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5 Civil Society and the State Classical notions of civil society recognized that social life was carried on in separate spheres, but theorists did not organize their thinking around individual interests. For the most part, the Greeks and Romans situ­ ated private strivings in broader notions of citizenship. As the ancient world collapsed and Christianity directed itself toward faith and good works, me­ dieval theorists sought to explain human actions in light of God’s plan for the universe. All such efforts were suited to hierarchically organized natural economies in which economic life was constrained by other institutions and norms, production was undertaken primarily for reasons of subsistence, and personal gain was not a morally reputable guide to action. The development of powerful markets in land, labor, and commodities undermined embedded economies and located individual interest at the heart of theory and practice. Thomas Hobbes’s view that a competitive civil society had to be constituted by sovereign power anticipated the disinte­ gration of the traditional commonwealth. John Locke identified interests with property and placed them at the center of civil society, but he knew little about markets and retained important elements of earlier traditions. The Scottish Enlightenment tried to regulate individual strivings with an innate moral sense, but Adam Smith’s qualms about the market did not prevent him from expressing the period’s general confidence that a social order populated by individual interest-maximizers could be organized by the “invisible hand.” The coming of modernity saw liberalism detach mar­ kets from states and recognize interest as the constitutive force of civil so­ ciety. But ancient concerns about the disintegrating impact of particularism would not go away. Neither markets nor states were as developed in the rest of Europe as in France and England, and it fell to German thinkers to reconceptualize the moral content of universality in light of the French Revolution. Immanuel Kant tried to inform ethical action with reason and locate a public sphere at the heart of civil society. G. W. F. Hegel theorized 109 110 | Civil Society and the State the bureaucratic state as the highest moment of freedom in an effort to supersede the economically driven chaos of bourgeois civil society. Karl Marx’s critique of Hegel’s theory of the state would culminate in the modern era’s most powerful understanding of civil society as a problematic and undemocratic arena of egoistic competition. Civil Society and the Ethical Commonwealth We have seen that moral sentiments and universal benevolence rested at the heart of much Scottish Enlightenment theorizing about civil society and even played a role in explaining “the wealth of nations.” But they came to grief in David Hume’s devastating attack on natural law attempts to unify mental processes. Hume’s assertion that reason and morality occupy differ­ ent spheres and yield different sorts of understandings found expression in the famous distinction he drew between the “is” and the “ought.” A strict boundary separates moral precepts rooted in “the sentiments and affections of mankind” from the truths revealed by reason. How can the common good be conceptualized in such an environment? Hume answered that it cannot be revealed by moral reasoning and does not exist apart from the sum of individual goods. The rules by which civil soci­ ety functions are not derived from the moral law of nature; they are “arti­ fices,” and civil society is nothing more than a conventional arrangement for the pursuit of private goals. Instrumental reason helps individuals iden­ tify their interests and indicates the most efficient path to satisfying them. Experience and habit replaced a priori morality and virtue as the criteria of truth. People can be expected to follow ethical rules only if their immediate purposes are so served. No general good links individuals in any shared en­ terprise broader than the mutual pursuit of interest. Civil society is consti­ tuted by the external interactions of rational seekers after individual self-in­ terest. Immanuel Kant was the foremost philosopher of the Enlightenment, and his response to Hume began with the ancient contention that self-interest cannot supply an acceptable grounding for human life. Kant sought to base civil society on an intrinsic sense of moral duty that unites all human be­ ings, but he also wanted to move past the weakness and naiveté of the Scots’ theory of innate moral sentiments. His central claim—that a moral life can be lived only in a civil society founded on universal categories of right that are...


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