Skip to main content

Social Contract


"Social contract" is the name given to a group of related and overlapping concepts and traditions in political theory. Like other such aggregations in philosophy and intellectual history, it has at its center an extremely simple conceptual model, in this case that the collectivity is an agreement between the individuals who make it up. This model suggests that it is proper to ask whether the agreement was or is voluntary in character and whether, therefore, the individual can decide to withdraw either because he no longer agrees or because the conditions that are or were understood in the agreement are not being maintained. It suggests furthermore that the individual should be thought of as logically prior to the state or to society, and that it is meaningful to speculate on situations in which individuals existed but no collectivity was in being. From a historical point of view, it is therefore relevant to discuss periods during which no collectivity existed, when what is traditionally called a "state of nature" prevailed, and to contrast these periods with times when by agreement the collectivity had come into existence, that is, with what is traditionally called a "state of society."

The concept of a prepolitical state of nature that can be brought to an end by agreement can thus be applied to geographical areas of human society as well as to periods of time. Individuals in such areas must be considered, as Thomas Hobbes himself said, "to have no government at all and to live at this day in that brutish manner." Although this may seem to be the least persuasive of the elements belonging to the social contract, its parallel in relationships between politically constituted societies or states, that is to say, in the international state of nature, is perhaps the most useful and persistent. It seems still to command allegiance in the study of international relations. The actual process of agreeing ("contracting," "compacting," "covenanting") to end the state of nature and establish a state of society has been the subject of extensive analysis and elaboration by political and social theorists. Distinctions have been drawn, more precisely perhaps by academic commentators in modern times than by contractarian writers themselves, between a social contract and a governmental contract.

The social contract proper (pactum societatis, pacte d'association, Gesellschaftsvertrag ) is thought of as bringing individuals together in society, and the governmental contract (pactum subjectionis, pacte du gouvernement, Herrschaftsvertrag ) as establishing a formal government. As might be expected, the nature and form of the contract or contracts has been thought of in a variety of ways. In some systems the contract is a once-and-for-all, irrevocable act understood to have been performed in the remote past (Richard Hooker), but in others it appears as a continuing understanding that is perpetually being renewed and is regarded rather as a trust than as a contract (John Locke). The parties to the various contracts differ also: Sometimes agreements are made between individuals only, sometimes between individuals and governments or sovereigns, sometimes between a body of individuals acting as a fictitious person (persona ficta ) and either the sovereign or a member of the body. In such ways as these a whole set and succession of interrelated contractual agreements have occasionally been presumed, as in the case of the seventeenth-century German political theorist Samuel Pufendorf and his followers in the eighteenth century.

The theory of a social contract belongs with the individualist attitude to state and society; indeed the simple conceptual model of agreement for the collectivity in all its possible shapes seems to inform the entire individualistic outlook. Contractual political theory is, therefore, universally associated with the rights of the individual person, with consent as the basis of government, and with democratic, republican, or constitutional institutions. It has also been regarded as a part of early capitalist individualism, and in Victorian England a great watershed was held to exist between a condition in which status ruled relationships and one in which contract ruled them. Notwithstanding this assumption, the social contract is perfectly reconcilable with the most absolute of despotic rule and with the complete negation of constitutionalism or the rule of law. Hobbes is the classic case here, for his two alternative accounts of how society and government came simultaneously into being are designed to tie every citizen to unquestioning obedience to a supreme, irresistible, indivisible sovereign whose dictates are the law. Benedict de Spinoza makes a rather similar use of contractual principles, but the political theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although expounded in contractual form, has collectivist tendencies, since it endows political society with the capacity to make people moral. Rousseau's major political work, Du Contrat social, must be looked upon as the point of departure of the quite separate and traditionally quite irreconcilable outlook whose model is the theory of the general will.

Explanatory Value

If the collectivity is understood as embodying agreement, it does not necessarily follow that any such agreement between parties ever actually took place in historical time. Nor does it follow that there may be people in the world still living in a prepolitical, precontractual situation or that those now within constituted society could ever revert to the nonpolitical condition. A contractarian political theory, therefore, can be entirely hypothetical, analyzing state and society as if agreement must always be presumed. Such an argument can provide a penetrating critique of existing arrangements and of their rationale: It can be used in a reformist direction, to suggest what ought to be the aims and ends of statesmen. No reversion to a literal state of nature need be implied by criticism of this kind, only that this or that action or abuse requires a remedy in accordance with the suggested criterion of an assumed agreement.

In this hypothetical form the contract theory is still of importance to political philosophy. It has recently been used by John Rawls in his articles "Justice as Fairness" and "Distributive Justice" to develop an account of justice alternative to the utilitarian (previously assumed to have outmoded contractarianism). Contemporary appreciations of the great contractarian writers (for example, by Howard Warrender, C. B. Macpherson, and A. G. Wernham), especially of Hobbes but also of Locke, Spinoza, and David Hume, and even of Rousseau, have tended to insist that the classic theories are hypothetical, which makes it possible to free the theories to a surprising extent from the lumber that had attached to themthe unacceptable histories of the human race, the fanciful anthropology and sociology. Moreover, the assumptions of natural law can thus be put aside.

Natural Law

The reinterpretation of social contract theory is an important example of the way in which past political theory can enter into present theoretical analysis independently of chains of influence and continuous traditions. Still, the reinterpretation may lead to a serious distortion of the truth about the actual contents of contractarian treatises on politics. All the many members of the school of natural law, including those named above, did in fact assume that their contractual claims were literal as well as hypothetical. They all made dogmatic statements about the history of humanity and the condition of savages. Moreover all of them, though here writers like Hobbes and Hume are in special categories, subscribed to the general system of natural law in one form or another.

The concept of natural law provided the fixed and enduring framework within which the contract ending the state of nature could be concluded, and subsequent breaches or revisions of the contract could be related to the original act. Therefore, natural law had to be assumed if the contract was to be taken at all literally. The duty to keep promises, on which any contract rests, could hardly come into being with the contract itself, and this duty must persist should the contract be broken, if only to make a new one possible. When the Commons of England in January 1689 accused their former king, James II, of "breaking the original contract betwixt King and people," they did so in the secure belief that this was an offense that was and always would be punishable under natural law. It is understandable, then, that the history of the idea of a social contract has been largely the same as that of natural law itself.


The origins of social contract theory and of natural law can be sought in the Roman Stoicism of Cicero and in the system of Roman law. The development of social contract into a standard feature of the Western Christian attitude can be seen in the Middle Ages, and its apotheosis can be observed in the period between the Reformation and the eighteenth century. It is usual in fact to insist that the rise of the contractarian attitude to predominance in European political thought came about because of the Reformation. Certainly the justification of the right of a Protestant minority in a Catholic country, and of that of a Catholic minority in a Protestant country, to its own form of religious worship came about because of the gradual acceptance of contractarian notions by Reformation and post-Reformation political and legal thinkers and even by some politicians and sovereigns. The slow and hesitant growth of religious toleration would undoubtedly have been even more retarded if natural law and the social contract had not been at hand to provide a definition of the individual citizen, his individual rights, and the nature of his relationship to political authority. Accordingly, we find that the French religious wars of the 1560s, 1570s, and 1580s, together with the revolt of the Dutch against the throne of Spain, which began in 1568, brought about the elaboration of contractarian ideas. In both these cases embattled Calvinists were asserting their political as well as their religious rights against Catholic authorities, but in England at the same time it was the Catholics who needed contractarian justification for their rights, even finally their rights to resist government.

The Monarchomachi ("bearers of the sword against monarchs"), as the French writers were called, developed the contract between people and sovereign in various directions, and in the famous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) it justified a recognizably revolutionary doctrine. In Holland the contract was codified further and became in the works of Johannes Althusius and Hugo Grotius an informing principle of political life as well as of the relations between sovereign and people. (Grotius's great work, however, the De Jure Belli ac Pacis of 1625, acquired and retains its fame because of its application of natural law and contractarian principles to international law.)

All these ideas and all these experiencesparticularly the experience of religious separatism developing into civil warcan be seen at work in Hobbes, the most impressive of all contractarian theorists. In Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), the state of nature was a state of war, a propertyless anarchy brought to an end only by the contract of absolute submission. Hobbes made such devastating use of the destructive potentialities of the social contract in criticism of the conventional thinking about natural law that all succeeding systems can be looked upon to some extent as commentaries upon him. This is truest of Spinoza (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670; Tractatus Politicus, 1677) and until recently was thought to be true of Hobbes's eminent and enormously influential successor in England, Locke.

Locke's Two Treatises of Government (written 16791683, published 1689) are now known to have been written as an attack on Robert Filmer, not on Hobbes, and Locke's relatively peaceful and sociable state of nature, brought to an end by a very limited contract, has only a somewhat distant relationship with Hobbes's "war of all against all." It is interesting that Filmer should have been the most effective critic of the concept of a state of nature and of the possibility and relevance of contract and that his traditional, patriarchal authoritarianism was to a large extent immune from contractarian notions.

It was not traditionalism, however, which broke down contractarian assumptions within a generation of the death of Locke in 1704, but rather the rapid defeat of the natural law outlook by utilitarian criticism in England and by general will notions in France and elsewhere. Contract lost its persuasiveness as the rationalist outlook on the nature of law gave way to the historical outlook early in the nineteenth century. The development of observational anthropology and empirical sociology in more recent times makes it entirely unlikely that contract in anything but a strictly hypothetical form will ever be adopted again by political theorists.

This conventional account of the history of contract could be corrected and extended by reference to the simple model of the collectivity as agreement with which this entry began. This is so obvious an image that it can be found in some form in any political system, even in the refusal of Socrates to escape from his prison and avoid the poison on the ground that he owed obedience to his native city because of the benefits he had received as a citizen. It seems likely that every political theory must be contractual, at least to some degree, in this very wide sense.

Nevertheless, since contract proceeds by abstracting the individual from society, and then by reassembling individuals again as society although they are by definition asocial abstractions, the general contractual social and political scheme seems incurably faulty, quite apart from the empirical objections to it on the part of contemporary social scientists.

See also Althusius, Johannes; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Filmer, Robert; General Will, The; Grotius, Hugo; Hobbes, Thomas; Hooker, Richard; Hume, David; Locke, John; Natural Law; Philosophy of Law, History of; Pufendorf, Samuel von; Rawls, John; Reformation; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Socrates; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; State; Stoicism.


The standard account in English is J. W. Gough, The Social Contract (1st ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936; rev. ed., 1957). Ernest Barker analyzes classical notions of contract very succinctly in a compilation he edited for the World's Classics series titled Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948); he has also translated the relevant part of Otto Gierke's monumental general treatise, Das Deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht (1913), as Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1934). In addition, see A. G. Wernham, ed., Spinoza, Political Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958); Peter Laslett, ed., John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960); Howard Warrender, Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957); and C. B. Macpherson, Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).

More recent theoretical analyses of contract are Margaret Macdonald, "The Language of Political Theory," in Logic and Language, edited by Antony Flew, first series (Oxford, 1956), and the essays in the collection Philosophy, Politics and Society, edited by Peter Laslett and W. S. Runciman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1957), especially those by John Rawls.

Peter Laslett (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Contract." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 17 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Social Contract." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (August 17, 2018).

"Social Contract." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.