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This article deals with the philosophical and political concept of the social contract, and not with juridicial contract theory. Specific government initiatives using the term "Social Contract" in their name are listed in the article Social Contract (disambiguation).

Social contract theory (or contractarianism) is a concept used in philosophy, political science and sociology to denote an implicit agreement within a state regarding the rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens, or more generally a similar concord between a group and its members, or between individuals. All members within a society are assumed to agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society without violating the contract; such violation would signify a problematic attempt to return to the state of nature. It has been often noted, indeed, that social contract theories relied on a specific anthropological conception of man as either "good" or "evil". Niccolò Machiavelli (1513-1517), Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous philosophers of contractarianism, which is the theoretical groundwork of democracy. It is also one of a few competing theoretical groundworks of liberalism, but Rousseau's social contract is often seen as conflicting with classical liberalism which stresses individualism and rejects subordination of individual liberty to the "general will" of the community.[1]

From a psychological point of view the contract may be seen as establishing a set of constraints upon peoples social behavior and establishing social norms and rights and responsibilities of both the members of the group and those with status within it.


State of nature & social contract

The social contract, as a political theory, explains the justification and purpose of the state and of human rights. According to Hobbes' canonical theory, the essence is as follows: Without society, we would live in a state of nature, where we each have unlimited natural freedoms. The downside of this general autonomy is that it includes the "right to all things" and thus the freedom to harm all who threaten one's own self-preservation; there are no positive rights, only laws of nature and an endless "war of all against all" (Bellum omnium contra omnes, Hobbes 1651). To avoid this, we jointly agree to an implicit social contract by which we each gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to honor the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so. The figurehead of the society we create, representing our joint interests as members and formed by the delegation of our power, is the sovereign state.

A fictional state of nature?

The emergence of the social contract from the state of nature is often explained in terms of just-so stories whose goal is to show the logical basis of rights rather than attempting historical accuracy. Rousseau's 1754 Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men is more a fictional account of what has passed than a realistic description of what happened. However, it is also true that the ambiguity persists, and that Hobbes' polemic conception of the state of nature (opposed to Rousseau's irenical conception of it) approach it from the realist description of civil war. Although many read Leviathan, Hobbes' principle work on social contract theory, in the context of the English Civil War, it was written in its entirety during the antebellum period, when Hobbes had fled to the continent. Due to political pressures, Hobbes was unable to publish the tome until war had already broken out, and he could be protected. It should be noted that Hobbes and Rousseau view the social contract as an explicit, actual agreement. Locke sees the contract in more of its traditional fictional sense.

Violations of the contract

The social contract and the civil rights it gives us are neither "natural" 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 rights come from agreeing to the contract, those who simply choose not to fulfill their contractual obligations, such as by committing crimes, risk losing some of 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. Most of us are comfortable with laws punishing behavior that harms people because we are concerned about others harming us and don't plan on harming others. In this way, society works by "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" (Hardin 1968). [1] However, philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze have argued that this is a repressive conception, declaring that we are all "potential criminals". Indeed, Foucault criticized the concept of "criminal" ("délinquant", meaning professional outlaw), and pointed out the relationship between crime, class struggle and insanity which, as in crimes of passion, can burst out suddenly — thus explaining the motto "we are all virtual criminals".

Some rights are defined in term of the negative obligation they impose on others. For example, your basic property rights entail that everyone else refrain from taking what is yours. Rights can also involve positive obligations, such as the right to have stolen property returned to you, which obligates others to give you back what's yours when they find it in the hands of others (or, in modern society, to send the police in to do it). Theorists argue that a combination of positive and negative rights is necessary to create an enforceable contract that protects our interests. Recently, liberal thinkers such as John Rawls have stressed positive rights, while libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick have emphasized negative rights.


Classical thought

Social contract ideas go back to the Greeks; Plato has Socrates make a case for social contract ideas in Crito but criticizes them in The Republic. Epicurus explicitly endorsed social contract ideas; the last fourth of his Principal Doctrines state that justice comes from agreement not to harm each other, and in laws being made for mutual advantage (pleasure, happiness), and that laws which are no longer advantageous are no longer just.

Most European intellectuals before 1900 would have had a classical education, and were typically familiar with Plato, if not Epicurus.

Niccolò Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy (1513-1517)

The Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses On The First Ten Books of Titus Livy), Machiavelli's second most famous work, focuses on the proper function of sovereign Republics, rather than the function of autocratic regimes discussed in Il Principe (The Prince). An analysis of the history written by the Roman Titus Livy, the Discourses uses analogies from Roman history to study contemporary Italian politics. For example, Machiavelli compares the way in which Roman generals used religion to manipulate their soldiers to the brief ascendancy of Savonarola in Florentine politics. Both of his major works talk extensively about uniting the city-states of the Italian peninsula under one government. He puts forth the notion that man, who is inherently evil, ought to be lawfully ruled by systematized politics.

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 sovereignty, retained by the state, in return for their protection and a more functional society, so social contract evolves out of pragmatic self-interest. Hobbes named the state Leviathan, thus pointing to the artifice involved in the social contract. Other philosophies conceived by Hobbes is that man was innately born with no morals or understanding of god. When observing the Bible, one can find that the name of Satan's serpent is Leviathan, thus the naming of his book. His ideas were greatly criticized due to their morbidity and anti-Christian ideals.

John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1689)

John Locke's Two Treatises of Government differs from Hobbes' conception of an absolute monarchy by arguing in favor of a right of rebellion against tyranny, believing that people contracted with one another for a particular kind of government, and that they could modify or even abolish the government. For this reason, he is considered to be one of the main thinkers of liberalism. Locke's social contract theory was intertwined with his understanding of an innate, essential human rationality constituting 'natural law', explained in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. John Locke is often compared to his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, and their main differences stands as one of the most important of Locke's beliefs. Locke believed, in contrast to Hobbes, that man is naturally good, and is not solely driven by greed and evil.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Du Contrat social (1762)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right, outlined a different version of contract theory, based on the conception of popular sovereignty, defined as indivisible and inalienable - this last trait explaining Rousseau's aversion for representative democracy and his advocacy 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: it is thus collectivist or holistic, rather than individualist. 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:

The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole...

Hence, Rousseau's famous sentence: "We shall force them to be free" must be understood as such: since individual subjects resign their free will, as in Hobbes's theory, to form popular sovereignty; besides, 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.

Rousseau's version of the social contract is the one most often associated with the term "social contract" itself. His theories had an influence on both the 1789 French Revolution and the subsequent formation of the socialist movement. Furthermore, one can note that, as in Locke or Hobbes' theories, Rousseau gave particular attention to subjective and individual questions, as in his Confessions for example.

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. This is related to the non-aggression principle.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon 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:

"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).

This idea of a social contract that excludes intervention by the state in individual liberty was also followed by other individualist anarchists, such as Benjamin Tucker (an enthusiast of Proudhon's writings) who said "Mankind is approaching the real social contract, which is not, as Rousseau thought, the origin of society, but rather the outcome of a long social experience, the fruit of its follies and disasters. It is obvious that this contract, this social law, developed to its perfection, excludes all aggression, all violation of equality and liberty, all invasion of every kind." (Liberty, VII, 1890)

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 conception of republicanism (1997)

Philip Pettit 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 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, in much the same way that Karl Popper argues that the criteria of scientific work is its falsifiability.


Social contract is a violation of contract theory

Normally, a contract is not presumed valid unless all parties agree to it voluntarily, that is, no one has been pressured under the threat of physical force to enter into it. Lysander Spooner, a staunch supporter of a right of contract between individuals, argues that a supposed social contract (of the Rousseauean sort) 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. It should be noted, however, that philosophical concept of social contract does not address the same issues as the juridical contract theory, making the name "social contract" potentially misleading.

Ronald Dworkin's Law's Empire (1986)

In his 1986 book Law's Empire, Ronald Dworkin touches briefly on social contract theory, firstly distinguishing between the use of social contract theory in an ethical sense, to establish the character or content of justice (such as John Rawls' A Theory of Justice) and its use in a jurisprudential sense as a basis for legitimate government.

Dworkin argues that if every citizen were a party to an actual, historical agreement to accept and obey political decisions in the way his community's political decisions are in fact taken, then the historical fact of agreement would provide at least a good prima facie case for coercion even in ordinary politics:

So some political philosophers have been tempted to say that we have in fact agreed to the social contract of that kind tacitly, by just not emigrating when we reach the age of consent. But no one can argue that very long with a straight face. Consent cannot be binding on people, in the way this argument requires, unless it is given more freely, and with more genuine alternate choice, than just by declining to build a life from nothing under a foreign flag. And even if the consent were genuine, the argument would fail as an argument for legitimacy, because a person leaves one sovereign only to join another; he has no choice to be free from sovereigns altogether. [2]

A typical counterargument is that the choice is not limited to tacit consent to the status quo vs. expatriation, but also includes accepting the contract, then working to alter the parts that are disagreed with, as by participating in the political process.

Criticisms of natural right

Contractualism is based on a philosophy of rights being agreed to in 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 doing the reverse as the contractualist theory pretends to do [3]. However, this individualist and liberal approach has been criticized since the 19th century by thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche or Freud, and afterward by structuralism and post-structuralism thinkers, such as Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida. Several of those philosophers have attempted, in a spinozist inspiration, of thinking some sort of transindividuality which would precede the division between individual subject and collective subject (i.e. society).

See also


  1. Sturgis, Amy H. The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism, Lockesmith Institute, 1994.
  2. See Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire, Fontana Press, 1986, p192-3.
  3. Hannah Arendt's book on Imperialism was published in 1951 in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but was written apart. This interpretation by Hannah Arendt of natural rights being based on civil rights founds its 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)
  • Dworkin, Ronald. Law's Empire, Fontana Press, 1986,
  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (1651)
  • Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government (1689)
  • Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, NY: Oxford U.P., 1997, ISBN 0198290837 - Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (1971)
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762)
  • Hardin, Garrett. The Tragedy of the Commons (1968)

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