Social Contract Theory

Social Contract Theory is a concept that dates back to the Age of Enlightenment that explores the origins of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments assert that individuals have consented in some form or the other to abandon some of their freedoms and obey to the authority of a ruler in exchange for protection of essential rights such as safety and security. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights is often an aspect of social contract theory. The term takes its name from The Social Contract, a 1762 book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is considered to be the founder of social contract theory.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is considered to be the founder of social contract theory.

One of the earliest political theorists that explored the idea of the social contract was Socrates, a Greek philosopher active in the 4th Century BC. In the book, Crito, Socrates makes an argument as to why he must stay in prison and accept the death penalty rather than escape to a different city. He personifies the Laws of Athens and explains that he has acquired an overwhelming obligation to obey the Laws because they have made his entire way of life possible. For example, such laws made it possible for his mother and father to marry, and therefore to give birth to him. Having been born there, the city of Athens (through its laws) required that his father care for and educate him. Socrates’ life and the way in which that life has flourished in Athens are thus dependent upon the existing legal system.

Socrates notes that this relationship between citizens and the Laws of the city is not coerced. Residents can freely choose whether to leave, taking their property with them, or stay. Staying implies an agreement to abide by the Laws and accept the punishments that they administer. And, having made an agreement that is itself just, Socrates asserts that he must keep to this agreement and obey the Laws, in this case, by staying and accepting the death penalty. Importantly, the contract described by Socrates is an implicit one: it is implied by his choice to stay in Athens, even though he is free to leave.

Thomas Hobbes is the founder of modern-day social contract theory and was a defender of the ideas promoted by absolute monarchy systems of government.

Thomas Hobbes is the founder of modern-day social contract theory and was a defender of the ideas promoted by absolute monarchy systems of government.

 

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is widely considered to be the founder of modern Social Contract theory. Thomas Hobbes was born in England in 1588. Hobbes’ father was a clergyman in the Anglican church (and a hardened alcoholic) who ultimately abandoned his family within a few short years. Hobbes learned to read and write by age 4 and was fluent in both Greek and Latin by age 6. After studying at Oxford for 5 years, Hobbes gained employment by the Duke of Cavendish as a tutor for their children. Through that capacity, Hobbes was able to meet numerous thinkers of the enlightenment and his views developed even further in several areas. Additionally, events such as the Thirty Years War (1618-48) helped to shape Hobbes’ worldviews and encouraged him to become a defender of the English monarchy and the ideals promoted by monarchical systems of government. In 1642, Hobbes fled from England as a result of the English Civil War and remained abroad until 1651. Upon returning to England in 1651, Hobbes published Leviathan, his most important work. Leviathan is an eloquent defense of the English monarchy and puts forward the ideas surrounding Social Contract Theory.

Throughout his life, Hobbes believed that the ideal form of government was an absolute monarchy. This belief stemmed from the central tenet of Hobbes’ natural philosophy that human beings are selfish and immoral at their core. According to Hobbes, if humans are put in a state of nature (without any form of government whatsoever), they would be in an eternal state of warfare with one another. In this natural state, Hobbes said, the life of a man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (a bit ironic considering that Hobbes himself lived to be 91 years old at a time when the average person in England only lived about 35 years if they were lucky).

The government of Iraq under the leadership of  Saddam Hussien (1968-2003) is considered to be an embodiment of Hobbesian social contract theory.

The government of Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussien (1968-2003) is considered to be an embodiment of Hobbesian social contract theory.

Because of Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature, he believed the only form of government strong enough to hold humanity’s cruel whims in check was an absolute monarchy, where a king wielded supreme and unchecked power over all of his subjects. While Hobbes believed in social contract theory, he ascribed nearly total power to the monarch and did not believe the people to have any right to rebel whatsoever. The Hobbesian view of social contract theory can be applied to several different governments and regimes throughout history such as Iraq under Saddam Hussien, Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy, and many of the governments in power in Latin America between the 1950s and 1980s.

 

 

 

John Locke

John Locke’s notion of the social contract differed from that of Thomas Hobbes in several different respects. Locke believed that individuals in the state of nature would be bound morally (by the Law of Nature) not to harm each other, but without government to defend them against those seeking to injure or enslave them, people would have no security and would live in perpetual fear. Locke argued that individuals would agree to form a state that would provide a “neutral judge,” acting to protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it.

John Locke based his social contract theory on Hobbes’, but felt that government had a right to protect individual property and the benefit of their citizens labor as well.

John Locke based his social contract theory on Hobbes’, but felt that government had a right to protect individual property and the fruits of their citizen’s labor as well.

While Hobbes argued for near-absolute authority, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under law in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke argued that governmental legitimacy comes from the citizens’ delegation to the government of their absolute right to violence (keeping the right of self-defense), along with elements of other rights (such as property rights) as necessary to achieve the goal of security through granting the state a monopoly of violence, whereby the government, as an impartial judge, may use the collective force of the populace to enforce the law, rather than each man acting to enforce the laws (the condition in the state of nature). Some of the countries that fallow the Lockian view on social contract theory include the US, UK, and many of the European countries.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), outlined a different version of social contract theory, as the foundations of political rights based on unlimited popular sovereignty. Rousseau held that liberty was possible where there was direct rule by the people as a whole in lawmaking, where popular sovereignty was inseparable. But he also affirmed that the people often did not know their “real will,” and that an ideal society would not occur until a great leader arose to change the values and customs of the people (likely through the use of organized religion).

Jean Jacques Rousseau also saw that there is a contractual agreement between people and government, but said that the contractual agreement between people and government is about general will and common good.

Jean Jacques Rousseau also saw that there is a contractual agreement between people and government, but said that the contractual agreement between people and government is about general will and the common good.

Rousseau’s political theory differs in substantial ways from that of Locke and Hobbes. Rousseau’s collectivism is most evident in his development of the “luminous conception” of the general will. Rousseau argues that a citizen cannot pursue their interests by being an egoist but instead subordinate himself to the laws created by the citizenry.

Rousseau’s phrase that man must “be forced to be free” should be understood in this way. Since the indivisible and inalienable popular sovereignty decides what is good for the whole, then if a person lapses back into his ordinary egoism and disobeys the law, he will be forced to listen to what was decided when the people collaborate. As such, the law (since it is created by individuals working together) is not a limitation of personal freedom, but an expression of liberty.

As such, the enforcement of laws is not a restriction on individual liberty: the person, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will. Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans from the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, the law is a civilizing force and Rousseau believed that the laws that govern the individual helped to mold their character and makes them ideal and model citizens.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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