A social contract is an agreement among individuals within a social group to abide by certain rules and laws.
In its modern form, the idea was reintroduced by Thomas Hobbes and further developed by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. After Kant, the concept fell out of popularity among philosophers until it was brought back by John Rawls.
Today, it is an important topic of discussion among moral and political philosophers.
The basic concept is that the consent of people within a society to be subject to rules and laws gives those rules and laws legitimacy (D’Agostino et al., 2021). If the social contract – the agreement to abide by common laws – is broken, society comes undone.
Definition of the Social Contract
The social contract is a concept in moral and political philosophy that comes from the Age of Enlightenment. It usually concerns the legitimacy of the state’s authority over the individuals it governs (Gough, 1938).
The idea behind the social contract is that individuals have agreed, either openly or implicitly, to give up some of their rights and obey the authority of the ruler or the majority in return for the protection of their remaining rights or the preservation of social order (Castiglione, 2015).
During the 17th and 18th centuries, several notable thinkers explored the ideas of the social contract and natural rights. These include:
- Hugo Grotius (1625)
- Thomas Hobbes (1651)
- Samuel von Pufendorf (1673)
- John Locke (1689/1821)
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), and
- Immanuel Kant (1797).
These philosophers had different perspectives on the idea of political authority. The theory takes its name from Rousseau’s 1762 book The Social Contract (French: Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique).
These philosophers argued that humans on an individual level are free to do whatever they want. However, freedom leads to chaos and insecurity for both the individual and society. Hobbes called this the ‘state of nature’.
To escape the state of nature, individuals within a social group agree to give up their right to do whatever they want, and instead submit to the authority of the social contract (enforced by a government or ruler). In exchange, they get protection, predictability, and security.
10 Examples of the Social Contract
1. Plato’s Republic
Plato’s Republic is the first known text to discuss a concept resembling a social contract.
In this text, Glaucon, one of Socrates’ interlocutors, tells a hypothetical story of how the social contract originated (The Republic, Book II). According to Glaucon, individuals used to live in fear of one another. To allay their fear, they sought to protect themselves by competing for power and strength.
However, they later realized that this life of endless power struggle was unsustainable as it caused endless conflict.
As a solution, these individuals in Glaucon’s story came together and agreed to establish a “social contract.” Through this contract, they gave up some of their power and wealth to an established authority figure in exchange for mutual protection and relief from their lives of endless conflict.
2. Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines
Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the first philosopher who saw justice as arising from a social contract instead of nature.
“There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm” (Principal Doctrines, §33).
3. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan
The first modern thinker to articulate a comprehensive theory of the social contract was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (2009).
According to Hobbes, individuals living in the state of nature were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Their short-sightedness and self-interest meant that they could not achieve self-betterment. They were too busy squabbling and attempting to merely survive. Life was asocial, anarchic, and apolitical.
Hobbes argued that society truly began when humans sought to escape from a state of endless conflict and agreed to a social contract.
Early humans in the state of nature came together and surrendered some of their individual rights in exchange for mutual security. A society was established, and a sovereign entity emerged.
4. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government
John Locke’s (1689/1821) understanding of the social contract shared some similarities with Hobbes’ but also had some notable differences.
Like Hobbes, John Locke asserted that early humans must have come together as a society to overcome the ‘state of nature’.
However, according to Locke, people living in the state of nature were still bound by law. He called this the Law of Nature. According to this law, man has the:
“power… to preserve his property; that is, his life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men” (Locke, 1689/1821).
These natural rights, however, were under threat because they had no protection from a government. They had no recourse if their rights were violated. As a result, they lived in fear.
Therefore, people came together to agree to form a state that would provide a neutral judge who could protect the “lives, liberty, and property” of its citizens.
5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social
The social contract theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau differs significantly from the previous examples.
Rousseau has a more collectivist approach, according to which the foundations of society rest on the sovereign “general will.”
In simple terms, the general will is the collective will of all citizens, as opposed to their individual interests. Rousseau believed that legitimacy comes only from the general will.
The social contract, according to Rousseau, can be summarized as follows: ” Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau, 1997).
6. Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Justice
Immanuel Kant, another Enlightenment philosopher, outlined his understanding of the social contract in his work “Metaphysical Elements of Justice” (also known as “Metaphysics of Morals”).
Like his compatriots, Kant saw the social contract as a set of rules for members of a state that delivers mutual benefit in the form of protection and security.
However, Kant did not believe consent to be essential for the social contract to exist. Indeed, all of us who live today were born into a social contract that we were not a party in creating.
Instead, Kant sees the social as a set of universal obligations (categorical imperatives) that we each have, and that are somewhat inescapable.
7. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century
While the above philosophers all proposed that the social contract required ceding individual sovereignty to others, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proposed a version of the social contract that did not require anyone to give up their sovereignty.
Proudhon believed that the social contract was not an agreement between an individual and a state. Rather, it is a contract among soverign individuals who agree not to harm, coerce, or control each other.
In his libertarian approach, each individual preserves complete sovereignty over themselves. Here, Proudhon embraces the ‘live and let live’ mantra (Proudhon, 2007).
8. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice
Rawls (1999), building on the work of Immanuel Kant, proposed what’s called a contractarian approach to the social contract.
In this approach, Rawls put forward a thought experiment. Imagine if you were asked – before you were born – what principles of justice and social organization should exist. Because you’re not born yet, you don’t know what your gender, race, income, wealth, etc. would be. He called this the “original position”.
From the original position, people would set aside their preferences behind a “veil of ignorance” and agree to a set of common principles of justice and organization – a social contract.
Since individuals in this original position don’t know their gender, race, income, and other characteristics, they are more likely to be impartial and agree to more just and universal principles.
9. David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement
David Gauthier (1987) posits that cooperation between two independent and self-interested individuals is possible, particularly when it comes to exploring morality and politics.
In his version of the social contract, elements such as trust, rationality, and self-interest encourage each party to be truthful and discourage them from violating the rules.
10. Philip Pettit’s Republicanism
Philip Pettit, in his book “Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government” (1999), argues for an update to the conventional idea that the social contract is based on the consent of the governed.
Explicit consent, according to Pettit, does not work because consent can be manufactured through coercion. Instead, he simply believes that the legitimacy of the social contract exists because there has not yet been an effective rebellion against it.
This position is quite empowering to anarchists and Marxists who hope to overthrow the current capitalistic social contract as it upholds a conflict-oriented approach, demonstrating that – if only the governed can gather the will and power – a new type of social contract can be imagined.
Social contract theory posits that individuals, tacitly or explicitly, agree to abide by certain rules and laws of society. They do so because the alternative is far less appealing
As the examples above show, different philosophers have different conceptions of the social contract. The theory continues to be debated and discussed in contemporary political and moral philosophy, and it can be used to justify various political systems.
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D’Agostino, F. (1996). Free public reason: Making it up as we go. Oxford University Press.
D’Agostino, F., Gaus, G., & Thrasher, J. (2021). Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/contractarianism-contemporary/
Epicurus—Principal Doctrines. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2023, from https://epicurus.net/en/principal.html
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Gough, J. (1938). The Social Contract: A Critical Study of its Development. Philosophical Review, 47(n/a), 331. https://doi.org/10.2307/2017436
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Kant, I. (1999). Metaphysical Elements of Justice (J. Ladd, Trans.; Second Edition,2). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Original work published 1797)
Locke, J. (1821). Two Treatises of Government. Whitmore and Fenn and C. Brown. (Original work published 1689)
Pettit, P. (1999). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford University Press.
Plato. (2013). Republic (C. Emlyn-Jones & W. Preddy, Trans.) [Data set]. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/DLCL.plato_philosopher-republic.2013
Proudhon, P.-J. (2007). General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century. Cosimo, Inc.
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Belknap Press.Rousseau, J.-J. (1997). Rousseau: “The Social Contract” and Other Later Political Writings. Cambridge University Press.