Social contract

concept in political philosophy

In moral and political philosophy, the social contract or political contract is a theory or model, originating during the Age of Enlightenment, that typically addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual.


  • Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts, for objects of mere occasional interest, may be dissolved at pleasure; but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.
  • Can humans exist without some people ruling and others being ruled? The founders of political science did not think so. "I put for a general inclination of mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death," declared Thomas Hobbes. Because of this innate lust for power, Hobbes thought that life before (or after) the state was a "war of every man against every man"—"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Was Hobbes right? Do humans have an unquenchable desire for power that, in the absence of a strong ruler, inevitably leads to a war of all against all? To judge from surviving examples of bands and villages, for the greater part of prehistory our kind got along quite well without so much as a paramount chief, let alone the all-powerful English leviathan King and Mortal God, whom Hobbes believed was needed for maintaining law and order among his fractious countrymen.
    • Marvin Harris, Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going (1989)
  • The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.
  • Mainstream theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy differ from each other in many respects, but they have a general approach in common – the approach of ‘social contract’ theory. The social contract approach was pioneered by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, and it has been the strongest influence in the analysis of justice from the eighteenth century to our own time. The distinguishing features of the approach include taking the characterization of ‘just institutions’ to be the principal – and often the only identified – task of the theory of justice. This way of seeing justice is woven in different ways around the idea of an imagined ‘social contract’ – a hypothetical contract about social organization that the people of a sovereign state can be imagined to have endorsed and accepted. Initiated by Thomas Hobbes, major contributions were made in this line of thinking in the period of European Enlightenment by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant (even though the reach of Kant’s philosophical analysis is immensely larger than the rather limited domain of social contract theory).
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • The contractarian approach has remained the dominant influence in contemporary political philosophy, led by the most prominent political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, whose classic book, A Theory of Justice published in 1971, presents a far-reaching statement of a particular version of the social contract approach to justice. The principal theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy, coming not only from Rawls but also from Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, David Gauthier and others, share in common, explicitly or by implication, the idea of a social contract that identifies ideal social institutions (even though the substantive contents of their respective theories are different from each other in terms of the diagnosis of what exactly the social contract should demand).
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • In the social contract approach, the search for justice is confined to the citizens of a particular sovereign state, who can be imagined to be in a contractual relation with each other. As a result of this methodology, the people whose views are brought into any specific assessment are citizens of some particular sovereign state for which the pursuit of justice is under discussion. We may demand that the citizens of each sovereign state view citizens of other states (or even stateless people) with compassion, respect and sympathy, satisfying some requirements of ‘minimal humanitarianism’ (as both John Rawls and Thomas Nagel have argued), but ‘the principles of justice’ arrived at for any particular sovereign state would not have any application beyond the limited domain of a specific state.
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
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