“The social contract” is the term applied, by a long-standing consensus among students of politics, to the political theories of the most famous and influential thinkers of the period reaching from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century: Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679; John Locke, 1632–1704; and Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712–1778. Scholarly tradition has associated the three because of their alleged common insistence that society originated in a contract, compact, or agreement, explicit or tacit, to which each individual concerned consented and, so, removed himself from the “state of nature” and helped set in motion a regime of government under laws, of impartially administered justice, and of civic morality. Recent scholarship, however, has tended to fix attention on other and perhaps more significant reasons for thinking of the “contractarians” as a school, or movement.
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were all concerned with emphasizing the contract as an explanation of the nature rather than of the origin of society —that is, to get across the idea that whatever the origin of society, the relation between the individual members of society and their obligation to obey society’s government and laws are fundamentally contractual even in the absence of a formal agreement. Put otherwise, none of the three committed himself unambiguously to the “historicity” of a freely negotiated contract among men in the act of emerging from a state of nature. Hobbes, for example, was willing for the subscribers to his “contract” to be bludgeoned into participation by any strong man capable of forcing their compliance. Locke was willing for the participants to be nursed into compliance by a “godlike” king. Rousseau placed great stress on the role of a “founder,” or legislator, in midwifing the contract into existence over a long period of time.
The influence of Machiavelli
All three, if not avowed pupils of Niccolo Machiavelli (who was in disrepute during most of the period in question), at least wrote as if they had been profoundly influenced by Machiavelli. Each was less committed to the contract as explaining the origin or even the nature of society than to certain other ideas which Machiavelli first enunciated: (1) Man and society are not coeval (as earlier thinkers had asserted); rather, society, like government, law, justice, and morality, is a human artifact, which man is free to alter or dispose of as he sees fit. (2) “Natural” man—that is, man as he must have been prior to the founding of society—is not (as the earlier tradition had held) social or political “by nature“; rather, man first participates in society and continues to participate in it out of one form or another of “fear” or “terror” at the thought of the dire things that will happen to him if he does not participate; man “becomes” social or political only by virtue of the qualities that society superimposes upon his nature through a long process of habitua-tion (man, as Machiavelli put it, is neither good nor bad by nature, but merely malleable). (3) The proper concern of political philosophy is not man’s “perfection” or “end“—not, in Rousseau’s phrase, “men as they might be“—but men as they are; political philosophy must not fritter away its energies on what Machiavelli called imaginary Utopias but must treat of the building of actual societies capable of ministering to the needs and wants of men as we actually know them. (4) There exists no natural or divine law that imposes on men anywhere and everywhere “perfect” duties toward one another and toward society itself, of which their “rights” are derivative. Here, indeed, the contractarians went further than Machiavelli, who had not concerned himself with rights at all, and held that the one firm statement we can make about “rights” is that each man is born with a “right” to “preserve himself” and to choose freely the “means” to his self-preservation.
In summary: Their common dedication to these ideas—all “revolutionary” vis-a–vis the “great tradition” and all rooted in Machiavelli—far more than their use of a “social contract,” binds Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau together into a school. [SeeMachiavelli.] Viewed in this context and irrespective of whether or not they wrote under Machia-velli’s direct influence, the three together constitute a “bridge,” moored at one end on Machiavelli, that stretches from the political philosophy of the “great tradition” of the West to the predominant political teachings of the present day. Each, in his own way, contributed to the accomplishment of Machiavelli’s avowed purpose: to emancipate mankind from the “bad” tradition inherited from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas.
The right of self-preservation
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau built their “models” of political society on the “right of self-preservation” and thereby gave to the word “right” a new and revolutionary meaning. The great tradition, insofar as it had spoken of “rights” at all (both natural and divine law had emphasized duties, not rights), had conceived of every right as encrusted in a complex, or system, of duties and rights. Its rights had been, therefore, “correlative” to duties, in the twofold sense that, first, a man divested himself of his rights if he failed to perform their correlative duties and, second, that “my” right had been understood as carrying with it a correlative duty on “your” part to respect that right. Not so with the right of self-preservation, which the contract theorists attributed to every man at birth; it carried with it no correlative duties, nor were a man’s fellows under any obligation to permit him to exercise it.
One might say that the contract theorists divested the word “right” of any moral connotations whatever: Exercising my right of self-preservation, I enter society, or remain in it, because it seems, from a strictly “selfish” point of view, the best “means” at my disposal for preserving my life (or, in Locke’s phrase, my “life, liberty, and estate”) and not because of any duty toward my fellow men. [SeeDuty.]
Challenges and contributions
The four major burdens upon each contract theorist, their handling of which marks the significant differences between them qua contract theorists, were (a) to present a picture of natural, “presocial” man (for the purpose of which they used the device of the “state of nature”), which would render plausible the idea of his entering the “state of society” at all; (fc) to show that such and such a “state of society,” characterized by such and such a “contract,” is a transaction that a rational man, armed only with his right of self-preservation, would choose as the best available means for preserving himself; (c) to account for the obligation on the part of the participants in the contract to keep the “promise” they have allegedly made; and (d) to show why persons born and reared in society subsequent to the negotiation of the contract should be understood to have “consented” to the contract’s terms.
None of the three great contract theorists was able, in the judgment of subsequent scholarship, to meet these four challenges successfully, which perhaps explains the fact that the contract device disappeared from political philosophy soon after Rousseau.
However, other ideas that derive either from the school as a whole or from one or more of its members have deeply influenced both political events and political thought throughout the intervening period: first, the notion that no society, government, law, or rule of “morality” is legitimate unlessit rests, directly or indirectly, on the consent of the individuals concerned, though not necessarily consent to a contract; second, that the proper concern of political science is the political behavior of individuals and groups of individuals; third, that societies, governments, laws, and notions of right and wrong or of just and unjust are to be judged by the recognition and protection they provide for “inalienable” individual rights, conceived as inherent in all human beings in all times and places; fourth, that one of these rights is the right to live under a democratic government, that is, government subject to popular control understood as involving, in the absence of unanimity, control by the majority; and fifth, that, in the sense that should be decisive for politics, all men are born equal and that one major purpose of government, therefore, should be to promote equality.
The Hobbesian contract marked a turning point —and in some respects a genuine innovation—in the history of political philosophy. But Hobbes possessed a vast knowledge both of history and of traditional political philosophy, and he, along with Locke and Rousseau, is sometimes said to have been indebted for all or some of his basic ideas to one or another of several sources.
The Greek “conventionalists.”
We know, chiefly from passing references in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, that classical political philosophy itself arose in opposition to a long-dominant school of political thought in which the idea of convention played a role comparable to that of the compact in Hobbes. The contentions of that school were that the Greek city-state, the only form of society the Greeks knew, was a product not of nature but of the kind of tacit, constantly evolving, mutual understandings by which, for example, we today think of languages as originating and developing; that this is equally true of government, of law, and of notions of good and bad and just and unjust; and that it is equally true also of the citizens’ habit of obeying the laws of his city.
Among the names of the pre-Socratic conventionalists (of whose utterances we possess only fragments), the most prominent is that of Heracli-tus, 575–480 B.C., but some of Plato’s and Aristotle’s archenemies, the Sophists, defended the conventionalist position. We may say of it, in general, that it is very close to the modern social contract theories in its denial, explicit or tacit, of what were to become the central propositions of classical political philosophy but very remote from those theories in its assertions; conventions, as understood by the conventionalists, carried with them no obligation and certainly not a contractual obligation. But there is this common ground between the conventionalists and the contractarians: they agree that society, justice, and law can have no superhuman or transcendent source and are therefore “man-made.”
Glaucon’s statement. In the beginning, says Glaucon in Book n of Plato’s Republic, each man thought it good to inflict injustice upon others and had to suffer injustice at the hands of others; all men behaved accordingly. In due course, however, men came to consider the resulting state of affairs intolerable and proceeded to agree to covenants and laws that obliged them to behave less rapaciously. Such, Glaucon continues, is the origin of justice, which is merely what the agreed-upon laws command, and men accept those laws because it is in their interest to do so. Glaucon, we notice, makes the shift from “convention” to “covenant“; he stresses self-interest as the central motivation in political behavior; and he posits (since, on his showing, there must have been a first covenant) an epoch in the past when men were “presocial,” “prelegal,” and “premoral.” All three of these ideas, which were at most present by remote implication in the conventionalists as such, clearly do anticipate the position of the later contract philosophers. (Of course, Plato’s purpose in presenting Glaucon’s statement is to discredit the position.)
The Biblical covenants
The Old Testament recounts numerous instances of “covenants” between Jehovah and particular individuals (e.g., Abraham) and between Jehovah and the people of Israel. Although they perhaps helped to familiarize subsequent generations with the idea of binding agreements or “contracts,” they may be dismissed out of hand as sources for the modern contractarians. They were, in the nature of the case, agreements between Jehovah and an already existing society; the “law” to which they subjected the people of that society pre-existed it and was allegedly not of human origin. (But cf. Gough 1936.)
The medieval social contractarians
History records numerous examples (the earliest of which probably was the Acts of the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633) of contracts between kings and peoples which limited the power of the king by declaring his subjects’ allegiance dependent upon his recognizing certain of their rights, upon his making new laws only after consultation with the wise men of the realm and with their consent, and upon his promising, often in a coronation oath, to rule justly and in accordance with divine law andthe laws of the realm. Since these contracts did not create societies (one of the parties to the contracts was a people that already existed) and since they presupposed justice, law, and morality as goods of transcendent origin rather than human artifacts, their relevance here consists solely in the fact that they did keep alive the idea of contracts as a possible source of political obligation. So, too, with the vast body of medieval literature, much of it polemical, devoted to speculation as to the proper form and content of such contracts. (None of the later contractarians conceived of the relation between the people and the government, the ruled and the rulers, in contractual terms.)
Only toward the very end of the medieval period did political philosophers again fix attention on the way society—or particular societies—originated. They posited a state of affairs that existed before political society was organized and pointed to a contract or agreement among individuals as the most probable explanation of the transition from the one condition to the other.
The Spanish writer Salmonius, for example, argued in a book dated 1544 that both political society and law arise from mutual pledges between individuals who “come together” for these purposes. The Spanish Jesuit Juan Mariana, writing in 1599, described a prepolitical age when men lived as individual nomads, without positive law or government. These came into existence through a mutually binding “compact of society” in which, with an eye especially to the defenselessness of infants and children, they recognize the necessity of common measures of protection against acts of violence and set over themselves, as ruler, a man conspicuous for his justness and uprightness. Mariana’s Protestant contemporary George Buchanan put forward a similar theory in Scotland in 1579. In all three cases, we are tempted to conclude that we stand in the presence of ideas that are indeed first cousins to those of the modern contractarians. This is true, however, only in the sense that the late medieval contractarians anticipated to some extent the vocabulary of Hobbes and his successors, and, by speaking in terms of contracts between persons, also anticipated to some extent the emphasis on individual consent.
But a vast chasm yawns between Salmonius, Mariana, and Buchanan, on the one hand, and Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, on the other. The former, though they posited “prepolitical” men, conceived of them as possessing duties and rights under divine and natural law; far from insisting upon the “prepolitical” condition as “natural” in contrast to the political condition, which is a human artifact, they deemed the political condition the more natural of the two because it is necessary for man’s perfection and because ultimately it is the handiwork of God. The motives they attributed to men for “coming together” are by no means exclusively selfish and utilitarian (they include self-protection and self-preservation, but not as the supreme motive). Finally, they had no difficulty in explaining the binding character of the contract, since both divine and natural law enjoined the keeping of promises. When, moreover, the Roman Catholic writers of the medieval period spoke of political society as contractual in origin, the point they were making obliquely is that political society is merely contractual in origin and therefore inferior to the church, which they believed to have come into existence through a direct act of God.
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau have much in common besides their use of the compact, or contract, between individuals in a “state of nature” as a device through which to communicate their major teachings about politics. There are, of course, also great differences among the three, some of them topics of continuing controversy among scholars of political theory; this controversy has become enormously complicated. Each of the three philosophers wrote several works on politics, in which apparent inconsistencies, contradictions, and shifts in position on particular issues can be found, so that no scholarly consensus exists as to precisely what any of them taught. Each, in large part on the basis of testimony from self-proclaimed “disciples,” has come to be identified with this or that subsequent political event or movement (Hobbes with modern authoritarianism and dictatorship, Locke with constitutional democracy, Rousseau with the French Revolution and “absolute” majority rule), so that the controversy in question has to some extent been affected and sometimes exacerbated by the political sympathies of the commentators. Finally, each of the three—at least according to recent scholarship —expressed himself on occasion with something less than complete candor, so that there is now dispute as to where we are to look, even in one and the same book by one of the three, for the passages in which the author expressed his “true” intentions, as distinguished from those allegedly included for the precise purpose of throwing the general reader “off the scent” or enlisting the reader’s prejudices on behalf of the author’s position. If, however, wefix attention exclusively on each author’s definitive work dealing with the contract and related topics (for Hobbes, Leviathan; for Locke, The Second Treatise on Civil Government; for Rousseau, The Social Contract) and think of the three together as a school and as a bridge leading from traditional political philosophy to modern political science and if we concentrate on the concept of contract itself, as it evolved from Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau, some conclusions are warranted about the similarities and differences between them and about their contributions to the emergence of present-day democratic theory.
For each of the three authors the individual’s right of self-preservation and of choosing the means thereto is that which authorizes the individual in the state of nature to enter into an agreement to form a political society and, so, legitimates the contract. For Hobbes and Locke, however, that right was a “natural” right, which belongs to the individual in the very “nature of things“; both regarded the proposition that asserts the right as requiring demonstration, which for each of them took the form: People as we know them, as given to us by nature, act as if they possessed such a right; therefore they do possess it. The mature Rousseau of the Social Contract attempted no such demonstration, preferring to treat the right to preserve oneself as axiomatic and, above all, as not a natural right. To Hobbes, therefore, belongs the credit for having taken one great step toward contemporary democratic theory by having made of the problem of the right or rights of individuals one of the central problems of modern political philosophy; to Rousseau belongs the credit for having, in anticipation of contemporary democratic theory, freed the defenders of individual rights from the necessity of rooting them in “nature.”
The law of nature
Hobbes and Locke both appealed to a “law of nature,” which for Hobbes defined the minimal rules that, in the very nature of things, men must agree to observe if they are to constitute a society that will really protect them against the dangers of the “state of nature.” For Locke the law of nature defined men’s rights and duties in the state of nature and was, therefore, the ultimate source of the individual’s right, once within civil society, to protection of his “life, liberty, and estate.” Both, in any case, revolutionized traditional natural-law teachings, by giving to the law of nature a new meaning and a new content. [SeeNatural Law.] However, it was the Rousseau of the Social Contract who took the drastic step in the direction of contemporary democratic theory: he jettisoned the “law of nature” altogether and argued that there is no objective standard that the positive law of a particular society should seek to approximate.
Authority and legitimacy
Hobbes’s contract commits the individual to permanent and irrevocable membership in a political society, whose first and only task, once it is constituted, is to name a sovereign (either a single man, or an oligarchy, or a democratic assembly) who is empowered to make laws, decide disputes, lay down principles of right and wrong, and distinguish between religious truth and heresy; once the sovereign has been named, the citizen owes him absolute obedience in return for that protection against domestic law violators and foreign enemies which allegedly makes of civil society a “good bargain” for the citizen by comparison with the “violent death” that is his well-nigh certain fate in the state of nature. The effect of the contract is to make the will of the sovereign “representative” of the citizen’s own will; the sovereign disposes of the entire force of society for effectuating his will, and the citizen, because that is what he has contracted to do, wills every act of the sovereign that does not involve direct sacrifice of his own life. The sovereign, not himself a party to the contract, cannot “rightfully” be called to account by his subjects for the manner in which he performs his task. The individual, although he comes into the contract by virtue of his right of self-preservation, enjoys within society only such rights as the sovereign wills him to have. The Hobbesian model anticipates modern democratic theory only in the sense that it makes of the “people” the remote source of all governmental authority.
In Locke’s conception of the contract the individual also assumes a permanent and irrevocable obligation to obey the legislative that the society appoints in its first act following its institution, though only provided that that legislative act for the “public good.”
Some commentators, however, have construed that proviso as guaranteeing to the individual rights that the legislative must not invade or deny, upon pain of exceeding its rightful authority (so that, according to these commentators, political power under the Lockean contract is “limited”). Other commentators have dismissed the proviso as operationally insignificant, since the contract neither specifies the rights in question nor envisages machinery through which the individual might assert them (so that, according to these commentators, Locke’s legislative is, from thestandpoint of the individual, no more ’limited” and, thus, no less absolute than Hobbes’s sovereign).
The decisive difference between the Hobbesian contract and the Lockean is that under the latter the “people,” when it finds that the government is violating its “trust“—that is, the obligation to act only for the public good—may rightfully resist the government’s authority and overthrow it, though the people must proceed at once to install a new legislative, whose laws the individual citizen, still under the “original” contract, is obligated to obey. If we deem the authority of Locke’s legislative to be a limited one, without power to deny or invade certain individual rights, we may say that Locke’s contract points forward to the bills-of–rights emphasis in contemporary democratic theory.
Rousseau’s contract differs radically from Locke’s in two decisive respects. Rousseau’s individual, when he enters the contract, cedes all of his rights, including his property, to the community, with the clear understanding that he is henceforth to enjoy only such rights as the “general will” of the community vouchsafes to him and is to perform all duties that that general will imposes on him. Rousseau’s contract, on the other hand, is not permanent and irrevocable: the “general will“— that is, the body of the citizens in their legislative capacity—must legislate only laws which are general in their purpose (that is, addressed to the common good of the society’s members) and general in their application (that is, of such character as to extend the same rights to, and impose the same duties on, each citizen). When the citizen finds himself in the presence of a law that does not meet these requirements, the contract has been violated and its obligation lapses. Rousseau said nothing about the situation that would supervene on such a violation of the contract; but it is certainly Rousseau’s “model,” not Hobbes’s or Locke’s, that points forward to the quest in contemporary democratic theory for a legislative process involving procedural guarantees, whose observance the citizens may demand with the threat of withdrawing their obedience. In other words, Rousseau’s conception foreshadows the constitutional emphasis in contemporary democratic theory.
The problem of consent
As a corollary to the right of self-preservation, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau held that a man can be rightfully “bound” only by his own consent. All three encountered great difficulty in explaining why the contract to which the original contractors consent should be binding upon their descendants. Hobbes and Locke “papered over” this difficulty by asserting that the descendants give tacit consent by remaining within the community and accepting its protection. Neither Hobbes nor Locke, viewed from the standpoint of contemporary democratic theory, made any serious attempt to carry the principle that a man can be bound only by his own consent over into the “model” of political society.
Here, once again, Rousseau broke sharply with his predecessors and sought in two ways to legitimate the laws of his society by the continuing consents, individually given, of the citizens: first, by stipulating in the contract that each citizen shall be required, on coming of age, to opt for consenting to the existing institutions or for withdrawing from the society, and, second, by requiring that no citizen be formally excluded from the deliberations and votes that produce expressions of the “general will.” In both these respects, Rousseau brought us very close to two of the major themes of contemporary democratic theory: the emphasis on political equality and the stress on active participation by the citizens in the political process as an indispensable condition for “government by consent.”
Allen, John W. (1928) 1957 A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century. 3d ed. London: Methuen.
Buchanan, George (1579) 1581 De iure regni apud Scotos: Dialogus. 3d ed. Edinburgh: Apud Johannem Rosseum. → Available from University Microfilms.
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Gough, John W. (1936) 1957 The Social Contract: A Critical Study of Its Development. Oxford: Clarendon.
Hobbes, Thomas (1642)1949 De cive: Or, The Citizen. Edited with an introduction by Sterling P. Lamprecht. New York: Appleton. → First published in Latin.
Hobbes, Thomas (1650) 1928 The Elements of Law: Natural and Political. Edited by Ferdinand Tonnies. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Hobbes, Thomas (1651) 1950 Leviathan. With an introduction by A. D. Lindsay. New York: Dutton.
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McCoy, Charles N. R. 1963 The Modernized Theory of Natural Law and the Enlightenment. Pages 187–221 in Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mariana, Juan (1599) 1948 The King and the Education of the King. Washington: Country Dollar Press. → First published in Latin.
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Salamoni, Mario (1544) 1955 De principatu, libros septem nee non orationes ad priores Florentines. Rec-ognovit Marius d’Addio. Rome, Universita, Istituto di Diritto Pubblico e di Dottrina dello Stato, Pubblica-zioni, Series 4, No. 5. Milan (Italy): Giuffre. → Sala-moni is also known by his Latin name Marius Salmonius.
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"Social Contract." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-contract-0
"Social Contract." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-contract-0
The "social contract" in the early twenty-first century is associated with the modern school of natural jurisprudence as crystallized in the seventeenth century (although earlier scholastics and humanists had also spoken of contracts, but differently, for example contracts between people and ruler rather than contracts that actually generate sovereignty). Yet there were preceding statements of central elements of social contract theory. The ancient Sophist Lycophron is sometimes credited with originating the idea of the social contract, and there are echoes of it in the teachings of Protagoras (c. 490–c. 421 b.c.e.) as well. The Roman author Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.) stated in his widely read treatise on rhetoric, De inventione, that social, legal, and political associations were the result of a primeval agreement to live together on the part of human beings who were previously in a wild and asocial condition. Likewise, St. Augustine (354–430) insisted that any true republic required agreement on the part of its citizens about the object of their love.
Modern theorists of the social contract school argued that political authority was artificial and conventional rather than divinely or naturally ordained. To sustain their argument, some—including Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)—appealed to a social contract as a way of explaining the rational basis for and limits on political authority. But for most of these thinkers, the social contract was not the deepest basis of their arguments, which depended rather on new views about natural rights, sociability, passion, and reason. It was David Hume (1711–1776) in his "Of the Original Contract" of 1748, who, although agreeing that political authority was artificial and conventional, attacked the use of the "social contract" by Locke and his followers and so retrospectively turned this image into the badge of a tradition.
By contrasting the social contract unfavorably with his own view of a duty to obey government grounded in utility, Hume established the debate between the social contract and utilitarianism that continued to structure Anglophone philosophy into the twenty-first century. (John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, 1971, is widely credited with reviving contractarianism, though others contributed to this revival before and since.) But Hume's classic criticisms of the contract approach—Were any governments actually founded by contract? When and how could people consent to such a contract, especially one founded before they were born? Why should the duty to keep contracts or promises be more fundamental than the duty to obey political authority?—apply principally to its Lockean interpretation.
Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government of 1689 (the year it was published anonymously), interpreted the social contract to require actual consent, whether explicit or "tacit." Most critics concur that he was unable to show convincingly when or how such consent is given, though he did powerfully develop the claim that however given, consent to a government that proves grossly incompetent or malicious can be rescinded. At the opposite extreme, Rousseau, in Du contrat social (1762; On the social contract), accepted only assemblies actually giving consent to laws as indicative of authentic social contracts. Yet the most interesting treatments of the idea of the social contract are those that treat it as a device for testing the rationality of obedience to political authority. Here, the justificatory force rests on not on visible consent or contract but rather on the rationality (broadly conceived) that such a contract exhibits. In different ways, Hobbes and Rawls both take this approach, as will be discussed below.
Political Authority versus Moral Principles
Hume's sometime-friend Rousseau can be seen as the initiator of a second fundamental question about the contract: that of its scope. Hobbes and Locke had both treated the contract in relation to the justification of political authority, although for Hobbes the contract also turned the precepts of a minimal morality (the "laws of nature") into binding civic law. Rousseau, however, saw the contract as creating simultaneously political legitimacy and genuine moral principles: in transforming asocial or antisocial "men" into civically minded "citizens," his social contract created justice and freedom along with the artifice of political authority. This role of the contract in constructing morality inspired Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who, in addition to featuring the contract in his political theory, transformed its role in creating moral principles into his idea of the categorical imperative instructing every rational being to act only according to maxims that he or she could will to be a universal law.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, Rawls developed the role of the contract in justifying political authority, while its role in constructing and testing moral principles was developed primarily by David Gauthier, J. C. Harsanyi, and Thomas Scanlon. Scanlon extended a Rawlsian approach from justice to morality, arguing that "contractualism" identifies principles that no one could reasonably reject. By contrast, Gauthier and Harsanyi both bridged the Humean distinction between contract and utility, using contractarian approaches to argue for utilitarian principles as simultaneously morally right and rational to pursue.
Hobbes and Rawls
This entry returns to the rational-justification approach to the contract's role. Sometimes this is called the "hypothetical" approach, as it is often framed in terms of a contract to which one could or would agree. But since the question then arises of how a hypothetical contract can be regarded as morally binding, one is forced back upon its rationality. Rationality, however, can be divided (using Rawls's terms) into a narrow conception of rationality on the one hand, and "reasonableness" on the other. The narrow conception of rationality, which the term bears in the remainder of this entry, is identical with prudence: assessing the best way to pursue one's own goals and interests. "Reasonableness," by contrast, involves assessing the fairness of the conditions under which all can pursue their goals and interests.
Using this distinction, it can be said that Hobbes, in his Leviathan of 1651, uses the contract to argue that it is rational to act reasonably—that is, it is rational and prudent to obey an effective sovereign and so to act fairly towards all the others who are also obeying rather than to try to evade obedience for personal advantage. Rawls, in contrast, uses the contract to argue that one must first establish reasonable conditions for reflection on what is rational and only then decide what one can rationally pursue. For Rawls, obedience is justified because what is obeyed is just, whereas for Hobbes, what is obeyed is just because this is what it is most prudent to obey.
So for Rawls, what is reasonable both structures the contracting position and shapes the analysis of what would be chosen within it. The role of the contract is to model the reasonable constraints of publicity and reciprocity: any principles of justice chosen must be mutually acknowledged by citizens, even though in the "original position" all are ignorant of their actual identities and so would reason the same way. Rawls insists on this ignorance because, like Kant in his moral theory, he wants to exclude special pleading and unfair existing advantages from the contracting or "original" position. Whereas for Hobbes, people have the same overriding interest in preserving their lives and can be shown that in a "state of nature" without government they will best do so by acting reasonably, for Rawls people should recognize the fairness of starting with the reasonable prior to any particular rational interest they might have.
Some feminists have criticized the social contract approach as excessively individualistic, arguing that to treat contract as the fundamental moral and/or political relationship is to overlook the dependency on the care of others that characterizes infants, the elderly, the severely disabled, and everyone to the extent that they are vulnerable. Carole Pateman has noted the problematic relationship of women to contract in the seventeenth-century heyday of natural jurisprudence, when married women could not own property or make contracts in English common law. But others have argued that the social contract approach can be turned to feminist ends. Susan Moller Okin argues that a consistent Rawlsian theory would include the family within the scope of the theory of justice, while Jean Hampton contends that contractarianism can be used to test and prevent the exploitation that may pervade intimate relationships between family and friends.
See also Human Rights ; Liberalism ; Natural Law ; Society ; State of Nature .
Hampton, Jean. "Feminist Contractarianism." In A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, edited by Louise M. Anthony and Charlotte Witt. Boulder, Colo., and Oxford: Westview Press, 1993.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Richard Tuck. Rev. student ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Reprints the original frontispiece and has a valuable introduction.
Hume, David. "Of the Original Contract." In Political Essays. Edited by Knud Haakonssen. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Laslett. Student ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Introduction summarizes Laslett's influential view on when the Treatises were written.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings. Edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
"Social Contract." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-contract
"Social Contract." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-contract
A social contract is an agreement that can explain and justify a citizen’s rights and responsibilities. It can also give an account of our moral obligations and the legitimacy of the state. Social contract theory explores the scope, content, role, and possible justification of any such social contract.
In his dialogue Crito, Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) illustrates the power of the notion of a social contract. He depicts Socrates (c. 469–399 BCE) arguing against escaping his prison cell on the eve of his execution. His voluntary residence in Athens and acceptance of the benefits of Athenian society, Socrates claims, show he has implicitly agreed to do the state’s bidding—including accepting its unjust death sentence.
Writers often describe the state of nature as the human condition outside political society. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) famously argued that the state of nature is a state of war where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (1968, p. 186). Without any settled conceptions of justice, people come to universal and violent conflict. In Leviathan (1651) Hobbes describes how individuals secure safety and prosperity only by agreeing with one another to submit themselves completely to an absolute sovereign power. Despite his authoritarian conclusions, Hobbes is one of the founders of the liberal political tradition, which traces political legitimacy and political obligation to the free consent of the governed.
John Locke (1632–1704) denied that the state of nature is necessarily a total war but admitted it has inconveniences (e.g., unfair enforcement of the law of nature). People thus agree to a limited state whose right to rule they may rescind if it is abused. Lockean liberalism thereby justifies a right of revolution. Not all subjects explicitly agree to a state’s rule, so Locke argued that residence in a state’s territory is implicit consent to the state’s authority. Later commentators, such as David Hume (1711–1776) and, more recently, A. John Simmons (b. 1950), criticized the idea that such tacit consent can make a state legitimate or obligate individuals to obey the laws.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) believed that both Hobbes and Locke built distorting effects of civilization into their accounts of the state of nature. In Rousseau’s view, civilization introduces all pernicious inequalities (such as in wealth and status), so society should fashion a social contract in order to secure human freedom. The “general will” is properly sovereign; it wills neither private goods nor aggregates of them but wills the common good. Individuals who then voluntarily will the general will best realize their own freedom by sharing in the public good.
More recently, John Rawls (1921–2002) rooted a theory of justice in a social contract whose participants are in an “original position” marked by a fair bargaining situation. Behind a “veil of ignorance” where they are denied knowledge of morally irrelevant features about themselves such as race, sex, class, or religion, individuals unanimously select two principles to govern the basic structure of society. First, everyone has an equal right to maximal basic liberties consistent with a similar amount for all others. Second, once fair equality of opportunity is secure, any inequalities in social and economic goods must advantage all—especially the least well-off.
Contemporary social contract scholarship explores the scope, number, and power of the agreements. Scholars consider, for instance, whether the social contract is national or international, whether participants are actual or hypothetical persons, and whether and how the contract includes nonhuman animals and the disabled.
SEE ALSO Liberalism; Locke, John; Rawls, John; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Sovereignty
Hobbes, Thomas.  1968. Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson. New York: Penguin.
Hume, David.  1987. Of the Original Contract. In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics.
Locke, John.  1960. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Plato. 1892. Crito. In The Dialogues of Plato. 3rd ed. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. London: Oxford University Press.
Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  1987. On the Social Contract and Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. In The Basic Political Writings. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Simmons, A. John. 1979. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Andrew I. Cohen
"Social Contract." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-contract
"Social Contract." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-contract
social contract, agreement or covenant by which men are said to have abandoned the
"state of nature"
to form the society in which they now live. The theory of such a contract, first formulated by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (in the Leviathan, 1651) and John Locke, assumes that men at first lived in a state of anarchy in which there was no society, no government, and no organized coercion of the individual by the group. Hobbes maintained that by the social contract men had surrendered their natural liberties in order to enjoy the order and safety of the organized state. Locke made the social contract the basis of his advocacy of popular sovereignty, the idea that the monarch or government must reflect the will of the people. Like Locke, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, in Le Contrat social (1762), found the general will a means of establishing reciprocal rights and duties, privileges, and responsibilities as a basis of the state. Similar ideas were used as a justification for both the American and the French revolutions in the 18th cent. Thomas Jefferson held that the preservation of certain natural rights was an essential part of the social contract, and that
"consent of the governed"
was fundamental to any exercise of governmental power. Although historically important, the theory as a basis of society and the state has generally been discarded by modern social and political scientists.
See E. Barker, Social Contract (1948, repr. 1962); J. W. Gough, The Social Contract (2d ed. 1957); A. Cobban, Rousseau and the Modern State (2d ed. 1964); L. G. Crocker, Rousseau's Social Contract (1968); P. J. Mccormick, Social Contract and Political Obligation (1987).
"social contract." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-contract
"social contract." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-contract
"social contract." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-contract
"social contract." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-contract
so·cial con·tract (also social compact) • n. an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection. Theories of a social contract became popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries among theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects.
"social contract." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-contract
"social contract." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-contract
"social contract." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-contract
"social contract." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-contract