Social Contract Essay Ideas In Human

‘Rousseau is both one of the greatest advocates and most profound critics of the social contract tradition’. Discuss.

“Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau, 20072: 28). This conspicuous paradox between liberty and human oppression is reflected in Rousseau’s entire politico-moral philosophy and so it is no surprise that he has been much criticized for seeming ambiguities within his works (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 397). This essay focuses on the apparent contradiction that Rousseau strongly criticizes the social contract tradition and at the same time defends a social contract theory as the only solution to save mankind from corruption and degeneration. Firstly, the meaning of the ‘state of nature’ which is of underlying importance for Rousseau’s whole political philosophy is explored, comparing his ideas to those of the social contract theorists Hobbes and Locke. Next, the essay explains why Rousseau blames society for having transformed and corrupted man, who was originally innocent and how he thus criticizes the social contract tradition. Finally, it briefly analyses his paradoxical solution to end the corruption of mankind through reeducation and the Social Contract emphasizing liberty through the obligation to follow laws and the general will. Thus, three stages described by Rousseau, are investigated: (a) the state of nature, where man is free and independent, (b) society, in which man is oppressed and dependent on others, and (c) the state under the SocialContract, in which, ironically, man becomes free through obligation; he is only independent through dependence on law.

A social contract implies an agreement by the people on the rules and laws by which they are governed. The state of nature is the starting point for most social contract theories. It is an abstract idea considering what human life would look like without a government or a form of organized society (Lloyd, Sreedhar, 2009). For Rousseau, the purpose of studying the state of nature is three-fold: firstly, it is supposed to deliver an account of the original primitive condition of mankind, secondly, it helps identify the main characteristics of human nature in man’s original state, and thirdly, it helps describe and evaluate the ‘new state of nature’ which, in other words, is present-day society (MacAdam, 1972: 308). Rather than emphasizing the historical aspect of the state of nature, Rousseau uses this concept as mind-play picturing an ideal (Cole, 2007: 11).

According to Rousseau, in the state of nature “man is naturally peaceful and timid; at the least danger, his first reaction is to flee; he only fights through the force of habit and experience” (2002: 417). It seems that primitive men “having no moral relations or determinate obligations … could not be either good or bad, virtuous or vicious” (Rousseau, 20071: 113). Man is ‘pre-moral’ and innocent (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 384). He is only concerned with his own well-being and happiness, satisfying his personal needs and disregarding “everything he did not think himself immediately to notice” (ibid: 117); he is solitary and independent (Grimsley, 1973: 116). This feeling of self-love termed ‘amour de soi’ can only accidentally be good or bad (Green, 1950:16). Man has not yet discovered reason, knowing no rights and acting upon his instincts (ibid: 15). He does not know the feeling of love and so beauty has no importance to him; nor does wit or cunning (Rousseau, 2007: 117). Therefore, he hardly knows what inequality is except for physical inequality (ibid.). Locke agrees with Rousseau that man is “born equal and free” but believes natural man to already have certain rights, like freedom, as well as some reason to make moral decisions (Grimsley, 1973: 116). “… that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke, 1994: 117). While Locke is more positive than Rousseau, Hobbes’ view is filled with pessimism, describing life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and as a war of “every man against every man” (Hobbes, 1968: I. Ch. 13). Though Rousseau accepts that man is irrational (Grimsley, 1973:116), he argues that he is ignorant of the passions, “honour, interest, prejudices and vengeance” (Rousseau, 202: 417); natural law is thus rendered irrelevant (Noone, 1970: 697).

The individual’s first encounter with other men represents a critical juncture in Rousseau’s writings. Man finds out that in certain cases which are of mutual interest, he can cooperate with others and rely on them (Rousseau, 20071: 119). Loose associations are formed, but the absolute turning point is when man begins to live in huts with his family; he starts living in a small society (ibid: 119-120).

Everything now begins to change its aspect. Men, who have up to now been roving in the woods, by taking to a more settled manner of life, come gradually together, form separate bodies, and at length in every country arises a distinct nation… (ibid: 120)

By living with his wife and family, man discovers love and thus develops the ideas of beauty and merit, giving rise to competition, as well as vanity, contempt, shame and envy (ibid.). “With love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions.” (ibid.) Man enters an artificial society, thus hoping to be able to produce more through cooperation (Knutsen, 1994: 248). Only from then onwards does he have the ability to act morally and rationally, choosing his own opinions and no longer merely following his instincts, exercising will, reason and conscience (Grimsley, 1973: 116). Through reason a wise man’s ‘amour de soi’ can lead him to humanity and virtue (Voisine, 1996: 32-33). However, constant comparison to others and seeing oneself as ‘above’ others can lead to pride or ‘amour-propre’; man is corrupted by his environment (ibid.). Unlike Hobbes’ and Locke’s atomistic view of mankind, meaning that man is mainly formed before entering society, Rousseau thus depicts man’s psychological transformation in society, emphasizing the importance of his social environment (Chapman, 1968: 98). “I cannot repeat too often, that the error of Hobbes and other philosophers is to confuse natural man with the man before their eyes…” (Rousseau, 2002: 424).

Once man enters society, he enters dependence. The creation of private property and the division of labour generate differences in wealth, power and status (Knutsen, 1994: 249).

The first man who, having bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind … (Rousseau, 20071: 118)

Thus, Rousseau reasons, inequality is created through the corrupt interdependence that constitutes society. Though man originally thought that society would increase his freedom, he has lost it. “All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty.” (ibid: 124) By giving up his liberty, Rousseau argues, man does not only degrade his life, he “annuls” it (ibid: 127). “Through some fatal accident, which for the public good, should never have happened” (Rousseau, 20071: 121), man has moved from the original state of nature to a ‘new state of nature’ characterized by oppression (MacAdam, 1972: 308).

Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau thus doesn’t see a civil society as a necessary advancement from the state of nature. He criticizes the form of society and social contract tradition of his day, which he regards as wretched, as well as the theories of previous important and influential social contract thinkers. Above all, he considers Hobbes’ social contract theory endorsing an absolute sovereign Leviathan a “horrible system” (ibid), as he despises despotism. He also frequently criticizes Grotius for supporting the notion of slavery (20072: 29f.). Society has degenerated man, making him both physically and morally weak and dependent on others, and adding to all this pessimism, Rousseau sees no way back to the state of nature; primitive independence is lost (Levin, 1970: 502).

The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war; men thus harassed and depraved were no longer capable of retracing their steps or renouncing the fatal acquisitions they had made … brought themselves to the brink of ruin. (Rousseau, 20071: 123)

He argues that the rich have become dependent on the poor, as they no longer know how to provide for themselves, while peasants are used to manual labour and could be to some extent self-reliant; a point that differentiates his philosophy from that of Marx (Levin, 1970: 497). Rousseau considers this dependence as the greatest deprivation of freedom (Rousseau, 20072: 28) and thus writes in Émile, that man must be reeducated. He still believes that in essence man is perfectable; education is supposed to create a new man who can fend and think for himself and care “nothing for the weight of popular opinion” (Rousseau, 2004: 248), as well as live in society (Charvet, 1980: 69).

In addition to new forms of education, Rousseau sets out to create a better political system; and acknowledges the possibility of moving on from corruption (Charvet, 1980: 69). “It is my purpose to inquire whether it is possible for there to be any legitimate and certain rule of administration in civil society, taking men as they are and laws as they may be” (Rousseau, 20072: ’28). Confusingly, though he has so far criticized the social contract tradition, he names his solution le contrat social or the Social Contract. It is supposed to make men equal and free; the protection of liberty is most important (Grimsley, 1973: 93).

The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before (Rousseau, 20072: 32)

In order to become free, every individual must give up all his rights to the entire community, creating the same conditions for all and thus equality (ibid: 32-33). “Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody” (ibid.). After all, it would not be Rousseau if there weren’t a little paradox. Men are thus all subject to what Rousseau names volonté générale or the general will. It is not the will of all the individuals or of the majority, as even the majority may be mistaken, but it is always to public advantage and for the ‘greater good’ (ibid: 33f.). “Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than he will be forced to be free” (Rousseau, 20072: 34). This again reminds us that man is “everywhere in chains”. Man’s freedom is thus relative, he cannot endanger anyone else’s freedom and he must follow the law and above all, the general will, so to maintain an ordered society (Grimsley, 1973: 93). Man is only free by obedience; he must become dependent (on law) in order to be independent (MacAdam, 1972: 309).

In the Social Contract, Rousseau repudiates two traditional features of society (ibid: 92): Firstly, political authority is not to be based on force, as the use of force can never be right. “Since no man has natural authority over his fellow men, and since might in no sense makes right, conventions remain as the basis of all legitimate authority among men” (Rousseau, 2002: 8). Secondly, man has no innate sociability, which means society is not a natural occurrence; but if he decides to, he has the potential to enter into a relationship with his fellows (Grimsley, 1973: 92). Society must thus be formed upon rational choice; oppression is never right (ibid.). This thus rejects the view of Grotius that permanent enslavement of a captive people is acceptable, and certainly that of Hobbes, who advocates absolutism.

Apart from there being an apparent paradox in Rousseau advocating a social contract in the first place, there are several problems that arise when reading the Social Contract (Noone, 1970: 707f.; Bertram, 2010). First of all, he does not specify what the general will is by giving examples (Noone, 1970: 708). How can the general will be found, how do individuals know what it is and know that it is their best (and only) option to follow it, if it is not, as Rousseau writes himself, “formally set forth” (Rousseau, 20072: 32)? At the same time, the rule of the general will almost seems to be an absolute regime in itself, something that Rousseau so thoroughly rejected in Hobbes, as it must always be obeyed. Furthermore, if any of the relations between the Social Contract, obligation, the state of nature and the general will were changed, this would distort Rousseau’s entire political and moral philosophy (Noone, 1970: 708). “The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective” (Rousseau, 20072: 32). In addition, though Rousseau defines political obligation as following laws and the general will, there is no specification of individual obligations (Noone, 1970: 707). Also, while he defines sovereignty as the “exercise of the general will” (Rousseau, 20072: 36), he does not mention specific laws that should be sovereign (ibid.). Other problems are to be found in Émile; though Rousseau despises the rich, Émile would hardly have a private tutor were he not wealthy ((Levin, 1970: 511). Moreover, though Émile is supposed to learn to think for himself, he is under the ‘guidance will’ of his teacher, which in some way is similar to ‘thought control’ (ibid: 512). Again, this leads to our favourite paradox, Émile, while free, is still “in chains”.

In conclusion, Rousseau is in fact both a critic and an advocate of social contract theory. Throughout his work, he considers society to have corrupted mankind and most of all, he rejects Hobbes’ idea of an absolute Leviathan. At the same time, in order to create his own rather different Social Contract which he sees as the only solution to escape corruption, he uses the ideas of the social contract tradition that the people should give up sovereignty to an authority to preserve their freedom; sovereignty lies within the whole, in this case with the general will. Simply by naming his work le contrat social, Rousseau implies that he wants to be understood in the context of contractarianism. He thus makes a transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ with his conception of society and politics (Cole, 2007: 10).The system Rousseau sees as the solution to overcome corrupt society is at the same time vague and unalterable. This is problematic, as Rousseau fails to give us practical examples of how to apply his Social Contract and it is therefore unclear how it could function in practice. Furthermore, it seems strange that it cannot be changed, considering that he seems to acknowledge that mankind can evolve. On the other hand, it is important not to take him too literally, after all, his method is to create concrete and universal principles from generalizations of the human condition, based less on facts than on political ‘right’ (ibid.).



Bertram, C. (2010) “Jean Jacques Rousseau”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online], Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available: [Accessed : 5 January 2011].

Brown, C., Terry Nardin and Nicholas Rengger (2002) International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks to the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Chapman, H. P. (1968) Rousseau – Totalitarian or Liberal? (New York: AMS Press).

Charvet, J. (1980) “Rousseau and the Idea of Community”, History of Political Thought I(1): 69-90.

Cole, G. D. H (2007) “Introduction” in The Social Contract and Discourses (Middletown, RI: BN Publishing).

Green, F. C. (1950) Rousseau and the idea of Progress, The Zaharoff Lecture for 1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Grimsley, R. (1973) The Philosophy of Rousseau (Bungay, Suffolk: Oxford University Press).

Knutsen, T. L. (1994) “Re-reading Rousseau in the Post-Cold War”, Journal of Peace Research, 31(3): 247-262.

Hobbes, T. (1968, ed.: C. B. Macpherson) Leviathan (London: Penguin Books).

Levin, M. (1970) “Rousseau and Independence”, Political Studies, XVIII(4): 496-513.

Lloyd, S. A. and Susanne Sreedhar (2009) “Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online], Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available: [Accessed: 5 January 2011].

Locke, J. (1994, ed.: David Berman) Two Treatises of Government (London: Everyman).

MacAdam, J. (1972) “The Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract”, Philosophy, XLVII(182): 308-321.

Noone, J. B. (1970) “The Social Contract and Ideas of Sovereignty in Rousseau”, Journal of Politics, XXXII(3): 696-708.

Rousseau, J. J. (20071) “A Dissertation – On the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind” (English Translation) in The Social Contract and Discourses (Middletown, RI: BN Publishing).

Rousseau, J. J. (20072) “The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right” (English Translation) in The Social Contract and Discourses (Middletown, RI: BN Publishing).

Rousseau, J. J. (2004) (English Translation) Émile (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing).

Rousseau, J. J. (2002) “The State of War” (English Translation) in Brown, C., Terry Nardin and Nicholas Rengger (eds.) International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks to the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Voisine, J. “Amour de soi/Amour-propre” in Trousson, R. and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger (eds.) (1996) Dictionnaire de Jean-Jaques Rousseau (Paris: Editions Champion).

Written by: Nicola-Ann Hardwick
Written at: Royal Holloway, University of London
Written for: Dr. Michael Bacon

Date written: 10 January 2011

"Social Agreement" redirects here. For the Greek political party, see Social Agreement (Greece). For Rousseau's 1762 treatise on the concept, see The Social Contract. For other uses, see Social Contract (disambiguation).

In both moral and political philosophy, the social contract is a theory or model that originated during the Age of Enlightenment. Usually, the social contract concerns the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual.[1] Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights, therefore, is often an aspect of social contract theory. The term takes its name from The Social Contract (French: Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique), a 1762 book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau that discussed this concept.

Although the antecedents of social contract theory are found in antiquity, in Greek and Stoic philosophy and Roman and Canon Law, the heyday of the social contract was the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, when it emerged as the leading doctrine of political legitimacy. The starting point for most social contract theories is an examination of the human condition absent of any political order that Thomas Hobbes termed the "state of nature".[2] 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 consent to give up their natural freedom to obtain the benefits of political order.

Hugo Grotius (1625), Thomas Hobbes (1651), Samuel von Pufendorf (1673), John Locke (1689), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), and Immanuel Kant (1797) are among the most prominent of 17th-century and 18th-century theorists of social contract and natural rights. Each solved the problem of political authority in a different way. Grotius posited that individual human beings had natural rights. Thomas Hobbes famously said that in a "state of nature", human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". In the absence of political order and law, everyone would have 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 contract with each other to establish political community (civil society) through a social contract in which they all gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an absolute sovereign, one man or an assembly of men. Though the sovereign's edicts may well be arbitrary and tyrannical, Hobbes saw absolute government as the only alternative to the terrifying anarchy of a state of nature. Hobbes asserted that humans consent to abdicate their rights in favor of the absolute authority of government (whether monarchical or parliamentary). Pufendorf disputed Hobbes's equation of a state of nature with war.[3]

Alternatively, John Locke and 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. 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 legitimate only to the extent that they fulfill their part of the agreement. According to Hobbes (in whose view government is not a party to the original contract) citizens are not obligated to submit to the government when it is too weak to act effectively to suppress factionalism and civil unrest. According to other social contract theorists, when the government fails to secure their natural rights (Locke) or satisfy the best interests of society (called the "general will" in Rousseau), citizens can withdraw their obligation to obey, or change the leadership through elections or other means including, when necessary, violence.

Locke believed that natural rights were inalienable, and that the rule of God therefore superseded government authority, and Rousseau believed that democracy (self-rule) was the best way of ensuring the general welfare while maintaining individual freedom under the rule of law. The Lockean concept of the social contract was invoked in the United States Declaration of Independence. Social contract theories were eclipsed in the 19th century in favor of utilitarianism, Hegelianism, and Marxism, and were revived in the 20th century, notably in the form of a thought experiment by John Rawls.[3]


The concept of the social contract was originally posed by Glaucon, as described by Plato in The Republic, Book II.

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice;—it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.[4]

The social contract theory also appears in Crito, another dialogue from Plato. Over time, the social contract theory became more widespread after Epicurus (341-270 BC), the first philosopher who saw justice as a social contract, and not as existing in Nature due to divine intervention (see below and also Epicurean ethics), decided to bring the theory to the forefront of his society. As time went on, philosophers of traditional political and social thought, such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau put forward their opinions on social contract, which then caused the topic to become much more mainstream.

Classical thought[edit]

Social contract formulations are preserved in many of the world's oldest records.[5] The Buddhist text of the second century BCE, Mahāvastu, recounts the legend of Mahasammata. The story goes as follows:

In the early days of the cosmic cycle mankind lived on an immaterial plane, dancing on air in a sort of fairyland, where there was no need of food or clothing, and no private property, family, government or laws. Then gradually the process of cosmic decay began its work, and mankind became earthbound, and felt the need of food and shelter. As men lost their primeval glory, distinctions of class arose, and they entered into agreements with one another, accepting the institution of private property and the family. With this theft, murder, adultery, and other crime began, and so the people met together and decided to appoint one man from among them to maintain order in return for a share of the produce of their fields and herds. He was called "the Great Chosen One" (Mahasammata), and he received the title of raja because he pleased the people.[6]

In his rock edicts, 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 in the fourth century BCE seemed 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):

31. Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.

32. Those animals which are incapable of making binding agreements with one another not to inflict nor suffer harm are without either justice or injustice; and likewise for those peoples who either could not or would not form binding agreements not to inflict nor suffer harm.

33. 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.[7]

Renaissance developments[edit]

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.[8]Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), from the School of Salamanca, might be considered 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, and 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.

These arguments, however, relied on a corporatist theory found in Roman law, according to which "a populus" can exist as a distinct legal entity. Thus, 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.


Hugo Grotius (1625)[edit]

In the early 17th century, Grotius (1583–1645) introduced the modern idea that individuals had natural rights that enabled self-preservation, employing 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, namely 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, individual persons 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 as an individual is entitled to try to preserve himself. Each person should, therefore, avoid doing harm to, or interfering with, another, and any breach of these rights should be punished.

Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651)[edit]

Main article: Leviathan (Hobbes 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 or 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.[9] 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".

The state system, which grew out of the social contract, was, however, also 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 (more powerful) capable of imposing some system such as social-contract laws on everyone by force. Indeed, Hobbes' work helped to serve as a basis for the realism theories of international relations, advanced by E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau. Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that humans ("we") need the "terrour of some Power" otherwise humans will not heed the law of reciprocity, "(in summe) doing to others, as wee would be done to".[10]

John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689)[edit]

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 possessions, 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.[citation needed]

While Hobbes argued for near-absolute authority, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under law in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke argued that a government's legitimacy comes from the citizens' delegation to the government of their absolute right of violence (reserving the inalienable right of self-defense or "self-preservation"), along with elements of other rights (e.g. property will be liable to taxation) as necessary to achieve the goal of security through granting the state a monopoly of violence, whereby the government, as an impartial judge, may use the collective force of the populace to administer and enforce the law, rather than each man acting as his own judge, jury, and executioner—the condition in the state of nature.[citation needed]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Du contrat social (1762)[edit]

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 Denis 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.

[The social contract] can be reduced to the following terms: 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.[11]

Rousseau's striking phrase that man must "be forced to be free"[12] 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 law, he will be forced to listen to what was decided when the people acted as a collectivity (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 rather its expression.

Thus, enforcement of laws, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty: 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.

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

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 that 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 that did not involve an individual surrendering sovereignty to others. According to him, the social contract was not between individuals and the state, but rather among individuals who refrain from coercing or governing each other, each one maintaining complete sovereignty upon him- or herself:

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No, that would mean but the continuation of [Rousseau's] idea. The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society. In this, the notion of commutative justice, first brought forward by the primitive fact of exchange, ... is substituted for that of distributive justice ... Translating these words, contract, commutative justice, which are the language of the law, into the language of business, and you have commerce, that is to say, in its highest significance, the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.

— Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)

John Rawls' Theory of Justice (1971)[edit]

Building on the work of Immanuel Kant with its presumption of limits on the state,[13]John Rawls (1921–2002), in A Theory of Justice (1971), proposed a contractarian approach whereby rational people in a hypothetical "original position" would set aside their individual preferences and capacities under a "veil of ignorance" and 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's Morals By Agreement (1986)[edit]

Main article: Contractarian ethics

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.[14] Gauthier notably points out the advantages of cooperation between two parties when it comes to the challenge of the prisoner's dilemma. He proposes that, if two parties were to stick to the original agreed-upon arrangement and morals outlined by the contract, they would both experience an optimal result.[14][15] In his model for the social contract, factors including trust, rationality, and self-interest keep each party honest and dissuade them from breaking the rules.[14][15]

Philip Pettit's Republicanism (1997)[edit]

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, should be modified. Instead of arguing for explicit consent, which can always be manufactured, Pettit argues that the absence of an effective rebellion against it is a contract's only legitimacy.

Critical theories[edit]

Consent of the governed[edit]

An early critic of social contract theory was Rousseau's friend, the philosopher David Hume, who in 1742 published an essay "Of Civil Liberty". The second part of this essay, entitled "Of the Original Contract",[16] stresses that the concept of a "social contract" is a convenient fiction:

As no party, in the present age can well support itself without a philosophical or speculative system of principles annexed to its political or practical one; we accordingly find that each of the factions into which this nation is divided has reared up a fabric of the former kind, in order to protect and cover that scheme of actions which it pursues. ... The one party [defenders of the absolute and divine right of kings, or Tories], by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article. The other party [the Whigs, or believers in constitutional monarchy], by founding government altogether on the consent of the PEOPLE suppose that there is a kind of original contract by which the subjects have tacitly reserved the power of resisting their sovereign, whenever they find themselves aggrieved by that authority with which they have for certain purposes voluntarily entrusted him.

— David Hume, "On Civil Liberty" [II.XII.1][16]

Hume argued that consent of the governed was the ideal foundation on which a government should rest, but that it had not actually occurred this way in general.

My intention here is not to exclude the consent of the people from being one just foundation of government where it has place. It is surely the best and most sacred of any. I only contend that it has very seldom had place in any degree and never almost in its full extent. And that therefore some other foundation of government must also be admitted.

— Ibid II.XII.20

Natural law and constitutionalism[edit]

Legal scholar Randy Barnett has argued[17] that, while presence in the territory of a society may be necessary for consent, this does not constitute consent to all 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,[18] who argued that, in a sense, three "constitutions" are involved: first, the constitution of nature that includes all of what the Founders called "natural law"; second, 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[edit]

The theory of an implicit social contract holds that by remaining in the territory controlled by some society, which usually has a government, people give consent to join that society and be governed by its government, if any. This consent is what gives legitimacy to such a government.

Other writers have argued that consent to join the society is not necessarily consent to its government. For that, the government must be set up according to a constitution of government that is consistent with the superior unwritten constitutions of nature and society.[18]

Explicit Consent[edit]

The theory of an implicit social contract also goes under the principles of explicit consent[19]. The main difference between Tacit consent and explicit consent is that explicit consent is meant to leave no room for misinterpretation. Moreover, you should directly state what it is that you want and the person has to respond in a concise manner that either confirms or denies the proposition.


According to the will theory of contract, a contract is not presumed valid unless all parties voluntarily agree to it, either tacitly or explicitly, without coercion. Lysander Spooner, a 19th-century lawyer and staunch supporter of a right of contract between individuals, argued in his essay No Treason 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; at that time 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 certain 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.[20]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Ankerl, Guy. Towards a Social Contract on a Worldwide Scale: Solidarity contracts. Research series. Geneva: International Institute for Labour Studies [Pamphlet], 1980, ISBN 92-9014-165-4.
  • Carlyle, R. W. A History of mediæval political theory in the West. Edinburgh London: W. Blackwood and sons, 1916.
  • Falaky, Faycal (2014). Social Contract, Masochist Contract: Aesthetics of Freedom and Submission in Rousseau. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-1-4384-4989-0
  • Gierke, Otto Friedrich Von and Ernst Troeltsch. Natural Law and the Theory of Society 1500 to 1800. Translated by Sir Ernest Barker, with a Lecture on "The Ideas of Natural Law and Humanity", by Ernst Troeltsch. Cambridge: The University Press, 1950.
  • Gough, J. W.. The Social Contract. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1936.
  • Harrison, Ross. Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion's Empire: an Examination of Seventeenth-Century Political Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651.
  • Locke, John. Second Treatise on Government 1689.
  • Narveson, Jan; Trenchard, David (2008). "Contractarianism/Social Contract". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 103–05. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n66. ISBN 978-1412965804. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. NY: Oxford U.P., 1997, ISBN 0-19-829083-7, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997
  • Pufendorf, Samuel, James Tully and Michael Silverthorne. Pufendorf: On the Duty of Man and Citizen according to Natural Law. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge University Press 1991.
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (1971)
  • Riley, Patrick. "How Coherent is the Social Contract Tradition?" Journal of the History of Ideas 34: 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1973): 543–62.
  • Riley, Patrick. Will and Political Legitimacy: A Critical Exposition of Social Contract Theory in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1982.
  • Riley, Patrick. The Social Contract and Its Critics, chapter 12 in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought. Eds. Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler. Vol 4 of The Cambridge History of Political Thought. Cambridge University Press, 2006. pp. 347–75.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762)

External links[edit]

  • "The Social Contract". In Our Time (7 Feb 2008). BBC Radio Program. Melvyn Bragg, moderator; with Melissa Lane, Cambridge University; Susan James, University of London; Karen O'Brien, University of Warwick.
  • "Game Theory". In Our Time (May 10, 2012). BBC Radio Program. Melvin Bragg, moderator, with Ian Stewart, Emeritus, University of Warwick, Andrew Colman, University of Leicester, and Richard Bradley, London School of Economics. Discussion of game theory that touches on relation of game theory to the Social Contract.
  • Foisneau, Luc. "Governing a Republic: Rousseau's General Will and the Problem of Government". Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 2, no. 1 (December 15, 2010)
  • "The Social Contract and Constitutional Republics". Constitution Society, website.
  • Sigmund, Paul E. "Natural Law, Consent, and Equality: William of Ockham to Richard Hooker". Published on website Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism. A We the People project of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • Cudd, Ann. "Contractarianism". In Zalta, Edward N.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  • D'Agostino, Fred. "Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract". In Zalta, Edward N.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  • "Social contract". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  • Jan Narveson. "The Contractarian Theory of Morals:FAQ". On website Against Politics: Anarchy Naturalized.
  • A satirical example of a social contract for the United States from the Libertarian Party. Parody.
  • Social Contract: A Basic Contradiction in Western Liberal Democracy, Eric Engle. A critique of social contract theory as counter-factual myth.
The original cover of Thomas Hobbes's work Leviathan (1651), in which he discusses the concept of the social contract theory
  1. ^"For the name social contract (or original contract) often covers two different kinds of contract, and, in tracing the evolution of the theory, it is well to distinguish them. Both were current in the 17th century and both can be discovered in Greek political thought. ... [The first] generally involved some theory of the origin of the state. The second form of social contract may be more accurately called the contract of government, or the contract of submission.... Generally, it has nothing to do with the origins of society, but, presupposing a society already formed, it purports to define the terms on which that society is to be governed: the people have made a contract with their ruler which determines their relations with him. They promise him obedience, while he promises his protection and good government. While he keeps his part of the bargain, they must keep theirs, but if he misgoverns the contract is broken and allegiance is at an end." J. W. Gough, The Social Contract (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), pp. 2–3. Modern revivals of social contract theories have not been as concerned with the origin of the state.
  2. ^Ross Harrison writes that "Hobbes seems to have invented this useful term." See Ross Harrison, Locke, Hobbs, and Confusion's Masterpiece (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 70. The phrase "state of nature" does occur, in Thomas Aquinas's Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, Question 19, Article 1, Answer 13. However, Aquinas uses it in the context of a discussion of the nature of the soul after death, not in reference to politics.
  3. ^ abPatrick Riley, The Social Contract and Its Critics, chapter 12 in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, Eds. Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler, Vol 4 of The Cambridge History of Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 347–75.
  4. ^The Republic, Book II. Quoted from
  5. ^"". Retrieved 2016-11-10. 
  6. ^AL Basham, The Wonder That Was India, pp. 83
  7. ^Vincent Cook (2000-08-26). "Principal Doctrines". Epicurus. Retrieved 2012-09-26. 
  8. ^Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume 2: The Age of the Reformation (Cambridge, 1978)
  9. ^E.g. person A gives up his/her right to kill person B if person B does the same.
  10. ^Hobbes, Thomas (1985). Leviathan. London: Penguin. p. 223. 
  11. ^Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complètes, ed. B. Gagnebin and M. Raymond (Paris, 1959–95), III, 361; The Collected Writings of Rousseau, ed. C. Kelley and R. Masters (Hanover, 1990–), IV, 139.
  12. ^Oeuvres complètes, III, 364; The Collected Writings of Rousseau, IV, 141.
  13. ^• Gerald Gaus and Shane D. Courtland, 2011, "Liberalism", 1.1, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
       • Immanuel Kant, ([1797]). The Metaphysics of Morals, Part 1.
  14. ^ abc"Social Contract Theory [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]". 2004-10-15. Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  15. ^ ab"Contractarianism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Retrieved 2011-01-20. 
  16. ^ abHume, David. Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Part II, Essay XII, Of The Original Contract. 
  17. ^Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty, Randy Barnett (2004)
  18. ^ abO. A. Brownson (1866). "The American Republic: its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny". Retrieved 2011-02-13. 
  19. ^"Gaining explicit consent under the GDPR". IT Governance Blog. 2017-07-05. Retrieved 2018-02-08. 
  20. ^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)

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