Start with the new vision of moral order. This was most clearly stated in the new theories of Natural Law which emerged in the seventeenth century, largely as a response to the domestic and international disorder wrought by the wars of religion. Grotius and Locke are the most important theorists of reference for our purposes here. Grotius derives the normative order underlying political society from the nature of its constitutive members. Human beings are rational, sociable agents who are meant to collaborate in peace to their mutual benefit. Starting in the seventeenth century, this idea has come more and more to dominate our political thinking and the way we imagine our society. It starts off in Grotius’s version as a theory of what political society is, that is, what it is in aid of, and how it comes to be. But any theory of this kind also offers inescapably an idea of moral order: it tells us something about how we ought to live together in society. The picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity against a certain preexisting moral background and with certain ends in view.
The moral background is one of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations toward each other. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is the most important. The underlying idea of moral order stresses the rights and obligations we have as individuals in regard to each other, even prior to or outside of the political bond. Political obligations are seen as an extension or application of these more fundamental moral ties. Political authority itself is legitimate only because it was consented to by individuals (the original contract), and this contract creates binding obligations in virtue of the preexisting principle that promises ought to be kept. In light of what has later been made of this contract theory, even later in the same century by Locke, it is astonishing how 4 tame are the moral-political conclusions that Grotius draws from it.
The grounding of political legitimacy in consent is not put forward in order to question the credentials of existing governments. Rather, the aim of the exercise is to undercut the reasons for rebellion being all too irresponsibly urged by confessional zealots, the assumption being that existing legitimate regimes were ultimately founded on some consent of this kind. Grotius also seeks to give a firm foundation, beyond confessional cavil, to the basic rules of war and peace. In the context of the early seventeenth century, with its continuing bitterly fought wars of religion, this emphasis was entirely understandable. It is Locke who first uses this theory as a justification of revolution and as a ground for limited government. Rights can now be seriously pleaded against power. Consent is not just an original agreement to set up government, but a continuing right to agree to taxation. In the next three centuries, from Locke to our day, although the contract language may fall away and be used by only a minority of theorists, the underlying idea of society as existing for the (mutual) benefit of individuals and the defense of their rights takes on more and more importance. That