving social contract theory in the mid-twentieth century. Rawls thought that the only way to find the common good in society was to leave all religious views at the door. The social contract has no room for “comprehensive doctrines”. Rawls’s argument draws on the idea of what he called “public reason”. Public reason produces consensus, whereas private religious conviction can only produce division. I term this the “Rawlsian reduction” of the public space to this one type of reasoning.

Renewing the social contract should address the whole person, not just the bits that can be reached by secular public reason.

This reductive view of religious institutions has at least two serious problems. For one thing, it doesn’t let religious groups take an authentic role in society. They must deny any religious reasons for their convictions and pretend that their values are not drawn from their doctrine. But leaving your religious convictions at the door is like unmaking a cake to take out the flour: it is not only impossible, it also ruins the cake. It strangles much of the work that Christian institutions can do for the common good, because, for them, serving the common good is not just about the material, but also the spiritual.

A further problem is that Rawls doesn’t seem to realise that he too operates with a comprehensive doctrine. The principles he thinks are universal — including fairness — are just as much a universal vision of the good as the perspectives he bars from the debate. Contrary to Rawls, renewing the social contract should address the whole person, not just the bits that can be reached by secular public reason.

Sharing wisdom

A better way of working for the common good could be summed up under the term “good neighbourliness”. The language consciously draws upon the Christian tradition for its inspiration. Good neighbourliness takes account of the whole person, and its contribution to renewing and strengthening the social contract can be summed up in what theologian Miroslav Volf calls “sharing wisdom”. “Sharing wisdom” means sharing one’s distinctive perspective on life, including our “comprehensive doctrine” or worldview. Done sensitively, and with a listening ear, this sharing can greatly serve the common good.

It is widely acknowledged today that we are facing what some have called a mental health crisis. The causes are certainly complex and multi-faceted, but one aspect that researchers have identified is a feeling of purposelessness or meaninglessness, linked to a lack of belonging. In a theoretical register, such research resonates with what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame” of the secular age, where there is nothing beyond our immediate experience of the world, and no greater meaning. In the immanent frame people can suffer from an absence of what Taylor calls “fullness” — namely, the experience of being taken outside ourselves into some larger purpose, into a life imbued with meaning, beauty, and connection.

In his book Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller argues that his Christian faith offers “a meaning that suffering can’t take from you”, “a satisfaction that is not based on circumstances”, “a hope that can face anything”, and “a justice that does not create new oppressors”. Those are things that strengthen the common good and promote flourishing. But they flow directly from the Christian “comprehensive doctrine”. As Miroslav Volf puts it, “A vision of human flourishing — and resources to realize it — is the most important contribution of the Christian faith to the common good.”

Another aspect of good neighbourliness is sharing the practical wisdom that flows from this view of the world. The idea of “wisdom” here draws from biblical tradition, such as we find in the book of Proverbs, where religious belief (“fear of the Lord”) leads to making wise decisions in all practical aspects of life. Such wisdom is not only for practical things like how to manage finances, get on with other people and not ruin your life, but more fundamental values like the dignity of human beings and the preciousness of life. As the historian Tom Holland persuasively argues in his recent book Dominion, this sort of wisdom has had a profound effect in the West on promoting the common good. It has played an important role in the development of human rights, the idea of leadership as service, and the compassionate treatment of the weakest among us.

Historically speaking, the reason these things are now part of the fabric of society is that Christians in the Roman Empire didn’t take a Rawlsian approach. They didn’t simply seek to serve the vision of the good life of the Empire, but they challenged and ultimately subverted that vision in the name of what almost everyone today would say is a better society than that of ancient Rome.

When individual Christians and Christian institutions share wisdom to help meet the practical needs of society, they do not do so in a way divorced from their worldview. Graham Tomlin, the Anglican Bishop of Kensington in London, writes:

The role of the Church is not to fill the gaps left by the welfare state. This is why the identification of the Church’s social and political engagement as primarily an act of witness is so important. We set up food banks, offer debt advice, give homes to the homeless, care for creation and combat childhood poverty not simply because our society needs a bit of help or because government can’t do it on their own. We do these things in the name of Christ as acts of witness to the God of compassion, mercy and justice … Their significance is not found in themselves or in their political meaning but in their capacity to point to the Kingdom of God that is one day coming, and to the God whose Kingdom it is.

People sometimes have the view that all there is to the good neighbourliness of Christian institutions, all there is to working for the common good, is alleviating people’s physical burdens, improving their material lives. But to think in that way is to fall back into the “Rawlsian reduction”. Sharing worldview and sharing wisdom sit alongside practical measures in serving the common good. And those measures, while valuable in themselves, are also seen by Christians as signs that point to a fullness that itself promotes the common good.

Renewing the social contract is about more than government legislation and public reason.

I finish by citing an account from a meeting of faith-based leaders gathered in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. The account is written by Michael Ray Matthews from the PICO Network (People Involved in Community Organizing):

As I continued to lead songs and chants in the pouring rain, one of the seminarians grabbed the bullhorn and asked if we could change our chant from “show me what democracy looks like” to “show me what theology looks like”. She was calling her sisters and brothers in the faith to go all in — to be totally immersed in mind, body and spirit, to bring the richness of our faith into the public space.

Renewing the social contract is about more than government legislation and public reason. A more holistic perspective sees the value that religious belief can play in supporting people to be good neighbours who serve others and share wisdom, humbly showing society what theology looks like.

Chris Watkin is an ARC Future Fellow in European Languages at Monash University, and an Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article was originally published in ABC Religion and Ethics.