What Is the Social Contract?

All ran headlong into their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers.

- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Social Contract and ask a foundational question of political philosophy – by what authority does a government govern? “Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains”. So begins Jean Jacques Rousseau’s great work on the Social Contract. Rousseau was trying to understand why a man would give up his natural freedoms and bind himself to the rule of a prince or a government. But the idea of the social contract - that political authority is held through a contract with those to be ruled - began before Rousseau with the work of John Locke, Hugo Grotius and even Plato. We explore how an idea that burgeoned among the 17th century upheavals of the English civil war and then withered in the face of modern capitalist society still influences our attitude to government today.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on The Social Contract

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

According to classic social contract theory, originally elaborated by Thomas Hobbes in the Seventeenth Century, human beings begin politically unorganised, in what is called a state of nature, and society is created by people either explicitly or tacitly establishing a contract whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit. Social contract theorists seek to demonstrate why a rational individual would voluntarily consent to give up unlimited freedom in the state of nature and accept the limits to liberty required for civil society. These theorists agree that individuals make this exchange in order to ensure, or at least greatly enhance, their ability to survive. But these theorists define survival too narrowly, as ‘defense of life and property’. I want to argue here that the terms of any social contract must be expanded to include the provision of food, clothing, and shelter, because these are also necessary for survival. I contend that any state that fails to provide such maintenance, or at least state employment, and denies any obligation to provide either, forfeits it moral authority to pass judgment on the means citizens use to survive. As I shall demonstrate, under the terms expressed by classic social contract theory a citizen denied maintenance and/or state employment is left on his own, outside the limits of the contracted state, and therefore possesses a license to steal...

Continue reading Stephen Faison's article: The Social Contract: A License to Steal

Further Reading

Social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons' moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. Socrates uses something quite like a social contract argument to explain to Crito why he must remain in prison and accept the death penalty. However, social contract theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defense by Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known proponents of this enormously influential theory, which has been one of the most dominant theories within moral and political theory throughout the history of the modern West...

Continue reading the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Social Contract Theory by Celeste Friend

Bonus Webcomic

Related Topics

 Civil Disobedience | Constitutionalism | Democracy | Equality | FreedomGame Theory | Hobbes | JusticeLocke | Power

Want to learn more? Sign up via email to get the best resources on a new topic each day. Or you can follow on Twitter or Facebook.

Leave a Reply