• ‘We’ precedes ‘I’: society forms the individual

  • We are our best when we exercise the virtues: the ‘excellences of the species’

  • To nurture the virtues politics should strengthen the family, the community and the nation

It would help to know who we are, or at least where we come from, and where we are going. Modern liberal culture has an answer to these questions. Before ‘we’ came ‘I’. ‘I’ exist as an independent and autonomous being. I have an ‘authentic self’, the ‘real me’, which is sacred. Society – ‘we’ – is made up of similar autonomous beings, who have agreed to abide by common rules that protect my authentic self, and yours. If we get those rules right (it’s a work in progress, and people differ on whether we need more rules or fewer) everyone can be themselves, and live in harmony.

Thus modern liberal culture proceeds from the idea of the singular, unrelated, indeterminate individual and aims at a perfect, rationally-ordered human society. But both these ideas are fictions. John Rawls imagined a man standing behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ and designing the society he is to live in. Unable to see what position he would have in it, said Rawls, he would design a society that is fair to everyone, and especially to the worst-off. But the ignorant, relationless man is not a man at all; he is a machine, or an animal. It is the process of experience, of socialisation into the habits and attitudes of a community, that makes us human. To design a good society, a person would need to have lived in one.  

The liberal idea is a perversion of the Christian one. For in Christian doctrine, as in Rawls’ scheme, individuals did indeed step forward fully formed, into Eden. And there is a vision of a fair, well-ordered society in the future, whether in this life or the next, in which the worst-off become the most significant: ‘the last shall be first’. The crucial difference is that the Christian story includes the Fall. The individual, the ‘real me’, is broken, and only a good society can partly (and only partly) restore it, by making me its member. 

‘We’ precedes ‘I’. This crucial conservative belief is the source of an alternative idea about who we are, where we come from and where we are going. The individual did not emerge fully-formed out of nowhere, and then sign a contract with society. He or she is both the product of society and its producer, the heir and testator from one generation to the next of an evolving inheritance. There is not a perfect ‘real me’, independent of the circumstances that made me; nor am I my own creation, entitled to ‘be myself’ whatever I believe that is.

Rather, in the words of John Milbank, ‘there is an objectively right way to be human’. This challenging principle is at the heart of things. The universal, objective, ‘right way to be human’ is to be virtuous.

‘Virtue’ is a potent term. It is not the same as ‘good’ (bravery is a virtue: Cromwell was a ‘brave bad man’, said Clarendon). The virtues are the things that human beings are good at doing, ‘the excellences of the species’ in Edward Skidelsky’s words, ‘as strength is to the lion, or speed to the horse.’ They include bravery, imagination, compassion, loyalty, the quest spirit and the homing instinct, and a host of old-fashioned qualities: fortitude and charity, temperance and continence, prudence, shrewdness, forgiveness and faith. 

We are at our happiest and best when we have the opportunity to exercise the virtues. We want to live well. This means more than a passive sense of well-being. It includes well-doing, the practice of ‘excellences’ like friendship, creativity, and overcoming. And the practice of the virtues does not just make us personally happier, it makes life better for everyone else.

Given this, the purpose of politics becomes clear. It is to create the conditions for virtue: to strengthen the circumstances in which people can most successfully develop the habits and instincts of good conduct. 

What are these circumstances? They are human associations, moral communities which instil the virtues by necessity and instruction. Associations make us happy and safe. They also make us free, for liberty is founded in the trust that forms among people who know each other. And the essential associations – which make the structure for what follows in this series – are the nation, the community and the family.

The relations of individuals, and the state, to each other and to these essential associations is the proper business of politics. This is not the social contract of liberal theory, the transaction by which the autonomous individual joins society, as he might take out a gym membership, on his own terms and for his own interests. It is, in the word explained by Jonathan Sacks, a covenant: an implicit mutual commitment, extending backwards and forwards in history, to sustain our common life and pursue the common good together. I call it the ‘social covenant’.

This old idea is right for the new world we are entering, but it needs updating and re-presenting. The trends of the times are towards nations, communities and families. We are re-learning the old truth that we need each other, and that the emotional tug of home can rival the call of global markets. Technology is part of this. To take an important example, the internet is making places abandoned by the 20th century economy – industrial towns, coastal communities, villages – viable once again. 

And yet tech could destroy the social covenant quickly and completely. Ethic-less, unsituated, inhuman, it is the agent of the narcissist and the tyrant. It could enable most absolute individualism and the most absolute statism.

A ‘new social covenant’ is needed. This will enable a new settlement between individuals, the associations of family, community and nation, and the state; and between the state and other states. It will agree the ethics that must regulate the new powers of data and digital, and the other expressions of this miraculous age from genomics to the supervision of space. It will manage the constitutional transition we are in, towards a better distribution of powers. And it will help us describe our goal as a nation, part of Western civilization – to tell the right story about the journey we are on. 

The posts that follow are my effort to describe the new social covenant that I think we need. Eleven further propositions follow, grouped under the three headings of Nation, Community and Family. Each group ends with a proposition about a legal order: a new constitutional settlement to strengthen the nation; a new principle – to be enshrined in law – of ‘community power’ to strengthen communities; and a new commitment to the existing legal institution at the heart of family life, namely marriage.