Social Contract

views updated May 11 2018

Social Contract

The social contract school

Antecedents of the social contract

Contributions to democratic theory


“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.

The social contract school

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.

Antecedents of the social contract

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.

Contributions to democratic theory

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.

Individual rights

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.”

Willmoore Kendall

[See also the biographies ofHobbes; Locke; Rousseau. Directly related are the entriesDemocracy; Majority rule; Natural law; Natural rights. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical theory.]


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.

Gierke, Otto von (1881) 1958 Political Theories of the Middle Age. Cambridge Univ. Press. → First published as “Die publicistischen Lehren des Mittelalters,” a section of Volume 3 of Gierke’s Das deutsche Genos-senschaftsrecht. Translated with a famous introduction by Frederic William Maitland.

Gierke, Otto von (1913) 1934 Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500 to 1800. Translated with an introduction by Ernest Barker. 2 vols. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A translation of five subsections of Volume 4 of Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon.

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.

Hume, David (1741–1742) 1912 Essays Moral, Political and Literary. 2 vols. Edited by T. H. Green andT. H. Grose. New York and London: Longmans. · First published as Essays Moral and Political and changed to this title in the 1758 edition.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de 1947 Essai sur la politique de Rousseau. Pages 15–132 in Jean Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social. A critical edition. Geneva: Cheval Aile.

Kendall, Willmoore (1941) 1959 John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-rule. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Locke, John (1690) 1964 The Second Treatise of Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government. Pages 283–446 in John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge Univ. Press.

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.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762) 1962 The Social Contract. London: Dent; New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published in French.

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.

Strauss, Leo (1953) 1959 Natural Right and History. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Strauss, Leo; and Cropsey, Joseph (editors) 1963 History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: Rand Mc-Nally. → See especially pages 354–378, ’Thomas Hobbes,” by Laurence Berns; pages 413–432, “Benedict Spinoza,” by Stanley Rosen; pages 433–468, “John Locke,” by Robert Goldwin; pages 491–513, “David Hume,” by Robert Hill; and pages 514–535, “Jean Jacques Rousseau,” by Allan Bloom.

Tussman, Joseph 1960 Obligation and the Body Politic. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Social Contract

views updated May 21 2018


"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)

Social Contract

views updated Jun 11 2018


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. 490c. 421 b.c.e.) as well. The Roman author Cicero (10643 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 (354430) insisted that any true republic required agreement on the part of its citizens about the object of their love.

Modern Formulations

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, someincluding Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778)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 (17111776) 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 approachWere 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 (17241804), 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 reasonablythat 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.

Feminist Views

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.

Melissa Lane

Social Contract

views updated May 08 2018


Social contract is a concept used variously to explain, on consensual grounds, the origin, limits, conditions, and purposes of political authority and obligation. The contract is usually deduced from some conception of natural law, which serves as the basic reason and ultimate sanction for the agreement, although it has also been put forth on utilitarian grounds to explain political authority in purely conventional terms.

History. The Greek sophists and the philosophy of epicureanism equated nature with self-interest, denied any intrinsic moral virtues, and explained the state as formed by men to obtain security on the basis of a tacit agreement neither to inflict nor to suffer harm. Against this, cicero and the Roman lawyers argued that justice is an intrinsic good, that political authority arises from the collective power of the people, and that it is always subject to natural law.

Medieval Theories. In medieval Europe the contractual basis of political obligation was implied in feudal ism and in the patristic principle that law and government, to be legitimate, must always subserve justice. In the 11th century manegold of lautenbach preached that a people establishes a ruler that he may govern justly; if he violates the agreement, they are absolved from obedience. St. thomas aquinas distinguished (1) the principium, or substance, of authority, which is divinely ordained; (2) the modus or form of government, which is determined by the corporate people; and (3) the exercitium of authority, which must accord with natural law and which is conferred, and can be revoked if misused, by the people. Unlike the Sophists and Epicureans, Aquinas, though regarding the specific form as a matter of free choice, saw government as a dictate of natural law. In the 15th-century conciliar dispute, nich olas of cusa wrote that "if by nature men are equally strong and equally free, the ruler having equal natural power could be set up only by the choice and consent of the others, just as law also is set up by consent" (De Concordantia Catholica 2.14).

Calvinist Theories. During the Protestant reforma tion the idea of contract took systematic form and became a theory of action for beleaguered minority confessions. Depending on their situations, Calvinists and Catholics resorted to it as a weapon against the theory of the divine right of kings and as a principle of legitimacy (the Calvinists giving it a strong theological basis). The Huguenot treatise Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1581) answered the question of what obedience was due from a Christian to a prince commanding action contrary to divine law by arguing for the existence of a twofold contractone between God and the people binding the people to obey God's will and one between the prince and the people binding the people to obey the prince as long as he obeys God's law. If the prince acts in violation of the second contract, resistance is obligatory, but it is exclusively an aristocratic function. English Puritan theory of the 16th century was connected, in good part, with the federal covenant theology and in the 17th century was carried in this form to New England, where it served as the basis of the various compacts establishing new communities.

Counter Reformation Theories. On the Catholic side, the work of the Jesuits Robert bellarmine, Francisco suÁrez, and Juan de mariana was most prominent. In extending the arguments of Aquinas, Suárez maintained that the state is a purely natural phenomenon originating in a voluntary union of heads of families by which each assumes the obligation to subserve the common good. The state depends on God's ordination only insofar as does all of creation. Political power derives from the community; when it is used to contravene the common good or any other injunction of natural law, it may be resisted. Coupled with the indirect theory of papal power to intervene in temporal affairs, the formulation of Suárez (and of Bellarmine) tended to exalt the divine right of the pope and to set the state apart from theology by explaining it in naturalistic terms. More radical, although not novel, was Mariana's deduction that private citizens have the right to kill usurpers of temporal power.

Hobbes. In the 17th century the idea of contract was joined to an individualistic theory of autonomous natural law (see natural law in political thought). Thomas hobbes, in his Leviathan, hypothesized a state of nature wherein men are radically egotistic, perpetually seeking power, and subject to no law, divine or natural. This leads to a bellum omnium contra omnes in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Impelled by the desire of self-preservation to seek security and order, men contract with each other to set up a common sovereign to whom they relinquish all their rights. Thus by artifice is set up that "mortal god," the state, which exists not as in the classical tradition as a dictate of nature to help men become good, but as a convention to ensure existence. The desire to be is the fundamental natural right; natural law and the social contract are deductions therefrom that are merely definitive of the conditions of ordered existence. The only real limitation on the sovereignbe he one, few, or manyis the amount of power he can effectively command at any moment. Hobbes's notion of obligation is rooted in interest. Law is the command of the sovereign and is limited only insofar as one is not obliged to obey an order violative of the basic right of self-preservation.

Locke. John locke, in his second Treatise of Civil Government, propounded a contractual theory that proceeded from assumptions similar to Hobbes's but within the framework of transcendent natural law. Locke's state of nature is a condition in which men are free and equal and subject to natural law, the terms of which each judges and enforces. Because of the lack of a common impartial judge and executive, uncertainties and inconveniences arise that can issue in a state of war. To remedy this, men contract to form civil society to protect their property in their lives, liberty, and estates. Government is then set up on a fiduciary basis to protect property; when it acts to the contrary as manifested in a concerted pattern of abuses and usurpations, the people, with the majority as the motive force, may resist. Locke's philosophy underlies the American Declaration of Independence and constitutions of government; it differs from Hobbes's thought in holding that natural rights can never be surrendered to the state but serve as limitations on political authority. Whereas Hobbes's contract theory issued in absolutism, Locke's issued in constitutionalism.

Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. In the 18th century David hume attacked the theory that political obligation may be binding only if it is accepted voluntarily, arguing that the obligation to civil obedience cannot be derived from the obligation to keep an agreement but that both are binding because without them an ordered society cannot be attained and that allegiance develops on habitual grounds, reinforced by education. After Hume the idea of contract lost ground in England; it retained vigor in America until attacked in the 19th century by men such as John C. Calhoun. On the Continent Jean Jacques rousseau postulated the social contract as a means whereby men retain their original freedom while creating morality by establishing as sovereign the general will of the community. Each surrenders himself entirely to the community with all his rights and property and by giving himself to the whole surrenders to no one. Thus civil society is constituted by the agreement between men to subserve the general will, which leaves each as free as before because he subscribes only to his transformed or ideal will. Because Rousseau recognized no fixed ends in man's nature, the general will is purely formal; its only limitation lies in the requirement of its generality. Accepting Rousseau's premises, Immanuel kant viewed the social contract in a metaphysical sense as an instrument relating men to each other so that the freedom of each is compatible with the freedom of all. In this view the social contract is a social imperative prescribing the conditions of free social life rather than a call to action. In the 19th century the idea of contract lost attractiveness because of the growth of historical studies and idealist and evolutionist philosophies.

Critique. The idea of a social contract contains two elements, the pactum unionis, which forms the body politic, and the pactum subjectionis, which organizes political authority in a constitution and government. Catholic thought in the Middle Ages and Calvinist thought emphasized the latter; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the rationalists emphasized the former; and Catholic scholastic thought, in developed form (Bellarmine, Suárez), does not separate the two but regards the will to common life in political society as realized in a concrete constitutional order. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau deny any teleological necessity for the origin of the state in man's nature, seeing authority as rising solely from the wills of the contracting individuals. Catholic thought presupposes families as the basic social units and regards the state as a moral necessity whose concrete realization and organization is the product of man's will. The contract does not create political authority but designates how and by whom it shall be exercised. The state is seen as part of the objective moral order, with human intelligence and will having a role in its construction. It follows that obligation to obedience is not, as with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, rooted in the contractual promise or in individual interest, but in the objective natural law, which indicates the moral necessity of authority. That history shows that many states were established by force and exist by sheer power and that specific conscious acts of consent by all within a community rarely, if ever, occur, does not vitiate the contract theory as a normative explanation of the origin and continued existence of the state. Modern constitutionalism based on the dignity of man recognizes this fact in the emphasis it places on the consensual factor as a legitimating and operational principle.

Bibliography: o. f. von gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 15001800, tr. e. barker (Boston 1957); Political Theories of the Middle Ages, tr. and introd. f. w. maitland (Boston 1958). e. barker, ed., Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau (New York 1948). j. n. figgis, Studies of Political Thought from Gerson to Grotius (Cambridge, Eng. 1960). g. sabine, A History of Political Theory (New York 1961). t. hobbes, Leviathan, ed. and introd. m. oakeshott (Oxford 1957). s. j. brutus, A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants, ed. and introd. h. j. laski (London 1924). h. a. rommen, The State in Catholic Thought (St. Louis 1945). l. strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago 1953). j. f. fenton, The Theory of the Social Compact and Its Influence upon the American Revolution (New York 1891). d. hume, Theory of Politics, ed. f. watkins (New York 1951).

[a. j. beitzinger]

Social Contract

views updated May 09 2018

Social Contract


A social contract is an agreement that can explain and justify a citizens 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. 427347 BCE) illustrates the power of the notion of a social contract. He depicts Socrates (c. 469399 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 states biddingincluding accepting its unjust death sentence.

Writers often describe the state of nature as the human condition outside political society. Thomas Hobbes (15881679) 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 (16321704) 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 states rule, so Locke argued that residence in a states territory is implicit consent to the states authority. Later commentators, such as David Hume (17111776) 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 (17121778) believed that both Hobbes and Locke built distorting effects of civilization into their accounts of the state of nature. In Rousseaus 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 (19212002) 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 allespecially 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. [1651] 1968. Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson. New York: Penguin.

Hume, David. [1748] 1987. Of the Original Contract. In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics.

Locke, John. [1690] 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. [1762] 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

views updated Jun 11 2018

social contract A theory of social order that was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although the idea goes back to Plato. The social contract is an unwritten agreement between the state and its citizens, in which the relative rights and duties of each are expressed. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau propounded three of the most famous contracts, each describing an ideal rather than a real distribution of power. Hobbes argued that security and order could only be achieved by a contract in which all citizens would give up all their individual powers to a central power (the Sovereign), in return for the protection of life and property. Locke suggested an almost opposite strategy of minimal and revocable government, his contract being grounded in the ‘natural laws’ of acquisitiveness and self-interest (a view which found its way almost unchanged into the American system of government); Rousseau imagined a contract requiring complete equality and democratic participation based on the expression of a ‘General Will’. Social contract theory, because of its fanciful and imaginative nature, has not been congenial to modern social scientists. But it still raises many interesting questions about the nature and purpose of government, and the characteristics of the ideal society.

social contract

views updated May 18 2018

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

views updated May 21 2018

social contract Concept that society is based on the surrender of natural freedoms by the individual to the organized group or state in exchange for personal security. The concept can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and was developed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and by Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract (1762).

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