Social contract explained

Social contract describes a broad class of theories that try to explain the ways in which people form nations and maintain social order. The notion of the social contract implies that the people give up some rights to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order.

Social contract theory formed a central pillar in the historically important notion that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. The starting point for most of these theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any structured social order, usually termed the “state of nature”. In this condition, an individual’s actions are bound only by his or her personal power, constrained by conscience. From this common starting point, the various proponents of social contract theory attempt to explain, in different ways, why it is in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily give up the freedom one has in the state of nature in order to obtain the benefits of political order.

Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous philosophers of contractarianism, which formed the theoretical groundwork of democracy.


According to Thomas Hobbes, human life would be "nasty, brutish, and short" without political authority. In its absence, we would live in a state of nature, where we each have unlimited natural freedoms, including the "right to all things" and thus the freedom to harm all who threaten our own self-preservation; 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 gain civil rights in return for subjecting himself to civil law or to political authority.

Alternatively, some 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.

Violations of the contract

The social contract and the civil rights it gives us are neither "natural rights" nor permanently fixed. Rather, the contract itself is the means towards an end — the benefit of all — and (according to some philosophers such as Locke or Rousseau), is only legitimate to the extent that it meets the general interest. Therefore, when failings are found in the contract, we renegotiate to change the terms, using methods such as elections and legislature. Locke theorized the right of rebellion in case of the contract leading to tyranny.

Since civil rights come from agreeing to the contract, those who choose to violate their contractual obligations, such as by committing crimes, abdicate their rights, and the rest of society can be expected to protect itself against the actions of such outlaws. To be a member of society is to accept responsibility for following its rules, along with the threat of punishment for violating them. In this way, society works by "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" (Hardin 1968).


Ancient Indian thought

Ideas of the social contract go very far back in history. India was perhaps the earliest to realize the value of a strong king and the social contract. Bhishma says in the Mahabharata (written between 3000-1900 BC): ‘A kingdom in which anarchy prevails becomes weak and is soon afflicted by robbers.’ Highlighting the social compact, he noted: 'It hath been heard by us that men, in days of old, in consequence of anarchy, met with destruction, devouring one another like stronger fishes devouring the weaker ones in the water. It hath been heard by us that a few amongst them then, assembling together, made certain compacts, saying, "He who becomes harsh in speech, or violent in temper, he who seduces or abducts other people’s wives or robs the wealth that belongs to others, should be cast off by us." For inspiring confidence among all classes of the people, they made such a compact and lived for some time.'

But there were limits on this conception of the social contract. He emphasised, for example, that ‘A person who is desirous of prosperity should worship the king as he should worship Indra himself.’ (These three quotations are from The Mahabharata, Book 12: Santi Parva, sec. LXVII, translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1896, Online version:

Classical thought

Many have argued that Plato's dialog Crito expresses a Greek version of social contract theory. In this dialog, Socrates refuses to escape from jail to avoid being put to death. He argues that since he has willingly remained in Athens all of his life despite opportunities to go elsewhere, he has accepted the social contract i.e. the burden of the local laws, and he cannot violate these laws even when they are against his self-interest.

Renaissance developments

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.[1] 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 community of people can join a government because they have 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.


Hugo Grotius

In the early 17th century, Grotius (1583-1645) introduced the modern idea of natural rights of individuals. Grotius says that we each have natural rights which we have in order to preserve ourselves. He uses this idea to try and establish a basis for moral consensus in the face of religious diversity and the rise of natural science and to find a minimal basis for a moral beginning for society, a kind of natural law that everyone could potentially accept. He goes so far as to say 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 suggests 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 people i.e. 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 each person is entitled to try and preserve themselves and therefore they shouldn't try to do harm to others or to interfere with them and they should punish any breach of someone else's rights that arises.

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651)

The first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed contract theory was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who contended that people in a state of nature ceded their individual rights to create state sovereignty, in return for their protection. A social contract thus evolves out of pragmatic self-interest. He believed that the state of nature for humans was asocial and apolitical. The state of nature was also regarded as a state of war, since each individual was unbound by social obligations and acted solely in his own self interest; each person was a threat to others for natural resources. For Hobbes, it is important that this social contract involves an absolute government that does not rule by consent, since this is the only way to create binding rules for persons who naturally compete and disagree with one another about conceptions of justice.

John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689)

John Locke's conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes's in several ways, but retained 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 have stronger moral limits on their action than accepted by Hobbes, but recognized that people would still live in fear of one another. Locke argued that individuals would agree to form a state that would provide a "neutral judge", and that could therefore protect the lives, liberty, and material possessions of those who lived within it. While Hobbes argued for near-absolute authority, Locke argued that state laws could only be legitimate if they sought to achieve the common good.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Du Contrat Social (1762)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, outlined a different version of contract theory, based on the conception of popular sovereignty. He believed popular sovereignty must be indivisible and inalienable, which led him to reject representative democracy and advocate instead a form of direct democracy. Rousseau's theory has many similarities with the individualist Lockean liberal tradition, but also departs from it on many significant points. For example, his theory of popular sovereignty includes a conception of a "general will", which is more than the simple sum of individual wills. As an individual, Rousseau argues, the subject can be egoist and decide that his personal interest should override the collective interest. However, as part of a collective body, the individual subject puts aside his egoism to create a "general will", which is popular sovereignty itself. Popular sovereignty thus decides only what is good for society as a whole:

Hence, Rousseau's phrase that man must "be forced to be free"[2] should be understood as such: since the indivisible and inalienable popular sovereignty decides what is good for the whole, then if an individual lapses back into his ordinary egoism, he shall be forced to listen to what they decided as a member of the collectivity (i.e. a citizen). Thus, law, inasmuch as it is voted by the people's representatives, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but its expression; and 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. Rousseau's theories had an influence on both the 1789 French Revolution and the subsequent formation of the socialist movement.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's individualist social contract (1851)

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 at all.

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's Theory of Justice (1971)

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. This idea is also used as a game-theoretical formalization of the notion of fairness.

Philip Pettit's Republicanism (1997)

Philip Pettit (b. 1945) has argued, in Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1997), that the theory of social contract, classically based on the consent of the governed (as it is assumed that the contract is valid as long as the people consent to being governed by its representatives, who exercise sovereignty), should be modified, in order to avoid dispute. Instead of arguing that an explicit consent, which can always be manufactured, should justify the validity of social contract, Philip Pettit argues that the absence of an effective rebellion against the contract is the only legitimacy of it.


David Hume

An early critic of the validity of social contract theory was David Hume. In his essay "Of the Original Contract", Hume stressed that the contract theory of government was not supported by available historical data.

Logic of Contracting

According to the will theory of contract, which was dominant in the 19th century and still exerts a strong influence, a contract is not presumed valid unless all parties agree to it voluntarily, either tacitly or explicitly, without coercion. Lysander Spooner, a 19th century lawyer and staunch supporter of a right of contract between individuals, in his essay No Treason, argues that a supposed social contract cannot be used to justify governmental actions such as taxation, because government will initiate force against anyone who does not wish to enter into such a contract. As a result, he maintains that such an agreement is not voluntary and therefore cannot be considered a legitimate contract at all.

Modern Anglo-American law, like European civil law, is based on a will theory of contract, according to which all terms of a contract are binding on the parties because they chose those terms for themselves. This was less true when Hobbes wrote Leviathan; then, more importance was attached to consideration, meaning a mutual exchange of benefits necessary to the formation of a valid contract, and most contracts had implicit terms that arose from the nature of the contractual relationship rather than from the choices made by the parties. Accordingly, it has been argued that social contract theory is more consistent with the contract law of the time of Hobbes and Locke than with the contract law of our time, and that features in the social contract which seem anomalous to us, such as the belief that we are bound by a contract formulated by our distant ancestors, would not have seemed as strange to Hobbes' contemporaries as they do to us.[3]

Multiple Contracts

Legal scholar Randy Barnett has argued,[4] that, while presence in the territory of a society may be necessary for consent, it is not consent to any rules the society might make regardless of their content. A second condition of consent is that the rules be consistent with underlying principles of justice and the protection of natural and social rights, and have procedures for effective protection of those rights (or liberties). This has also been discussed by O.A. Brownson,[5] who argued that there are, in a sense, three "constitutions" involved: The first the constitution of nature that includes all of what the Founders called "natural law". The second would be the constitution of society, an unwritten and commonly understood set of rules for the society formed by a social contract before it establishes a government, by which it does establish the third, a constitution of government. To consent, a necessary condition is that the rules be constitutional in that sense.

Tacit Consent

The theory of an implicit social contract holds that by remaining in the territory controlled by some government, people give consent to be governed. This consent is what gives legitimacy to the government. Philosopher Roderick Long argues that this is a case of question begging, because the argument has to presuppose its conclusion:

Criticisms of natural rights

Contractualism is based on the notion that rights are agreed to order to further our interests, which is a form of individualism: each individual subject is accorded individual rights, which may or may not be inalienable, and form the basis of civil rights, as in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It must be underlined, however, as Hannah Arendt did on her book on imperialism, that the 1789 Declarations, in this agreeing with the social contract theory, bases the natural rights of the human-being on the civil rights of the citizen, instead of the reverse as the contractualist theory does.[6] The individualist and liberal approach has been criticized since the 19th century by thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche & Freud, and afterward by structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers, such as Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida.

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Other references

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Notes and References

  1. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume 2: The Age of the Reformation (Cambridge, 1978)
  2. Oeuvres complètes, III, 364; The Collected Writings of Rousseau, IV, 141
  3. Joseph Kary, "Contract Law and the Social Contract: What Legal History Can Teach Us About the Political Theory of Hobbes and Locke", 31 Ottawa Law Review 73 (Jan. 2000)
  4. Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty, Randy Barnett (2004)
  5. The American Republic: its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, O. A. Brownson (1866)
  6. Hannah Arendt's book on Imperialism was published in 1951 in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but was written separately. This interpretation by Arendt of natural rights emerging from civil rights finds illustration with the growing number of refugees and stateless people. Giorgio Agamben would further explore it, with his concept of an Homo sacer: "the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man prove to be completely unprotected at the very moment it is no longer possible to characterize them as rights of the citizens of a state" (Agamben, 2005)