The social contract or political contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept corresponding duties to protect themselves and one another from violence and other kinds of harm.
Social contract theory played an important historical role in the emergence of the idea that political authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. The starting point for most social contract theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any political order, usually termed the “state of nature”. In this condition, individuals' actions are bound only by their personal power and conscience. From this shared starting point, social contract theorists seek to demonstrate, in different ways, why a rational individual would voluntarily give up his or her natural freedom to obtain the benefits of political order.
Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous social contract thinkers. Each drew quite different conclusions about the nature of political authority. Hobbes advocated absolute monarchy, Locke advocated natural rights, and Rousseau advocated collective sovereignty in the name of "the general will". The Lockean concept of the social contract was invoked in the United States Declaration of Independence, and social contract notions have recently been invoked, in a quite different sense, by thinkers such as John Rawls.
Although developed for understanding human societies, sociobiologists have found the notion illuminating for understanding societies of other social species and even interspecies symbiotic relationships.
According to Thomas Hobbes, human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" in the absence of political order and law. In its absence, we would live in a state of nature, where each person has unlimited natural freedoms, including the "right to all things" and thus the freedom to plunder, rape, and murder; there would be an endless "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). To avoid this, free men establish political community i.e. civil society through a social contract in which each gains security in return for subjecting himself absolutely to an absolute Sovereign, preferably (for Hobbes) a monarch. Though the Sovereign's edicts may well be arbitrary and tyrannical, Hobbes saw the only alternative as the terrifying anarchy of the state of nature.
Alternatively, some, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that we gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so; this alternative formulation of the duty arising from the social contract is often identified with arguments about military service.
The central assertion of social contract approaches is that law and political order are not natural, but are instead human creations. The social contract and the political order it creates are simply the means towards an end — the benefit of the individuals involved — and (according to some philosophers such as Rousseau), legitimate only to the extent that they meet the general interest ("general will" in Rousseau). For many social contract theorists, this implies that failings discovered in laws or political structures can be changed by the citizens through elections or other means, including, if necessary, violence.
Many point to Socrates' argument, specifically as given in Plato's Crito, for accepting his order to drink poison as representing a sophisticated argument for observing social contracts.
Social contract formulations are preserved in many of the world's oldest records. The Buddhist king Asoka was said to have argued for a broad and far reaching social contract. The Buddhist vinaya also reflects social contracts expected of the monks, one such instance is when the people of a certain town complained about monks felling saka trees, the Buddha tells his monks that they must stop and give way to social norms.
Epicurus seems to have had a strong sense of social contract, with justice and law being rooted in mutual agreement and advantage, as evidenced by these lines, among others, from his Principal Doctrines (see also Epicurean ethics);
Quentin Skinner has argued that several critical modern innovations in contract theory are found in the writings from French Calvinists and Huguenots, whose work in turn was invoked by writers in the Low Countries who objected to their subjection to Spain and, later still, by Catholics in England. Among these, Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), from the School of Salamanca, might be considered as an early theorist of the social contract, theorizing natural law in an attempt to limit the divine right of absolute monarchy. All of these groups were led to articulate notions of popular sovereignty by means of a social covenant or contract: all of these arguments began with proto-“state of nature” arguments, to the effect that the basis of politics is that everyone is by nature free of subjection to any government.
However, these arguments relied on a corporatist theory found in Roman Law, according to which "a populus" can exist as a distinct legal entity. Therefore these arguments held that a group of people can join a government because it has the capacity to exercise a single will and make decisions with a single voice in the absence of sovereign authority — a notion rejected by Hobbes and later contract theorists.
In the early 17th century, Grotius (1583–1645) introduced the modern idea of natural rights of individuals. Grotius postulates that each individual has natural rights that enable self-preservation and employs this idea as a basis for moral consensus in the face of religious diversity and the rise of natural science. He seeks to find a parsimonious basis for a moral beginning for society, a kind of natural law that everyone could accept. He goes so far as to say in his On the Law of War and Peace that even if we were to concede what we cannot concede without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, these laws would still hold. The idea was considered incendiary since it suggested that power can ultimately go back to the individuals if the political society that they have set up forfeits the purpose for which it was originally established, which is to preserve themselves. In other words, the individual people, are sovereign. Grotius says that the people are sui juris (under their own jurisdiction). People have rights as human beings but there is a delineation of those rights because of what is possible for everyone to accept morally; everyone has to accept that people as individuals are entitled to try to preserve themselves. We should, therefore, avoid doing harm to or interfere with one another. Any breach of these rights should be punished.
See main article: Leviathan (book). The first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed contract theory was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). According to Hobbes, the lives of individuals in the state of nature were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", a state in which self-interest and the absence of rights and contracts prevented the 'social', or society. Life was 'anarchic' (without leadership/ the concept of sovereignty). Individuals in the state of nature were apolitical and asocial. This state of nature is followed by the social contract.
The social contract was an 'occurrence' during which individuals came together and ceded some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (e.g. person A gives up his/her right to kill person B if person B does the same). This resulted in the establishment of the state, a sovereign entity (like the individuals, now under its rule, used to be) which would create laws to regulate social interactions. Human life was thus no longer "a war of all against all".
But the state system, which grew out of the social contract, was anarchic (without leadership). Just as the individuals in the state of nature had been sovereigns and thus guided by self-interest and the absence of rights, so states now acted in their self-interest in competition with each other. Just like the state of nature, states were thus bound to be in conflict because there was no sovereign over and above the state (i.e. more powerful) capable of imposing social-contract laws. Indeed, Hobbes' work helped to serve as a basis for the realism theories of international relations, advanced by E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau.
John Locke's conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes' in several fundamental ways, retaining only the central notion that persons in a state of nature would willingly come together to form a state. Locke believed that individuals in a state of nature would be bound morally, by The Law of Nature, not to harm each other in their lives or possession, but without government to defend them against those seeking to injure or enslave them, people would have no security in their rights and would live in fear. Locke argued that individuals would agree to form a state that would provide a "neutral judge", acting to protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it. While Hobbes argued for near-absolute authority, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under law in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke argued that government's legitimacy comes from the citizens' delegation to the government of their right of self-defense (of "self-preservation"). The government thus acts as an impartial, objective agent of that self-defense, rather than each man acting as his own judge, jury, and executioner—the condition in the state of nature. In this view, government derives its "just powers from the consent [i.e, delegation] of the governed,".
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, outlined a different version of social contract theory, as the foundations of political rights based on unlimited popular sovereignty. Although Rousseau wrote that the British were perhaps at the time the freest people on earth, he did not approve of their representative government. Rousseau believed that liberty was possible only where there was direct rule by the people as a whole in lawmaking, where popular sovereignty was indivisible and inalienable. But he also maintained that the people often did not know their "real will," and that a proper society would not occur until a great leader ("the Legislator") arose to change the values and customs of the people, likely through the strategic use of religion.
Rousseau's political theory differs in important ways from that of Locke and Hobbes. Rousseau's collectivism is most evident in his development of the "luminous conception" (which he credited to Diderot) of the general will. Rousseau argues a citizen cannot pursue his true interest by being an egoist but must instead subordinate himself to the law created by the citizenry acting as a collective.
Rousseau's striking phrase that man must "be forced to be free" should be understood this way: since the indivisible and inalienable popular sovereignty decides what is good for the whole, then if an individual lapses back into his ordinary egoism and disobeys the leadership, he will be forced to listen to what they decided as a member of the collectivity (i.e. as citizens). Thus, the law, inasmuch as it is created by the people acting as a body, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but its expression. Thus, enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will. Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, the law is a civilizing force, and therefore Rousseau believed that the laws that govern a people helped to mold their character.
While Rousseau's social contract is based on popular sovereignty and not on individual sovereignty, there are other theories espoused by individualists, libertarians and anarchists, which do not involve agreeing to anything more than negative rights and creates only a limited state, if any.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) advocated a conception of social contract which didn't involve an individual surrendering sovereignty to others. According to him, the social contract was not between individuals and the state, but rather between individuals themselves refraining from coercing or governing each other, each one maintaining complete sovereignty upon oneself:
John Rawls (1921–2002) proposed a contractarian approach that has a decidedly Kantian flavour, in A Theory of Justice (1971), whereby rational people in a hypothetical "original position", setting aside their individual preferences and capacities under a "veil of ignorance", would agree to certain general principles of justice and legal organization. This idea is also used as a game-theoretical formalization of the notion of fairness.
David Gauthier "neo-Hobbesian" theory argues that cooperation between two independent and self interested parties is indeed possible; especially when it comes to understanding morality and politics.