Civil Society


For a long time, the world has observed the two-sector view, which consists primarily of the economy/market and the state/government. The notion of society has mostly been an area of interest for historians and relegated to the confines of social philosophy since the notion does not fit the two-sector world view.  However, a re-emergence and renewed interest has been seen throughout the world in the 20th century with regard to civil society as social scientists began to see that economy, state and society are relatively connected to one another.

According to Rosenblum and Post (2002), there are a number of different understandings concerning the relation between civil society and government. One of the views assert that civil society is a source of legitimacy and stability for government and a source of resistance against arbitrary, oppressive, and overweening government. Another perspective regarding the purpose of civil society is that it functions by developing in partnership with government and by substituting for the failings of government, as well.

In order to gain a better understanding of what this paper is about, it is necessary first to understand the concept of civil society. Rosenblum and Post (2002) highlights the elements of civil society which ranges from “groups based on religion and ethnicity to more fluid voluntary associations organized around ideology, professionalism, social activities or the pursuit of money, status, interest, or power” (p. 3).

Furthermore, it can also include cultural institutions, such as cultural groups with a common language and history, and in the case of the U.S., the popular culture of self-help groups. Basically, the idea in civil society is “voluntary association, meaning that membership is consensual and exit possible without loss of status of public rights and benefits” (p. 4).

This paper will focus on the relation between civil society and government and consider the point of view of various political, social and religious traditions with regard to the relation of civil society and government. Specifically, this paper will discuss how perspectives of Confucianism and natural law can affect the relation between civil society and government whereas the fundamental feature of Confucian is the family and the state, while natural law is concerned towards moral principles and human reason. In the next part, I will be summarizing the role civil society plays in the natural law and Confucianism traditions, and at the same time, compare and  evaluate which tradition has the best advantage in this age of globalization.


When hearing the term “Confucianism,” one immediately associates it with East Asian countries, such as China, Taiwan and Singapore, due to the fact that the Confucian tradition originated there. In fact, social scientists have even dubbed countries such as Singapore and Taiwan as Confucian societies. According to Nosco (2002), the principal features of Confucian societies are “on the one hand their social cohesion and order, and on the other hand their authoritarian governments, which embrace the mantle of benevolent paternalism” (p. 35).

In ancient China, Confucians strive for a stable political order, however, they insisted that such order had to be based on moral principles and not simply on power (Madsen, 2002). Nosco (2002) states that, in the Confucian tradition, the ruler is, without question, viewed as the parent of the people, reinforcing the idea of society as an enormous quasi family with the ruler acting as the patriarch or head of the household. Furthermore, the said tradition views society as an organic whole in which each person has his/her ordered role, where each member aims to perform their roles correctly so that society will flourish.

The Confucian tradition recognizes five relationships that represent voluntary and consensual association: ruler/subject, parent/child, husband/wife, elder brother/younger brother, and friend/friend. However, it can also be observed in Confucianism that priority is placed to those relationships that are found within the household and where there is a clear benefactor and beneficiary. The reason behind this is that the prioritized relationships can prepare on for citizenship and train one in goodness (Nosco, 2002).

Another aspect of Confucianism that is interesting is the idea of self-cultivation. Under the Confucian tradition, the need for morality within social relations is stressed. The Confucian teaching states that this is the only way for humans to flourish. The concept of self-cultivation consists of developing the mind-and-heart, or the mental and emotional faculties.

In the Confucian vision, family is where it needs to begin (Madsen, 2002). When a Confucian has attained proper self-cultivation, he/she will be able to make sure that his/her strong commitment to family would not be in conflict with commitment to one’s community; and commitment to one’s local community was not in conflict with commitment to the state (p. 197).

From a Confucian perspective, the idea of voluntary associations found in civil society is dubious in nature as Confucianism believes that “there is nothing that the state can be said to have needed from voluntary, consensual, or communal associations other than their obedient subservience” (Nosco, 2002, p. 343).  Since civil society operates on a somewhat private sphere, both at the level of the individual person and that of his/her voluntary associations, from a Confucian perspective, it will view civil society as something that challenges the tradition's organic, family-like view of the ideal society (Nosco, 2002).

Next, I will move on to natural law and civil society. In Pakaluk's  (2002) essay, he states that there is some sort of connection between adherence to natural law theory and advocacy of civil society, as he cites the Catholic Church as an example. According to Pakaluk (2002), the Catholic Church, “which styles itself an interpreter of natural law, has long upheld the notion of subsidiarity, which seems to imply a rich notion of civil society” (p. 131).

Miller (2002) loosely describes the natural law perspective that, “apart from human laws, there is a higher law, which is universal and independent of opinion or agreement, which is discoverable by reason, and which provides human laws with an ultimate sanction or justification” (p. 187).  Miller adds that, under natural law human laws are correct or justified only if they conform with nature.

In his essay, Miller (2002) remarks that traditional and modern natural law advocates agree that natural law takes precedence over human positive laws. Moreover, the existence and content of the higher law can be understood by human reason without relying on religious faith. In traditional natural law, the community is likened to a living organism, wherein the city-state is cited as an example. In the example by traditional natural law theorist

Aristotle, he argues that city-state arose naturally out of more primitive natural associations such as family households and villages, thus, the city-state exists by nature. Aristotle further states the city-state came into existence for the sake of life or survival, and it exists for the sake of the good life, that is to promote the highest human ends (ctd. in Miller, 2002, p. 193).

From a traditional natural law perspective, the relation between civil society and government is important, in that, civil society assigns to government “the function of assisting individuals and groups to coordinate their activities for the objectives and commitments they have chosen, and to do so in ways consistent with the other aspects of the common good of the political community” (qtd. in Miller, 2002, p. 194).

On the other hand, modern natural law theorist John Locke (1632-1704) sees the government being confined by natural law to protect the life, liberty, and property of its subjects. From a modern natural law perspective, society as a whole does not resemble the classical city-state, wherein the government orders a hierarchical community to some higher good. The Lockean view contends that, by enforcing the rule of law and the institutions of private property and contract, government maintains a constitutional framework necessary for civil society (Miller, 2002).

Meanwhile, Pakaluk (2002) explains further the concept of natural law and its connection to civil society. In his essay, he states that natural law theory possess three basic principles. The first is that:  there are objective moral principles, duties, claims, or rights that exist prior to, and are not dependent upon, human convention, choice, or positive law. Second, positive law is appropriately understood as consisting of precepts that bind in conscience and not merely on prudential grounds.

Finally, positive law binds in conscience only to the extent that it incorporates, or mirrors, objective moral principles, requires or prohibits some matter not falling within  the scope of objective moral principles, or does not contravene objective moral principles (p. 131).

By looking at the abovementioned principles, we can see that it has no connection to the advocacy of civil society. Pakaluk (2002) states that a richer theory is needed to make the connection between natural law and civil society, a theory that takes a position on nature as well as law. Natural law theorist such as Aquinas, the Stoics, Aristotle, and the Scottish moralists provides an answer to this dilemma which can be seen through their works. By adding two principles to natural law theory, in addition to the three specified above, the natural law-civil society connection can be gleaned. The additional principles are as follows:

First, there are 'natures' in the world. A nature is what a thing is, its essential   properties. These properties are typically dynamic potentials to act or be acted  upon in various ways, given various conditions. Second the natural world as a whole is, at least for the most part, an ordered system, marked by intelligibility, similarity of action across diverse domains, and goal-directedness (Pakaluk, 2002, p. 132).

By employing this richer theory of natural law, it can be surmised that civil society is something natural. Pakaluk (2002) states that if it is also assumed that nature inherently aims at good ends, it seems plausible to suppose that a kind of complete or polished human character is one of the things that is 'supposed' to result from civil society. In connection with this, if members of a civil society did not hold in common a sound conception of human excellence, then the society would be considered a failure.

From a natural law theory perspective, there are several factors that would make civil society more or less a society. One is concerning government. If the government acts for its own good, then there is disunity of purpose, because by acting for its own good, it makes it impossible for the government and governed to share the same end. Another example of what makes a society less unified is when the types of action and types of association allowed by law are at odds with the notion of human good. The reasoning behind this is that citizens become incapable of appropriating or enjoying the actions of others (Pakaluk, 2002).

In general, the natural law perspective contends that the rights of citizens are ultimately derived from their natural rights as human beings. However, natural law theorists, particularly modern natural law theorists, disagree with regard to the status of citizen rights. Traditional theory suggests that the right to private property and other civil rights would derive from more basic political rights. This is in contrast with the Lockean belief that human beings possess their basic natural rights such as property rights even in a state of nature will view citizenship as a derivative and instrumental right (Miller, 2002).


By looking at the concepts of the Confucianism and natural law traditions discussed here, we were able to compare and evaluate between the two the tradition that seemingly has the best capacity to push forward a society in this age of globalization. Both traditions have their positive and negative aspects, but in this technological age, the tradition of natural law is more capable of promoting social and economic growth.

As the boundaries between government and civil society began to blur, we also began to realize that civil society and government need each other. Confucianism has a tendency to confine or limit a society's ability to expand and also seemingly encourages authoritarianism. The features and tenets of natural law theory can balance a society as it goes forward in that it can help society grow, but at the same time, hold it back so that society will not lose its moral principles.


Chambers, S. & Kymlicka, W. (Eds.). (2002). Alternative conceptions of civil society.            Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Madsen, R. (2002). Confucian perceptions of civil society. In S. Chambers & W. Kymlicka. (Eds.), Alternative conceptions of civil society. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Miller, F. D. Jr. (2002). Natural law, civil society, and government. In N. Rosenblum and R.    Post. (Eds.), Civil society and             government. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton             University Press.

Nosco, P. (2002). Confucian perspectives on civil society and government. In N. Rosenblum & R. Post. (Eds.),  Civil society and government. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton      University Press.

Pakaluk, M. (2002). Natural law and civil society. In S. Chambers & W. Kymlicka. (Eds.),    Alternative conceptions of civil society.            Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University    Press.

Rosenblum, N. L. & Post, R. C. (Eds.). (2002). Civil society and government. Princeton,       New Jersey: Princeton University Press.