Akademia with Adam: Social contract theory

Graphic by Hershel Nashman

The justification for both government and governance has, for obvious reasons, been an important topic in philosophy.

As the belief in the divine right of monarchs began to die out in Europe, there was renewed questioning into the role and rights of the sovereign.

Today we will briefly look at the theory that came to dominate and indeed help shape the emerging field of political philosophy. The social contract theory is not a historical one; it does not literally intend to explain the foundations of the state and society.

Rather, it is a hypothetical idea with real world application.

The essence of the theory is that humans existed in a “state of nature” a situation where there was no state, no authority to enforce rules, laws, or even norms.

The specifics of the state of nature changed from theorist to theorist but all agree that necessity (though again the nature of this necessity varies) forced people to form society and vest power in a higher authority.

There are traditionally three main social contract theorists- Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, each with a different take on the issue. Thomas Hobbes (pictured above), the first of the three to publish, believed that humans existed in a violent state of nature where anyone could be killed at any time.

No agreement could be enforced and there was no security or safety, therefore those in the state of nature came together to give power to a sovereign.

This individual would rule over the people and in exchange for giving up their rights to this sovereign the people would have some guarantee of safety.

The contract here refers to the deal between the sovereign and the people, where rights and freedoms are traded in for protection and security.

John Locke had a somewhat different view on the state of nature.

Humans were relatively kind to one another, bound by the “laws of nature.”

The issue for Locke was insecurity; even if the nature of individuals was peaceful, the lack of security would lead to people living in fear.

For this reason, he argues, people must form a social contract despite having a relatively pleasant life in the state of nature.

In the new society there would be an “impartial judge” who would ensure security and make judgements.

Lastly, we have Jean-Jacque Rousseau who believed that in the state of nature, the self interested individual was acting as an egoist.

In such a state it would be impossible for them to pursue their true interests, instead they must try and align themselves to the “general will” of the people.

The best way to do this is to form a social contract wherein individuals attempt to adhere to the general will. To do this is to give up some individual rights and desires but the benefit to society will make such sacrifices worth it.

The various social contract theories have deeper implications and considerations not covered in this article.

The tradeoff of rights and freedoms for security and the nature of the powers of the government are still very much debated.

Regardless, the fundamental justification for the state and its authority remains somewhat in question and social contract theory is one of the most interesting frameworks with which to evaluate it.