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The study below tries to offer a brief insight of what are considered the most significant theories of the social contract. The idea of social contract has raised many passions among philosophers and even more controversies among their critics. In this sense, this work does not attempt at solving any of the difficulties and arguments that the diverse theories of the social contract gave birth to, as if this were its aim it would be impossible to attain. This brief paper deals most with a historiography of authors whose views on the social contract issue had the greatest impact on the overall evolution of political thought. Hence, the essay will mainly be focused on drafting the highlights of the opinions, as far as the social contract is concerned, of authors like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls but, of course, other important thinkers within the contractualist realm are also mentioned in the paper. Due to the limitations in the length of this essay, the idea of structuring the paper into chapters was given up. Still there can be noticed a clear delimitation of the three major parts in the essay. The first one “Social Contract – Sophist and Aristotelian perspectives” it is the introductory par wherein the social contract is given a definition. Furthermore, this first part offers a short account not only of the origins of the social contract but also a comparison between the “artificial” social man and Aristotle’s “zoon politikon”. This part will actually try to present the general philosophic background on which the classical contractualist theory developed. The second part “Classic views on the contract” will analyze, as its subparts show, the contractarian views of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Finally, the last part – “Contemporary contract theories” will deal with the way in which contemporary writers developed the social contract theory and it will focus mainly on Rawls’ views.

Social Contract – Sophist and Aristotelian perspectives

The theories regarding the social contract can be stated to be among the most interesting theories in political thought not only because they gave birth to fascinating controversies but most of all because they had an enormous importance on the way in which significant concepts such as “sovereignty”, “legitimacy”, “law”, “authority” are perceived both in the scientific arena of political studies and in the conscience of the every-day human being. What does social contract actually mean? No answer to this question would be proper, still if there is to be given a definition of the theory of the social contract, it would sound like this: “The theory of the social contract states that individuals, by nature free and equal, agree to renounce part of their natural liberty by entering into civil society and constituting a political authority to which they subject themselves for the sake of the advantages provided by civil society. The right to rule and the obligation to obey derive from the agreement; such an agreement is called a social contract.” An important distinction must be made between two kinds of contracts that the name social contract stands for. The first of them is the social contract proper – “the Gesellschaftsvertrag or “pacte d’association” and it refers to the supposition that a number of people, individuals, living in a “state of nature” agreed to form an organized, civil society. Thus this theory gives an account of the origin of the state, and it is usually, though not always, associated with the idea of “natural rights” “which belonged to individual men as such, and of which they agreed by the contract to surrender some, in return for a guarantee of the remainder” . The second aspect of the social contract which should actually be called the contract of government or the contract of submission – “Herrschaftsvertrag”, “Unterwerfungsvertrag” or “pacte de governement” and it is concerned with the origin of the idea of regulation of government. An example of the latter kind of contract would be the contract between people and king by which the people promise him obedience, and the king promises them protection. Another distinction in the realm of the social contract was made between contractarian and contractualist approaches. Contractarianism, following the line of Hobbes, states that men are first of all selfish and they will act morally only because this is the rational way to behave in order to maximize one’s self interest. The contractualist theory, on the other side, suggests that individuals are not motivated by self-interest but rather by a commitment to publicly justify the standards of morality to which each will be held. At this point, a problem arises, the most important criticisms brought to the theories of social contract is connected to the use of the term “contract”. In this sense, it was considered historically absurd to believe and asset that primitive men in the state of nature were actually able to make a contract. Moreover, “it is also a logical inversion to derive the institution of government, and so of law, from contract, which itself is really the creature of law”.[5] Nevertheless, it would not be fair towards the contractualist thoreticians to assert that they actually believed the contract historically took place. They just used the word “contract” in order to suggest the idea of agreement both when referring to the formation of society in the form of the state and also when referring to the instauration of government. These controversies will be reminded of in a more detailed way all throughout the paper.

Where did the idea of social contract first appear? It is a difficult question whose answer is even more difficult. Nevertheless, belief in a social contract can be traced back to Ancient Greece where the dichotomy between natural and artificial (frequently met in Greek literature) also included the distinction between nature and convention somehow at the political theory level. The sophists were the ones that managed to bring the contrast of nature and convention to a radically individualistic standpoint. Thus, according to the Sophists the state of nature was characterized by the freedom of individual men to pursuit their own ends, their own interests. The civil society, on the contrary, was the state wherein man’s natural freedom was hampered by the laws. Concerning the Sophist theory on the state of nature an obviuos resemblance with Hobbes is to be noticed. Furthermore, the dichotomy between artificial and natural extended to a moral theory on the nature of the human being: the individualist man as presented by Glaucon in Plato’s “Republic” in contrast with the “zoon politikon” of Aristotle. The first approach presents the human nature in terms of selfishness while the latter seizes man’s natural disposition with a propensity towards social life. Before the comprehensive political theory of Aristotle emerged, it was Palto the one to develop a theory that fought the Sophist perspective wherein the natural man is pictured as striving for his own selfish goals. Plato puts forward “the Republic”an organized society in which every man has specific duties with the implication that it is only in such a life that the nature of man can find its fullest expression.

Aristotle’s rejection of the Sophist perspective upon the human naturae is similar to that of Plato, of course, he emhasized more on the afct that man is “by nature a politcal[6] animal”. He refutes the idea that the state is conventional – a mere living together in a certain territory for the sake of mutual protection and excgange of goods . the state, according to Aristotle is a moral association, the sole one wherein man can develop his highest faculties. Aristotle does not regard politics as a separate science from ethics, but as the completion, and almost a verification of it. In this sense, the state is a moral association wherein man develops his highest faculties and where he can attain the good life. Aristotle defends three claims about nature and the city-state: first, the city state exists by nature, because it is self-sufficient; second, human beings are by nature political animals, bacause nature, which does nothing in vain, has equiped them with speech, which enables them to communicate moral concepts such as justice which are formative of the household and city state. Third, the city state is considered by Aristotle to be prior to the individuals because individuals cannot perform their natural functions apart from the city-state, since they are not self-sufficient. Thus, according to Aristotle, the state is a development from the family through the village community. Indeed, it is admitted that it was formed initially for the satisfaction of natural wants but it exists afterwards for moral ends and for the promotion of the good life. In other words, man’s disposition does not stand in what he has in common with the lower animals( the Sophist theory) but the human nature refers to what is peculiarly human, what differentiates him from the lower animals – “the sense of right and wrong which makes him a moral being, and necessitates political life” .

Classic views on the contract

It is true that the dispute between Sophist and Aristotelian theories of dtate are essential to the evolution of the idea of social contract, nevertheless what is not to be ignorred is a period much closer to the developmnet of the classical contractualist theory - by this, it is meant the early Middle Ages. Many times called the Dark Ages, the period after the fall of the Roman Empire were by no means lacking in political ideas, which actually formed the background for the more elaborate and developed thories that were to follow. The political ideas developed in this period derive from two main sources: the Roman Law and the Christian Church. The highest emphasized beliefs in the Middle Ages actually suggested that the contract was the basis of government. There were some very important elemnts that highlighted this conception. Thus, the election and coronation ceremonies of medieval kings and emperors; also the conception strongly routed in feudalism, of law as anterior to the state; the many examples of covenants that the Bible so generously offered; the interpretation of Roman Law which stated the source of political authority to come from the people, all these were fundamental for the future development of the idea of social contract. In some cases, during the Middle Ages, there was actually used the term contract (pactum, foedus). What Dr. Figgis considers to have been congenial to the contract was the whole “legal atmosphere of feudalism”: “the two elements, the assimilation of public to private rights, and the mutual nature of the tie between governed and governor, existed in the feudal system far more obviously than in any other; and these two elements were necessary to the contract theory. It could not have arisen except in an age when public rights were conceived inductively, inferred that is from particular rights of ruling lords, and in an age dominated by the idea of private law; for the contract theory assumes the existence of private rights and private legal obligations as anterior to all public rights and indeed to the existence of the State” . Furthermore, by the end of the middle Ages, the idea that the state originated in a contract of society, was extremely powerful. Also this doctrine seemed to cohere very well with the belief that in “the state of nature” that precede society, the world was populated by entirely independent individuals. Still it would be far fetched to state that the theory thus elaborated was individualistic or libertarian in its operation.


Hobbes is considered to offer a classical account of the contract theory. Actually his political theory is closely connected to his general theory of human nature which, in general terms, resembles the one put forward by Glaucon in Plato’s “Republic”: men are by nature selfish and their ideas of right and wrong are subordinated to their pleasures and desires: “Whatsoever is the object of any man’s Appetite or Desire, that is it which he for his part calleth Good: And the object of his Hate and Aversion, Evil…For this words of Good, Evil…are useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves” . The state of nature is then a state of constant far, the dominant feeling of humans being fear. Hobbes strongly disagrees with Aristotle’s idea of “zoon politikon”, for according to him man is not by nature fit for life in the polity. Hobbes argue, on the contrary, that the natural situation of human beings is that in which everyone pursues felicity, as they understand it. By doing this they naturally exercise the “right of nature”. Hobbes is careful to make a distinction between ‘Right of Nature” and “Law of Nature”. In this sense, the right of nature is simply as stated before, “the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is of his own Life” . On the other side, by a law of nature Hobbes means a “Precept or general Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same” . Hobbes enumerates a series of laws of nature, but ultimately they can be reduced to the formula: “Do not do another that which thou wouldest not have done to thyself” . Conflicts may and most often do arise in the state of nature when individuals strive for the same thing, or when greedy or vainglorious individuals act in character and want more goods or esteem than their neighbors. In this way the state of nature can amount to a state of war, and indeed is likely to. Either violence will be resorted to gratuitously by the greedy and the vainglorious or reluctantly and reasonably by moderates’ intent to protect their lives and goods from those who are immoderate. The establishment of a strong state is the only solution to the problem of war, an antidote to the threat of conflict latent in the human situation. The key to the establishment of the state is the abandonment of the right of nature. People have to agree to entrust judgments about their safety and well being to a ruler. Therefore, all have to submit to the authority of a ruler that has power to enforce the agreement, and so men are brought to the social contract, by which the state of nature gives place to civil society through the institution of a sovereign government. The ruler, in return for coming up with effective security, is entitled to expect obedience from them any. This secure life was not supposed to be a paradise, but it would be better than the natural life of man which was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” . This is, accordingly, the “generation of the great Leviathan” . Once the state is established, the ruler elected, his subjects are bound to obey him, for the terms of the contract state that men surrendered all their liberty of action to him, thus what ever the actions of the sovereign, they are supported by the agreement. The sovereign is seen by Hobbes not as a party of the contract, but, simply, the recipient of powers conferred on him by a contract of all with all. Still, what is extremely important in Hobbes’s theory is the idea that the contract itself has no power to bound its subjects, this role is held by the constant fear of death that characterizes men’s disposition.

Essentially, Hobbes political theory stands in his belief that man’s nature being purely selfish; humans are not sociable by nature but are forced by their fear of death to become sociable. Very interesting in Hobbes’s theory of contract, is the fact that, unlike his followers (Locke, for example), he did not use it against absolutism but, on the contrary, Hobbes theory was many times considered to justify absolutism. Nevertheless, even though it is true that Hobbes offered some mild pragmatic grounds for preferring monarchy to other forms of government, his main concern was to argue that effective government -- whatever its form -- must have absolute authority. Its powers must be neither divided nor limited.


Locke is one of the grat followers of Hobbes’s contractualist theory, nevertheless it would be impossible to deny the fact that there are great differences between the approaches of the two. Poltical theory in England in the second half of the seventeenth century was divided between two main schools – the Anglican Royalists who supported the divine hereditary right of kingship, and their opponents, who maintained the cause of popular rights and limited monarchy. Locke found himself in the second party being against the idea of divine hereditary right of kingship.

He developed his political theory in the work “Two Treaties of Government”. Thus, according to Locke, people do agree by compact to establish a “civil government”, nevertheless, they do not enter into a contract with their rulers, but make the government trustees on their behalf. When presenting the state of nature – this, of course, is the first step of his theory – Locke is careful to present it as a state of freedom and equality, but unlike that of Hobbes, this state of nature is bound by real obligations:”the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that of law, teaches all mankind…that beings are equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” This is actually one of the main differences between Locke’s theory and that of Hobbes. Morover, Locke asserts that man was not intended to live a solitary life:”God, having made man such a creature that…it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience and inclination, to drive him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy it. The first society was between man and wife, which gave beginning to that between parents and children, to which, in time, that between master and servant came to be added” . Locke is extremly concerned with the legitimacy of political authority and also with the function that political authority has to fulfill. As it has already been seen, he considers that according to the law of nature, each individual has the right to life, liberty, and property. If in the state of nature, the individual had to protect these rights by himself, in the civil society it is the job of the political authority to protect these rights of the individual. This is actually what legitimizes political authority. The change from a state of nature to civil society can only take place by consent, therefore civil society is formed by each “agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community . It is important to state that Locke, just like Hobbes, shows little interest in the historical origins of the state and, as a consequence, he is not seriously distressed if his theory is historically improbable”.

One interesting difficulty that can be found in Locke’s theory is the fact that he considers that men, when born, always have the possiblity to choose from the state of nature and that of civil society. Critics have asked how men that are born in an already civil society can choose the state of nature. Locke answers that at the age of twenty-one, the child by accepting the inheritance from his parents, he actually accept to join the civil society. An inovation that Locke brings is the idea of natural right to property. The philosopher argues in this sense, that “every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to except himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands…are properly his”[18]. Locke, thus brought the economic structure of the society of his own age within the bouns of natural law.

Crucial to locke’s theory is the argument that people have a right to resistance against unjust authority. He defines the relationship between the people and the political authority in terms of trust. Thus, he believes that people have a right not only to resistance but also to revolt when the political authority no longer fulfils its proper function.


It would be unfair not to admitt that the social contract is popularly connected with the name of Rousseau above all other writers, no doubt because of the title of his most famous work. Far from being an individualist theory, like that of Hobbes, for example, Rousseau’s view on the social contract is rather a collectivist one. Rousseau considers that the state of nature was neither characterized by war af all against all (hobbes) nor by a Lockian abode of peace and good will; but it was just a condition of absolute isolation wherein individuals were much stronger and also happier. All the people in the state of nature were equal, and the idea of inequality appeared together with that of private property. Thus, it was private property that established inequalities among people, leading them to conflict between each other. This quasi historical account of the development of political organization is presented in his early “Discourse on the origin of Inequality among Men”(1775). But the work wherein he managed to offer a comprehensive version of his contract theory is “The Social Contract”. The book is divided in four major parts each one dealing with important points in his theory. The first part treats of the formation of societies and the social contract. Social order, in Rousseau’s view is a sacred right which is at the foundation of all other rights, but it is not natural as argued by Aristotle. The family is the most ancient and the most natural of all societies. Rousseau sates that social order is not based on force for the strongest is not strong enough to retain at all times his supremacy unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty. But in this case right would change places with force. It is necessary to obey because of force, nevertheless there is no need of obeying because of duty and if one is not forced to obey, then there is no longer any obligation. Therefore, the social order must originate in an altogether primitive and unanimous agreement. When in the state of nature men have reached that stage where the individual is no longer able to cope with the adverse forces, they are compelled to change their way of living. They cannot create new forces but they can unite their individual energies and overcome the obstacles of life. Rousseau strongly rejects the theory that civil society was founded by an absolute surrender to arbitrary government:”To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties…Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature” and “is an empty and contradictory convention that sets up, on the one side, absolute authority, and on the other, unlimited obedience” .

The fundamental problem is then: “to find a form os association which defends and protects with the whole common energy, the person and property of each associate, and in which, each individual associate , uniting himself to all still obeys only himself and remains as free as before” . The solution would be a contract by which each one puts in common his person and all his forces under the supreme direction of the “general will”. There results a moral and collective body formed of as many members as there are persons in the community. In this body, the condition is equal for all, sice each gies himself wholly; the union is perfect, since each gives himself unreserveadly; and finally, each giving himself to all gives himself to nobody. The general will, or sovereignity is inalienable, for the will cannot be trnsmitted, it is indivisible, since it is essentially general; it is infallible and always right. It is determined and limited in its power by the common interest. But though the general will is always right and always desires what is good, its judgement is not always enlightened and consequently it does not always see wherein the common good lies, hence the necessity of a legislator is obvious. But the legislator has of himself no authority, he is only a guide. He drafts and proposes laws, but the people alone (that is the sovereign or the general will) have the authority to make and impose them.E. F. Carritt, for example, found a fault in this idea of the general will. He considers that Rousseau’s fundamental standpoint throughout was psychological hedonism, but he was a psychological hedonist “of the altruistic or inconsistent type, like mIll”, so that while he ought to have tried to prove was “that it is always to my private advantage to obey the general will” he spends his energy in establishing a different point, that the general will always leads to the “common good”.

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual.

Contemporary contract theories

One of the most interesting contemporary forms of social contract is described by John Rawls in his most famous book, “A Theory of Justice, where he argued for the two principles using the thought experiment of the original position, from which representatives would select principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. Rawls saw the original position as a development of the social contract theories associated with Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke. He argued that the representative parties in the original position would select justice as fairness, including the liberty principle and the difference principle, to govern the basic structure of society. In addition to the original position, Rawls relied on the notion of reflective equilibrium, which tests the results obtained from the original position against our considered judgments about particular cases. Rawls attempts to use a constructivist technique similar to the one Kant used in the formulation of the categorical imperative for his moral philosophy. This technique, which Rawls hopes will show us the underpinnings of what we can all conceive us as a just state, is above mentioned 'veil of ignorance.' By conceiving of ourselves as potential constructors of a mythical just future society, but being ignorant of our racial, social, and economic position within that society, Rawls strips away all those pieces of information he considers to be irrelevant to questions of justice. From this 'original position,' he considers that the response of a rational person would be to secure only two basic principles of justice. These are a) a schedule of basic rights, including liberty of conscience and movement, freedom of religion, etc., and b) equality of opportunity. Rawls has a particularly inventive way of securing equality of opportunity in that he sees the only way to prevent the stronger (or richer) in his just state from overpowering the weaker (or poorer) in enforcing the maxim, 'No redistribution of resources within such a state can occur unless it benefits the least well-off.” Thus In “A Theory of Justice”, Rawls sketches a complex and well-defined notion of how such a state could make a positive impact in terms of being redistributively just--that is, how a liberal democrat state could insure that its members were provided with basic rights and more or less equal opportunities.

It is important to observe that overall, contract approaches are not intended as accounts of the historical origins of current social arrangements, but, instead, as answers to, or frameworks for answering, questions about legitimacy and political obligation. Important issues associated with the social contract include the binding force of hypothetical agreements, the reduction (or not) of ethico-political to instrumental reasoning, and the compatibility of contract reasoning with fairness and liberty.




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