Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Social Contract Theories

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The theory of an implicit contract among citizens in a society is very old. It covers such fundamental questions as why people obey the law. Plato (427-347 BC) has Socrates saying that he must accept the sentence of death from the citizens of Athens. He has lived his entire life benefiting from Athenian society and law, and must now accept its obligations, even the demand of his own life. If he were to run off to take refuge in another city, he would be lacking in integrity. Plato does not use the literal term social contract, but there is a logically straight line from this argument to later theories.

In the Middle Ages, power had been amassed hierarchically by kings and emperors, who claimed that they ruled because God ordained that it should be so. This was becoming increasingly unsatisfying to citizens. Mary, Queen of Scots, and her grandson, Charles I, both went to their beheadings maintaining that subjects had no right to call them to account. Clearly, that theory wasn’t working anymore. So, why should citizens obey their government?

These are the important thinkers who came up with ideas of obedience based on a contract between the those governing and those governed, with rights and duties for both sides.

Image from the front cover of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651.


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) witnessed the anarchy of the English Civil Wars, and this shaped his views of society. He envisioned the natural condition of man outside of society — the state of nature — being much like the conditions England experienced during the civil wars: enforcement of law broke down and life became, in his famous words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Faced with this condition, the rational thing for people to do is to form communities and give power over themselves to a strong authority figure, such as a king. Ideally, this king will enact moral laws, uphold them equitably and lead the community to prosperity. However, — and this is very important — even if the king does not act morally or equitably, Hobbes still maintained that it was rational to obey rather than rebel and return to the state of nature. The king holds up his end of the contract by being king, wielding power and providing protection.

The image from the front cover of Leviathan perfectly captures the ideal sovereign of Hobbes. The sovereign holds both the sword, symbolizing temporal power, and the crozier, symbolizing spiritual authority. He is the alpha and omega of power. Notice that his armor is formed of the people themselves.

The ideal sovereign embodies the people; he leads them not only by force but by expressing ideas that are latent among the people. When the ideal sovereign says in what direction the kingdom (the nation state was just coming into being) should go, the people immediately see that is what they wanted all along.


John Locke (1632-1704) was in his late twenties at the time of the Restoration, and saw the state of nature very differently than did Hobbes. Try to imagine a village surrounded by the manors of the English country gentry. Even without a king micromanaging them, they have shared values and, through the limit of their number, a shame culture. While disputes will arise and bad behavior will occur, the community will put a brake on it. A person who continually breaks the rules will eventually be outcast.

Locke is also very interested in property. Persons owning property have a stake in the community and its success. Citizens enter into social contracts with governments seeking the protection of their property.

When Locke compared the state of nature with conditions under a bad king, obedience did not look as compelling. Locke argued that the citizens have the moral right to rebel against a tyrant. It is not sufficient that the king protect the people against each other if he plunders them himself.

This sounds great until you try to put it to work in everyday life. OK, Charles I was a tyrant, but what about James II? He wasn’t going around levying arbitrary fines and forced loans. He wasn’t storming into the House of Commons with soldiers, looking to arrest people. Was he really that bad? The idea that you can rebel against a tyrant throws us back on the original question: what makes a king a tyrant?

Nevertheless, Locke was highly influential. Even those who did not agree with him took him as a starting point. He articulated the God-given rights of man as “life, liberty and property.” Jefferson would modify these to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but he did not fundamentally depart from Locke’s ideas.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) lived his adult life in the full summer of the Enlightenment. Paris at that time was considered by many thinkers to be the zenith of civilized society, but it also had a very stylized formality. It was said that a man had to be introduced into it at the age of six and start internalizing its habits and protocols, or he would never succeed in Parisian society. Rousseau rebelled against the rationality, the studied mannerisms and the artifice of this society.

Rousseau moves the conflict between good and evil outside of the individual person. Thus, if people were free from institutions, does it not follow that the world would be a better place? He visualized a state of nature that was idyllic, where people were not bent out of shape to conform to the expectations of society.

Rousseau is also interested in property, for quite the opposite reason from Locke. Rousseau thought that everything bad started happening to civilization after the introduction of private property. He takes Locke’s ideas and gives them a negative spin: The persons having the property want laws and a government, so that they can secure their property from other people who are without property.

The government claims to offer a social contract providing protection for all citizens, but this is really a scam. Rousseau claims that only the propertied citizens really obtain protection under the existing social contract. A real social contract, worth having for all citizens, would be guided by the General Will.

Rousseau is prepared to grant freedom of religious belief to all persons, provided their religions will also grant it to others. However, he calls for establishment of a public religion based on the General Will. For a person to put his own will above the General Will is a secular sin, and cannot be tolerated.


For John Rawls (1921-2002), the principles that inform the social contract are fully secularized. Rawls had served in the Pacific in World War II. In response to what he saw in combat, he abandoned Christianity. He was very greatly interested in fairness; having abandoned any hope of obtaining restitution in the next world for undeserved suffering in this, he sought fairness in civil society and equated justice with fairness.

The starting point for Rawls is not the state of nature, but the Original Position. This is not a representation of a claimed prior historical condition of humanity, but rather a thought experiment. Rawls does not claim that any of our forebears would have affirmed a social contract to obtain peace, security or prosperity. Instead, he claims it is the most rational choice one would make from behind the veil of ignorance of what role one would be assigned in a society of one’s choosing. This is a completely different take on the meaning of a social contract.

Written by srojak

November 4, 2018 at 6:04 pm

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