The Individual and Society


 Question: What is the relationship between the individual and society? Some say that the individual is the most atomic element of a society and is responsible for bringing about said society. Other accounts suggest that the individual can only be understood when there is a social structure present and is constructed of by said social structure. We want to know where you stand. So please, join us in this conversation by either responding to accounts provided by our writers or be so bold to provide your own thoughts on the matter.


The Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship between the individual and society

Dr. Luke Murray

The teaching of the Catholic Church on social issues is - unfortunately - one of its best-kept secrets. This is unfortunate because the Church has a long and rich history of commenting on the relationship between the individual and state. Although it became more well-known in the 19th century with the publication of Rerum Novarum (1891), which sought to comment on the rise of communism and the modern liberal state, ecclesial reflection on such matters runs all the way back to the first century. When St. Paul told Christians to respect Roman authorities, and Jesus himself affirmed that Pontius Pilate had received authority “from above”, the early Church was beginning the articulation of its social teaching. But it does not end there.  More recently, Pope Francis has developed Catholic Social Teaching (CST) in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’ in order to emphasize the responsibility that individuals and states have to respect the environment and limit human impact on climate change. In this short summary, I will be drawing from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, specifically the second chapter, entitled “The Human Community” (paragraphs 1877-1948), in order to sketch in broad outline the Catholic vision of human sociality.  

The Church teaches clearly that the person needs society and that society is not “an extraneous addition but a requirement of [human] nature.” Following Aristotle, the reason why society is understood to be ‘natural’ is because it allows one to reach his or her full potential, which each does “through…exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren” (1879). Society is necessary for human flourish, not a ‘contract’ out of which some may choose to opt.

The Church defines a society as “a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them” (1880). She believes that the community is both visible and invisible, a reality that includes the past, present, and future. Society enables each person to grow and develop his talents and thus “he rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good” (1880). 

Before discussing “the common good”, which is easily the theme most central to the Catholic view of society, the Church recognizes that there are different types of communities that are defined by their purpose and subsequently obey different rules. Some societies, such as the family and the state, “correspond more directly to the nature of man”, and are necessary for everyone. Yet, the Catechism holds that there is also a vast range of intermediate organizations and institutions that enable us to flourish as human beings and which protect our God-given human rights (see 1882).

Given such natural diversity, the Church is wary of conflating its view of “society” fully into any political organization, arguing that “excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative” (1882). This leads the Church to articulate the principle of subsidiarity as a ballast for the common good. According to the CCC, the principle of subsidiarity states that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (1883)

The principle of subsidiarity flows from the Church’s view that God himself works towards the good of his creation in just such a way, as God is not “zealous” for power but has freely created human beings out of love and with the ability to freely direct their own actions. Human communities are called to imitate the way God orders creation by allowing within each the freedom to choose the form of government that best contributes to the “common good” of that particular community (see 1884). 

Yet what is the ‘common good’? 

By 'common good' we mean “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority. It consists of three essential elements: …. Respect for the person as such;….the social well-being and development of the group itself; ….[and] the stability and security of a just order. (1906-1909). 

Although much more should be said about the common good, combined with the principle of subsidiarity, it forms the heart of Church teaching on the relationship between the individual and the community. Together these principles affirm the absolute dignity of individuals against overreaches by the state, while yet rejecting a libertarian individualism that views the community as something extraneous and artificial to human nature, which can lead to selfishness and the neglect of the poor and vulnerable of society.

The Confessional Reformed Teaching on the relationship between individual and society

Kevin Lee

In response to Modern notions of the individual self, William Dilthey once quipped, “No real blood runs in the veins of the knowing subject that Locke, Hume, and Kant constructed.”[1]  Sometime later and in response to Modern notions of the social self, Michel Foucault questioned whether “man” was about to be “erased like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”[2]  Within the context of Modernity, questions concerning the self’s relationship to society have frequently erred in reductionist directions resulting in either the triumph of the self over society or society’s triumph over the self.  In a manner typical of Confessionally Reformed thinking, my proposal aims to avoid these reductionist tendencies by insisting both “I-experience” and “we-experience” be “fully integrated without surrendering to an exclusively social or individual understanding of self-identity.”[3]  I maintain there is such a thing as the unique, singular self but this self is never wholly autonomous from human society.  The “I” is inescapably related to the “we.”  The question I seek to answer is what is the nature of this relatedness between self/I and society/we. 

While perhaps coming as a surprise to some, a Confessionally Reformed response to this question is inherently teleological, assuming there is an intention for human relatedness.  I propose the nature of the relatedness of the self and society is marked by thick belonging and careful tending with the intended end being the completion or perfection of life.[4]  My understanding of the self’s relatedness to society is, therefore, grounded in notions of covenant and eschatology, and contains points of resonance with “Localist” anthropologies and their emphasis on place.

Humanity writ large is by nature covenantal in the sense that the God who constitutes all things by His creative and generative Word does so by way of binding Himself relationally and ethically to all that He summons into existence.  According to the Covenantal stream of the Reformed tradition, all human persons exist in a state of relatedness best described as covenantal.  We are bound to God and God is bound to us.  Regardless of the shape or quality of one’s response to God’s covenantal faithfulness no person is able to decouple herself from God’s double binding (Himself to creature and creature to Himself).  This covenantal grain of creation is tethered to the eschatological grain of creation since, “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment.”[5]  God bound Himself to a world created good but not yet complete.  Human social relations, therefore, have an intended end to which they are to be directed.  This is true of all created relations, but most especially true for human social relations due to the reality that humans can determine whether or not they want to direct their relations to the intended ends as determined by God.  This end can be described as the perfection or completion of creation where full life is not only present but where the conditions required for the fullness of life are the only conditions available.  Such claims naturally beg the questions of why God called into existence this particular reality and what the ethical implications are for this understanding of social relations.

The Confessional Reformed tradition is nearly unanimous in its insistence that God did not need to call into existence anything that did not already exist.  His decision to create was free and motivated by His desire to generously and creatively extend and share His inner Triune life of love and perfect communion with a reality outside of Himself.  Human social relations are to image God’s life in that we joyfully, generously, and faithfully provide for and receive from one another what we need for life.  The creaturely shape of all living reality, including human life, is intended to keep persons close to God and to each other.  Wendell Berry has asked the question what are people for.  His answer that we are for one another resonates deeply with the Reformed view offered here.  Human persons are intended for a communion with one another that is itself grounded in communion with God.  Ours is a relatedness marked by the simultaneous act of belonging and tending.  And while God has created humanity in such a way that all humans are bound together according to our shared creaturely-humanness, each person remains a truly unique self.  Human sameness must be held in dialectical tension with human difference with neither society swallowing up the self nor the self standing in triumph over society.  Covenant and eschatology help to ensure such errors are avoided.  Anthropologies of locatedness or placedness provide the additional resources needed for us to imagine what a relatedness marked by belonging and tending might actually look like.  For we cannot belong to and tend to mere abstractions.  If we are to relate to one another as we are intended to do, this means we must be located in a real place and be with real people for the time we have been given.  As Berry notes, “abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found.”[6]

This proposal raises the following questions:

1.     How exactly do covenant and eschatology avoid the reductionist errors of excessive individualism and excessive collectivism?

2.     How exactly do covenant and eschatology shape the self’s relationship to society under the conditions of Modernity or Late Modernity? 

3.     Is such a theologically grounded view incompatible with Liberal political and social orders marked by pluralism and perhaps even secularism?  If so, then does this view result in a type of sectarian withdrawal or subversive takeover?  If not, then how do I reconcile the tension this view seems to demand?

4.     What do solidarity and mutual reciprocity actually entail and what are the limits to both? 

5.     How are we to fulfill our obligations to one another and who counts as the other to which I am obligated as an individual self?

6.     What does it mean to belong to others in a thick manner and how is such belonging cultivated? 

7.     Does thick belonging necessitate the elimination of all thin belongings?  If not, then how does the self negotiate the demands such belongings might make?  If so, then how do communities marked by thick belonging avoid postures of exclusion and even violence towards others?

[1] Cited by Anthony Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation, and Promise, 47.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, 387.

[3] Michael Horton, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology, 116.

[4] While it is in keeping with Reformed thought to see humanity as “constitutionally prospective” and even “utopian,” the perfection or completion of life remains unattainable while we live between the times and in the time we have been given.  See Michael Horton, Lord and Servant, 94-96.

[5] Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, 73-74.

[6] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, 23.


An Aristotelian account of the relationship between the individual and society

Michael Otteson

I am going to defend an Aristotelian/extended self account of the relationship to the individual and the community.  Aristotle believes that human beings are fundamentally political (that is, social) animals that need other human beings to live good, happy lives.  As I discussed with the previous topic, Aristotle believes that the human good is the rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue/excellence.  However, human beings are not capable of achieving this on our own.  Unlike solitary animals, humans cannot provide for their needs by themselves.  All of us rely on other people for our food, clothing, and shelter.  Furthermore, given his belief that education and training are indispensable for achieving a good life, we will need other people to help teach us how to be good and virtuous people.  Beyond this, the acquisition of knowledge requires institutions that can discover and disseminate the truth about the world (and the methods necessary finding it).  As such, Aristotle believes that the community is natural for humans in that it is not possible to live a good human life (i.e. to perfect their nature) without it.  Thus, it is a responsibility of the community (broadly speaking) to inculcate virtue and wisdom into its citizens.  Beyond this broad charge, Aristotle also discusses the ways in which various kinds of relationships fit into human life.  These relationships further illustrate the connection between the community and the individual in Aristotle. 

Perhaps the most basic or primitive social unit for Aristotle is the family.  None of us would have survived absent care and support from our families.  However, families are not just important because of their ability to care for young children.  Aristotle argues that parents love their children for the same reason that artists love their art.  This may seem crass, but what Aristotle means is that we put what we think is best into our creations (human or otherwise).  Parents love their children because they represent extensions of themselves.  He notes in De Anima that humans cannot achieve immortality, so the next best thing for them is to reproduce (following his mentor Plato). 

The other basic social bond is that of friendship.  No one would choose to live a life without friends.  He asserts that while some friendships are based on pleasure or utility, the highest forms of friendship exist between virtuous individuals or good people.  Good people enjoy virtue and thus prefer to spend their time with other virtuous people.  Furthermore, good people should be engaged in worthwhile and important political or theoretical projects, which means that their friends become other versions of ourselves much like our children do.  We have every reason to promote their well-being and happiness. 

Given his arguments here, it seems clear that Aristotle cannot neatly distinguish between autonomous individuals.  Insofar as we have a hand in crafting other people (or have been crafted by others), we have reason to promote their well-being and happiness.  If you find this implausible, think about why you value your own future happiness.  What connects you to your future self?  If your answer is certain ways of thinking, life projects, beliefs, or desires common to both you and the future version of you, then this seems to apply to many other people in our lives.  In many crucial ways, we think like our friends, family, and fellow citizens, work towards the same goals as they do, and desire similar things.  These kinds of relationships form the basis of a shared community in Aristotle.  We can only have a community with people with whom we share a common conception of the good (or fundamental values generally).  Our well-being is tied up with others precisely because we are working towards the same overarching or fundamental goals or ends as other people.  Without such an agreement, other people would be in a certain sense strangers to us.  Conflict or separation would be inevitable unless we could come to an agreement about the fundamental values of the community. We certainly do not have reasons to promote values or goods that we do not think are important or meaningful. 

In short, we could not exist without our community, which represents a larger entity that includes both ourselves and other people.  As such, the individual cannot be considered outside the context of the communities in which they inhabit.

On the powers of the Individual and Society

David Tamez

It is almost inconceivable to think of a time where humans lived entirely as individuals. This is why many today reject the early modern notions of a “state of nature.” That is to say, that there never such a time where humans lived out of commune with other humans. Further, much of our existence is mediated through this special dialectical relationship between individuals and their society. This response focuses on the unique powers possessed by individuals and the social institutions they construct.

Citizens of developed countries live (with a few exceptions) in pluralized communities. In any given community there are a number of individuals holding unique worldviews. The social sciences suggest that there may be a greater diversity of thought and of preferences within a single community than observable across cultures. This is just to demonstrate that what allows for the forming of communities or societies are shared values. When a widespread agreement is achieved, even for merely practical purposes, individuals are able to achieve a number of things. Take for example the exchange of currency. Without the collective agreement to the value of green pieces of paper, many would struggle to obtain the resources they require were we still practicing good-for-good bartering.  

Once society and social institutions are constructed by way of shared values and widespread agreement regarding the execution of said values and preferences, institutions begin to take near human-like agency. Like individuals, firms or institutions seek to maximize their well-being or profit. Further, institutions, at least many of them, increase their influence on the world by reproducing - think McDonalds and Disney. For better or for worse, when institutions reach certain levels of influence, they will often impact human behavior and public policy decisions. It should not be controversial to say that our legal institutions strongly influence human behavior. In fact, policymakers count on the fact that the policies they enact will affect human behavior in such a way that makes it possible for social welfare to be maximized.  

Meaning, to a significant degree, is socially constructed. Despite the wishes of originalists, words do change in meaning. But, we should be cautioned against thinking that just because many words are socially constructed that meaning need not be negotiated or undergo the necessary level of agreement. Much of the current state of social unrest is due in part to fundamental disagreements about the meaning of terms that factor heavily on the construction of personal identities. This in part a function of the social or public sphere. The public sphere is where individuals more or less negotiate the best set of values that are both representatives of the community (that they map onto the most commonly held preferences of its members) and that cohere with entrenched theories of the good and the right. Unfortunately, widespread agreement is not always achievable especially when competing factions are reluctant to yield when their arguments are demonstrated to be false or incoherent. The most significant consequence of not considering the meaning of certain words as fixed or at least up for negotiation is the possible emergence of walled-off communities.         

Most of my response so far has been strictly descriptive. The picture described here is that the individual and the social institutions we form have and continue to co-evolve. How the masses ought to order society may take the Aristotelian route of doing whatever most allows individuals to flourish and realize their ends. Recently retired judge Richard Posner is a self-proclaimed legal pragmatist. He believes that a good judge is one that considers multiple factors - one of which being the economic benefits a given judicial decision will produce - when adjudicating the merits of a case. More generally, he believes that legislators ought to enact policies that maximize the collective welfare of their constituents. This sort of reasoning is helpful because it requires the decision-maker to identify the practical benefits and the operating values they utilize as they determine the best course of action. For some, it may seem rather intuitive that our laws should maximize social welfare and institutional efficiency. Others might point out that certain values should not be mere variables among others. That is, it seems that matters of justice should not just have a larger utility value, but it should be the only variable judges and legislatures consider.

With the help of societies, individuals are able to pursue their ends more easily and to forge identities. Living in communities and in societies should remind us that no one aspect of our lives should be the totality of our personal identities. Without the activities of individuals, however, society and social institutions would not have the sort of force or influence they tend to enjoy. Given the dialectical nature of the individual and society, answering the questions of who I am and who we are, occurs almost simultaneously. 

Unfortunately, much more can be said on this topic. But, it is my hope that some semblance of a response has been provided. More can certainly be said about the role society has in determining the right approach to educating children (and adults). Also not explored here, is determining how our social institutions while holding great value to national citizens, ought to be held accountable when they act quite deplorably around the globe. Further, the most important question to answer, especially as we consider the construction of society, is: what should we value?