Social Contract Theory: Definition and Critique

Social Contract Theory: Definition and CritiqueReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

social contract examples and definition

Social contract theory is a philosophical theory that believes societies can only achieve stability and civility based upon an implied or explicit social contract. A social contract is an agreement among individuals within a social group to abide by certain rules and laws for mutual safety and defence.

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.

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).

According to social contract theory, individuals that live in a given community have explicitly or tacitly consented to surrender at least some of their freedoms and submit to the ruling authority in exchange for their protection and the maintenance of the social order (Castiglione, 2015). 

Definition of Social Contract Theory

The social contract is a concept in moral and political philosophy the most famous forms of which come from the Age of Enlightenment. It usually concerns the legitimacy of the state’s authority over the individuals it governs (Gough, 1938).

During the 17th and 18th centuries, several notable thinkers explored the ideas of the social contract and natural rights. 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 an authority. In exchange, they get order and security.

Key Contributors to Social Contract Theory

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 amassing power.

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.

2. Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the first philosopher who saw justice as arising from a social contract instead of nature. He argued that “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 (1651/2009). 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. 

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 would protect 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, 1762/1997).

6. Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant, another Enlightenment philosopher, outlined his understanding of the social contract in “The Metaphysics of Morals” (1797/1999). 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 party in creating.

7. Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution

While the above philosophers all proposed that the social contract required ceding individual sovereignty to others, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proposed a version that does not.

Proudhon believed that the social contract was not an agreement between an individual and a state. Rather, it is a contract among sovereign individuals who agree not to harm, coerce, or control each other (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 the following 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. will 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—in other words, a social contract. 

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.

Instead, he simply believes that the legitimacy of the social contract exists because there has not yet been an effective rebellion against it.

See More Social Contract Examples Here

Critiques of Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is critiqued on the grounds that it is a theory that tends to conceptualize the “liberal individual” at the heart of the theory as a white male. This critique tends to come from feminist and critical race scholars.

The feminist critique holds that Western liberal democratic social contracts have been developed with liberalism afforded primarily to men, for whom constitutions, laws, and contracts are constructed.

For example, Carole Pateman (1988) argues that most social contracts have the effect of governing men’s domination over women. This codifies an overtly patriarchal and misogynistic cultural ideal into law. Her examples focus on marriage and surrogate motherhood, where she argues the social contract is designed to position women as subject to and dependant upon men. Thus, the social contract is a tool for the dominance of men in society.

Similarly, the “liberal individual” conceptualized by a society with a social contract tends to see that individual in economic terms – the ‘economic man’. We see this, for example, in laws that gave men the right to property ownership, and upholds men as the powerful entities in legal and economic institutions.

A race-conscious critique holds similar arguments, but looks at how the ‘liberal individual’ or ‘economic man’ envisaged by the social contract is decidedly white.

No better example of this was in the USA, where a constitution built on the idea of a social contract nonetheless allowed white men ownership over Black people.

Charles Mills (1997), for example, who was inspired by Pateman’s feminist critique, argued that the social contract is in fact a ‘racial contract’.

This racial contract, Mills argues, justifies the exploitation of people, lands, and resources of other races. We continue to see this, for example, in debates over Indigenous land ownership in Canada and Australia, where land ownership under the social contract belongs to the ‘crown’ (i.e. white colonizers), whereas from the Indigenous perspective, this land is sovereign and unceded Indigenous land. The race contract fails to acknowledge this.

A third critique comes from a care ethics perspective, which holds that the social contract sees civilization as an exchange of mutual benefit, which fails a moral duty to one another.

The care ethics perspective holds that the social contract fails the poor and needy who are worthy of economic and physical protections regardless of their claim to money or power. In other words, our interdependence should be more than just of mutual benefit; rather, some of us should expend our time, energy, and economic resources for the care of others, without an expected reciprocal deed.

Conclusion

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 both democratic and authoritarian rule.

References

Castiglione, D. (2015). Introduction the Logic of Social Cooperation for Mutual Advantage – The Democratic Contract. Political Studies Review, 13(2), 161–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/1478-9302.12080

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

Gauthier, D. (1987). Morals by Agreement. Clarendon Press.

Gough, J. (1938). The Social Contract: A Critical Study of its Development. Philosophical Review, 47(n/a), 331. https://doi.org/10.2307/2017436

Hobbes, T. (2009). Leviathan: The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. The Floating Press. (Original work published 1651)

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)

Mills, C. (1997). The Racial Contract. USA: Cornell University Press.

Pateman, C. (1988). The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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. (Original work published 1762)

Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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