Social Contract Theory

views updated


The idea of a social contract can have broad and narrow meanings. In the broad sense a social contract can simply be short hand for expectations in relations between individuals or groups. In the narrow, more technical sense social contract theory has a long and venerable history that in the present has been rhetorically adapted to assess general expectations between science and society. A review of various theoretical perspectives nevertheless raises questions about the adequacy of such adaptations.

Social Contracts in General

Contracts in the strict sense are agreements between two parties that establish mutual obligations and are enforceable by law. The idea of a social contract is more fundamental, and argues that society comes into existence as a kind of contract. In the classical or premodern views that are sometimes identified as anticipations of social contract theory, the social contract is not so much an originating action as one that implicitly exists between a preestablished order and individuals within it. This is, for instance, the view argued by Socrates in Plato's Crito. The modern view, by contrast, is that individuals come first, and through their agreement establish a new phenomenon called the state.

For most modern theorists this contract is not a historical event, much less an actual legal document, but an ideal construct to aid in postulating how things should be. It depends on two key assumptions: (a) that human beings as individuals are in some sense prior to any established social order, so that their obedience to the state has to be justified; and (b) that the condition of human beings outside the socially constructed state, or in what is called the state of nature, is ultimately unsatisfactory, thus providing humans a reason to escape such a condition by social contract. From these assumptions Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), without using the term, developed social contract theory to examine the status of a monarch. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) subsequently coined the term social contract, he used the same kind of theory to defend a notion of democratic equality. Later John Rawls (1921–2004) adapted social contract theory to defend a system of distributive justice.

From Hobbes through Kant

Early modern versions of social contract theory were justifications for overthrowing tyrants who had overstepped the bounds allotted them, failing therefore to meet their obligations. Manegold of Lautenbach (c. 1030–c. 1112), Englebert of Volkersdorf (fl. c. 1310), Mario Salamonio (c. 1450–1532), and Junius Brutus (fl. 1572) all argued that a sovereign was bound by an implicit contract to act in the interest of his subjects. If he abused these obligations, the population had the right to take up arms.

Hobbes used contract theory for the exact opposite reason than most of his predecessors when he argued that a ruler should never be overthrown. Heavily influenced by the destruction of the English Civil War (1639–1651) and the resulting social upheaval, his version presented an appeal against such atrocities. In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes pictured the original state of nature for prepolitical humans was one of constant war, which he argued any rational person would want to end. In their desire for peace, individuals would forfeit their natural liberty. Hobbes's contract between individuals rather than between subjects and sovereign establishes an obligation on all to obey the sovereign as a rule of reason, which he also calls a law of nature. Thus, for Hobbes, subjects never have the right to oppose their sovereign. Likewise Hobbes sees no contractual constraint on the sovereign, because only the sovereign can preserve a state of peace.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke in his Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (both 1689) argued that an absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society. For Locke, the prepolitical state of nature is a peaceful yet moral society where humans are bound by divinely commanded natural law. Social problems develop insofar as they lack a common judge with authority over all. In the absence of this common judge, individuals strive for power to exert wills and attempt to seize each other's property. This situation calls for someone with the authority to act as judge in order to protect life, liberty, and estate. The lack of a state prevents enforcement of the laws of nature, so citizens create one. As with Hobbes, the contract is between individuals rather than between governed and ruler. But citizens who institute a government to prevent people from occasionally violating natural law and showing partiality do not give up their liberty in the contract. They simply grant the state the right to judge and punish offenders of natural law. The state, therefore, has very limited authority based on its contractual powers. Its primary duty is to protect property. The contract is dissolved and resistance is justified if the government commits any breach of trust.

During the eighteenth century, a time of monarchial excess in much of Europe, social contract theory moved away from just overthrowing the king to arguing for a more equitable political system. The most notable theorist in this regard was Rousseau, whose treatise on The Social Contract (1762) foreshadowed both the American and French revolutions. These theories were no longer concerned with the status of a monarch, but with the idea that monarchy was itself a suspect political system. The social contract was no longer between the people and a sovereign; now the people have become sovereign.

Rousseau discussed the idea of social contract on two separate occasions. In neither case did he claim that the contract was an actual historical event. Instead he offered a theoretically ideal contract concerned with the origin of government. He did not write about how it actually happened but how it ought to have happened. He believed that the state of nature was one of individual liberty where each person was free and equal and none had by nature any legitimate authority over any other. The prepolitical state was also a presocial state. The result of the establishment of social relations was the rise of inequalities in social and economic forums. It is this that leads to conflict between individuals, because only social individuals could begin to acquire wealth and hence have reasons for war. The rich end up controlling the masses because they manipulate society in order to protect it from the ravages of war. Hence there is a need for an ideal contract that should be established to preserve equality. This contract between citizens establishes a government that is ruled by the general will or what is best for all. Rousseau's ideal contract creates not a sovereign person but a sovereign people. The government can only be an agent of the people's will. It is an exchange of natural liberty for civil liberty, where each member has an equal share in the expression of a general will.

More systematically than Rousseau, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) extended social contract theory by presenting the contract as a regulatory ideal. Kant's contract was not so much what people would have agreed to as what they should have agreed to in such a hypothetical situation. For Kant, the social contract was that ideal to which individuals would agree if they were ideal moral beings. In his view all laws should be framed so that everyone would consent to them if given the choice.

The social contract theories of the eighteenth century provide a justification for a political system based on the equality of all citizens. The emergence of republican democracies at the same time is no coincidence. The idea that citizens were equal was not particularly novel, because earlier contract theory began with a prepolitical state of nature in which all were equal. But the idea that individuals in the political state should retain their equality creates a whole new conception of government.

It is important to note that social contract theory not only arose in historical association with the rise of modern democracy, but also in association with the rise of modern science and technology. Indeed the theories of the state of nature in both Hobbes and Locke provide justifications for the pursuit of technology. With Hobbes the justification is one of necessity, in order to escape the oppression of nature. With Locke the justification is more that of seizing opportunities for advancement. Moreover the social order within science is not unlike that elaborated by Rousseau and Kant: one of free and equal members in a well-ordered body politic. Indeed the scientists of the Enlightenment often referred to the republic of letters and the republic of science—and saw this democracy in science as a model for that to be established outside science. The term republic of science has continued to be used by such defenders of science as Michael Polanyi (1962) and Ian Jarvie (2001).

John Rawls and a Theory of Justice

Interest in social contract theory declined in the nineteenth century and was displaced by utilitarianism, the theory that actions are right when they produce more benefit than harm for society. But in the mid-twentieth century, social contract theory reemerged as a theory for justice, first in economics and then in philosophy.

Economist James Buchanan, for instance, has developed an argument derived out of rational choice theory dealing with the distribution of wealth in society. Like others, Buchanan is not talking about a historical event but rather suggests a contract theory that could be used to propose changes in political institutions. For him, the optimum decision making rule is to minimize the cost of collective action and promote what is advantageous to utility-maximizing citizens.

Philosopher Rawls, however, has altered the overall emphasis of the social contract by using it to promote a theory of justice. The social contract ensures that all people's interests are properly protected. The problem of justice arises because individuals make competing claims to the same goods produced through social cooperation. Unlike earlier versions of contract theory, Rawls sees social contract theory as a means for addressing this problem of conflicting interests. The distribution of social goods is just if and only if it would be acceptable to all parties prior to any party knowing which goods he or she might receive. In order to meet this requirement Rawls imagines a veil of ignorance behind which "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status" (Rawls 1971, p. 12), a condition from which any social order could be constructed.

Michael Lessnoff's Social Contract (1986) argues that Rawls's theory of justice is the culmination of social contract theory. Although he believes that the problem of justice is the correct subject for contract theory, he nevertheless proposes a reformulation of Rawls. First, all must enjoy equal basic liberties unless an unequal distribution would improve the total basic liberty of those with less. Second, a fair and equitable opportunity must exist for all to achieve their desired social and economic positions, unless the inequality improves the lives of those with fewer opportunities. Third, inequalities of various social and economic goods must be to the benefit of those who have less of them.

Thus in the twentieth century social contract theory moved from a theory of governance to one of distributive justice. As such it has been used to question some of the situations brought about by science and technology. For instance, there are questions of justice regarding the practices of the United States that, with about 4 percent of the world's population, uses more than 20 percent of the world's resources. Distributive justice questions also come into play in assessing access to science and science education on the basis of economic class, gender, or ethnicity. Finally from the perspective of Rawls' veil of ignorance, one can ask whether the contemporary distribution of governmental funding for science is just. Instead of defending particular governmental funding policies for science from the perspective of particular scientific interest group politics, would it not be more just to ask how physicists, chemists, and biologists would distribute societal support for science, before knowing which kind of scientists they were going to become?

Science, Technology, and the Social Contract

The idea of a social contract has appeared in a number of different forms when discussing science and science policy. Classic sociology of science, such as that found in the work of Robert Merton (1973) and Joseph Ben-David (1984), although they do not use the term, might well be read as describing how a social contract among scientists leads to the creation of a distinctive scientific ethos. Studies of the history of engineering as a profession (Layton 1971) point in the same direction: that engineering as a profession was self-defined in part by means of a social contract among engineers. (It might also be interesting to note the special situation among social scientists, who both study and are constituted by such contracts.) In the broad sense, a social contract between science, technology, and society may also simply refer to common expectations in the relations between professional representatives in each of these three sectors: scientists, engineers and technologists, and politicians, respectively.

In this second sense of a social contract between scientists and the body politic, discussions have been at once more explicit and less well-grounded in social contract theory. As with social contract theory, a social contract for science need not refer to any specific historical agreement in a prepolitical period between the scientific community and the state or government. Instead it may be argued to be a logical extension of a desire on the part of individuals to better their condition, insofar as any such desire can itself be argued to benefit from scientific progress.

The whole concept of government spending on items such as science, technology, and medicine can thus be derived both from the original idea of individuals giving up their freedom to secure life, liberty, and property and from Rawls's idea of justice as directing resources to science and technology so as to increase benefits for all. Because the government is obligated by the social contract to improve its citizens' welfare, and insofar as science and technology are seen as having the potential to improve citizens' lives, the government invests in science, technology, and medicine.

Most explicitly science policy analysts in the United States have argued that Vannevar Bush's Science—The Endless Frontier (1945) established a social contract between the scientific community and government. In this case the public was left out of the agreement or at best represented by the government. In this contract, scientists promised to eliminate disease, feed the world, increase national security, and increase jobs in return for government funding and the right to maintain their autonomy. One description of this contract as a military-industrial complex became a focus for liberal political criticism during the 1960s. Antitechnology criticism of science as the cause of environmental pollution was a further spur to such criticism. In the 1980s and early 1990s with the downturn in the U.S. economy and the end of the Cold War, policy analysts began to question this social contract as well. They argued that the scientific community had failed to live up to its end of the bargain or was no longer as crucial to national welfare as it had been previously, and that public funding of science should be reexamined. With the reemergence of the U.S. economy in the mid-1990s and the rise of global terrorism in the 2000s such concerns tended to disappear.

The previous analysis assumes a kind of symbiosis between science and technology in what is often called technoscience. But in fact it can be argued that the situation with technology, especially that form of technology known as engineering, needs to be distinguished. For engineers, at least in the United States, any presumed social contract is mostly manifested in the marketplace. Industrial or market success substitutes for the social contract. When it comes to engineering, the problem is that there is no social contract—and yet the technologies that are developed and commercialized often have a social impact that consumers are not able intelligently to anticipate and governmental regulation is not sufficient to control.

The idea of a social agreement or contract continues to be invoked by politicians. For instance, in 1974 the British Labor Party proposed to save the United Kingdom by means of a social contract with the trade union movement. In 1994 the Republican Party in the United States ran its political campaign based on a Contract with America. The usefulness of social contract theory is its ability to ask what rational individuals would do if given a choice, and then to critique a system based on an argument about what is best for everyone. Even in Hobbes's defense of the monarchy, he begins with the assumption of what is best for all and not just a minority. Rawls extends this idea to justice and the distribution of resources to criticize any historical situation. Both approaches have been indirectly appealed to in discussions of a social contract for science, but it remains to be shown that such rhetoric has drawn at all deeply on the social contract theory tradition.


SEE ALSO Hobbes, Thomas;Kant, Immanual;Locke, John;Rousseau, Jean-Jacques;Social Contract for Science.


Ben-David, Joseph. (1984). The Scientist's Role in Society: A Comparative Study, with a new introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. First published 1971.

Buchanan, James M. (1975). The Limits of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bush, Vannevar. (1945). Science—The Endless Frontier. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Cozzens, Susan E.; Peter Healey; Arie Rip; and John Ziman. (1989). The Research System in Transition. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1968). Leviathan. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Jarvie, Ian C. (2001). The Republic of Science: The Emergence of Popper's Social View of Science. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kant, Immanuel. (1977). Kant's Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Layton, Edwin T., Jr. (1971). The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession. Cleveland, OH: Press of Case Western Reserve University.

Lessnoff, Michael. (1986). Social Contract. London: Macmillan. A collection of edited selections from eleven of the most influential writings on social contract theory.

Lessnoff, Michael. (1990). Social Contract Theory. New York: New York University Press.

Locke, John. (1966). Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford: Blackwell.

Merton, Robert K. (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, ed. Norman W. Storer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A collection of more than twenty important papers, from 1935 to 1972, by the founder of the sociology of science.

Nozick, Robert. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Polanyi, Michael. (1962). "The Republic of Science." Minerva 1: 54–74.

Rawls, John. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1968). The Social Contract and Discourses. London: Penguin Books.

About this article

Social Contract Theory

Updated About content Print Article