SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY
• The Great Tradition of Contract Theory
• A Comparative View: Rousseau; Hobbes; Locke
• Problems and Criticisms: an Aspect of ‘Conservatism’?
• What is it?
• Why attractive?
• Two social contracts
• Total (and equal) surrender of private rights
• Total eradication of private concerns
• Total subordination of Government
• Covenant plus ‘authorisation’
• Real unity of will
• A limited General will
• No ‘God’ but also no ‘people’
• Contract restricted to right to punish
• Natural moral community
• Government as delegation and trust
• A liberal contract of ‘the people’Social Contract Theory
Within the social contract tradition, we are going to deal firstly with Rousseau then to
Hobbes and Locke. The reason for this is a theme in the comparisons; Rousseau wants to
enslave the government to the people and Hobbes wants to enslave the people to the
government, whereas Locke just wants to let things flow until we can get together and
have a rethink.
What is it?
Social contract theory is an account of social and political relationships presenting society
or the state or both as the product of binding mutual undertakings, with the undertakings
being made between individuals or between groups. The terms of the contract directly
establish the rights and duties of the rulers and the ruled. Or they establish the procedures
for setting such questions. Most of the famous examples of contract theory treat the
contract as a hypothetical device, most of the writers that we have encountered in social
contract theory don’t pretend that anything like that happened; as sometimes it is difficult
to tell when fact begins and fictions ends.
Why use it? – If it doesn’t really happen then why should we pretend that it did?
It’s an attractive model for a number of reasons. It seems very basic in that it gets us from
individuals to states in one or two easy stages. It doesn’t seem to need pre-existing
institutions or supernatural agents to get us there. The basic component is basically the
human individual who agrees to construct something, usually to better satisfy their needs.
It is intended to be very rationalist; it’s not any old agreement which people just might
have happened to enter into. It’s an agreement that all rational human beings would
consent to. We’re not asked if we fancy a bit of Hobbesian sovereignty, we’re not just
told that Hobbes thinks a particular type of sovereign would be a good idea. We’re asked
whether as rational beings, beings that fear violent death, whether we want to continue to
endure the conflict, or on the other hand accept absolute sovereignty. It is rationally
It offers choice, rather paradoxical considering the last reason. We freely agree to enter
relationships of right and duty. We freely agree to order our political lives in a particular
way. In one sense as rational beings we have no choice, we are compelled to obey the
sovereign, but in another we freely enter into those contracts.
When is social contract theory produced?
Some say that social contract as a tradition is very old; some people say that Plato
portrayed Socrates as bound by something like a contract around 400 BC. Socrates was
faced with execution for corruption, his followers encouraged him to flee but he refused
on that grounds that everyone was free to leave if they found the laws oppressive, if they
stayed they would be presumed to have accepted the laws, and so bound by that
Some argue that that is a misreading of Plato, and that it is nothing like social contract
theory. The feudal period is the place to look for more contractual type references; there
you will find lots of people talking about different status groups, accepting different sets
of rights and duties in a stratified society. So the origins of social contract theory seem to
be as far back as the feudal period, but the real heyday of social contract as we know it
isn’t until the late 17th century, in continues a bit into the 18th century but it’s on the wane
by then. Also in the 20th century one or two political theorists tried to revive that version
of contract theory.
Why is it so popular?
The attractions mentioned before seemed to reflect the general values of the modern
period. The attractions seemed to be highly prized in modern ideologies (from 1600 to
the present day). They are particularly highly prized in liberalism.
Individualism is the basic starting point of society and state.
Rationalism – arguments that ought to have universal appeal for all of human
Free choice, what obligations do you have, what duties do you have.
These are all key values for modern people, they exemplify modern life, typify it,
especially amongst the market place and commercial activities. We compete as rational
individuals making free choices notably in accepting/exchanging rights and duties in the
same way we exchange goods.
There are other historical aspects of the period that help us explain why social contract
theory was so popular. Following reformation Christians saw a sense of duty to God as
something that should be recognised through individual reason and embraced by choice
of the individual as opposed to being accepted purely because of the authorities of the
church. It also seems to serve modern economic interests and religious needs. Oppressive
governments can be held to account if its strays from the terms of the contract. As we
know not all contract theories serve quite that purpose, but the general thrust of the
tradition is the latter. Contract theories look most at home with liberal ideas. They look
most friendly towards values like individual choice, and liberty. But of course we need
to look more closely at the range of uses it is put to, to appreciate the limits and the
possibilities of its liberalism.
In the 2nd discourse you get an account of the corrupt contract, that’s the contract that we
actually signed, that’s the contract which Hobbes and Locke thinks takes us legitimately
into society, but Rousseau thinks that they’re wrong. He says we are already in society
before we sign up into the contract to make law. Rousseau is saying that the state of
nature that Hobbes and Locke star t with isn’t the state of nature at all it is a corrupt
social creation, he is also saying that the contract doesn’t take us anywhere that is
legitimate. One of the reasons it is not legitimate is that we do not sign up as equal parties
on equal terms. The corrupt social contract is a device to protect the possessions of the
rich against the poor. The corrupt social contract arises out of an inequality and uses law
to reinforce and exacerbate it.
The legitimate contract has to be different; it has to be entered into on wholly equal
terms. To do that every contracted party must give up all private right; they must alienate
all private right to the collective – to the sovereignty of the whole people.
The second feature is that sovereignty must be exercised free from any private concerns.
When the people express the general will it’s a will that must be general in the sense that
they must forget the private identities that divide them. The only identity that is relevant
is their identity as a citizen, something that they all equally share. The general will has to
be general in the sense that it only reflects the general will of equal citizens and not the
conflicting interests and private desires that individuals may have. What is the point of
completely giving up our private rights if private issues are then perused in public
decision making – that just transfers the problem into a different arena. A sovereign
people expressing a general will must be reflecting the public interest and not the balance
of power between private interests.
The general will is not supposed to be an instant remedy that mediates conflict. Rousseau
is presupposing that if we are talking about a society that is capable of rescuing itself by
beginning to operate on the basis of the general will, he’s supposing that the kind of
society that the argument applies has a strong feeling of solidarity. It’s a society where
there aren’t seeded cleavages between competing private interests. It requires a strong
moral and cultural consensus without which it will not work and Rousseau knows that,
and recognises that there are many societies in which this method will not be appropriate.
He is pretty regretful about that and he regards that sort of society as too far gone down
the road of corruption. But he is making that supposition that many of the institutions he
is recommending are designed to reinforce the unity or the solidarity of that kind of
The fourth feature is that the terms of the contract mean that everything is utterly
subordinate to the sovereign people. Government in Rousseau’s terms isn’t a party to the
contract nor is it even established by the contract, the contract established the sovereign
people and the sovereign people then appoint a government to be subservient.
The basics: everyone agrees to give up their right of nature for the sovereign to use
provided that everyone else does the same. The sovereign retains the unlimited right to
use his power, which now includes everyone’s power, as he sees fit. No one has any right
left to challenge the sovereign’s judgement. The sovereign is absolute, in the sense that
no one has the right to use their power or their judgement against it.
There is more to the above than just contract or strictly speaking a covenant. This is only
the case in Leviathan, not elsewhere, elsewhere Hobbes used the term unifying of the
right, but in Leviathan he adds to that a process of authorisation. Each of us authorises the
sovereign, we don’t just agree to step out of the way when the sovereign wants to do
something. We don’t just say ‘I no longer have any right to impede the sovereign because
I have given up my right of nature’, we authorise the sovereign, i.e. we own the
sovereign’s acts. We are responsible for what the sovereign does. We are the authors of
the laws of the sovereign, it’s as if we ourselves are telling us what we can and can not
do, because we have made the sovereign.
Authorisation and covenant in Hobbes are both a bit of an idealisation. It’s all a bit
hypothetical, and in fact Hobbes says ‘it’s as if’ I authorise this man or body to act on my
behalf. But there is a sense in which Hobbes is saying, well actually this isn’t
hypothetical at all, it happens. How do we know when some one enters into a contract?
Any sign will do as long as it indicates the will to be bound by the agreement. It’s not just
Hobbes who says that, it is a basic principle of English law that contracts are entered into
by giving a sign of the will to be bound by the terms of the contract. But it is Hobbes’s
argument that all rational individuals must will the existence of the sovereign because
that is the only means to be protected, it is the only way to escape the fear of violent
death that would dominate the natural condition. So when Hobbes says that a covenant is
more than people just saying ‘okay’ to the setup, he says it’s more than that, in the very
important sense, in that it is ‘a real unity of will’. Rational individuals unify themselves
by creating the sovereign.
This leads to an interesting comparison with Rousseau. Hobbes has something like the
theory of the general will. We all stand equally; we all exhibit a unity of will when
considering political questions of sovereignty. Think about the problem rationally and
there is a real unity of will in recognising the need for someone to act as a sovereign to
guarantee security. However Hobbes is very very different from Rousseau, because for
Hobbes there is only one matter of which there can be a general will, the only question
that unites us is how we will avoid the war of all against all. The answer to that is
absolute sovereignty. All subsequent political questions divide us; when we try to use our
own judgement with subsidiary political questions we are at war with each other. The
only away to avoid that is to appoint a sovereign and get just one answer to the detailed
political questions and what the law should be.
There is one very stark contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau. The sovereign is not a
contracting party; one of the most important things that we must keep reminding
ourselves, is that the terms of Hobbes’s contract are terms that bind together the subjects.
The sovereign doesn’t do deals with people. If you enter into a contract you get
obligations, absolute sovereigns don’t have obligations to anyone. The covenant is
between the people and the sovereign is the result. The sovereign is the main beneficiary
with regards to power, but he/she/it does not enter into a covenant.
Hobbes is opposing the view of divine right, because political power, for Hobbes, does
not come as a direct gift from God. It is a very dangerous idea to think that political
power is a direct gift from God of course, in doing so you are opening the door to the
priesthood. They would claim to know a lot more about God than you do or maybe even
more than the sovereign does. So there are good reasons to keep God out of the picture.
The sources left of political power are limited, and so political power must therefore
come from the people. That is a bit dangerous for Hobbes’s argument; Hobbes is very
anxious to avoid alternative power sources. There must be nothing that can challenge the
sovereignty that has now amounted in a single body or institution. If you start to talk
about ‘the people’ that sounds like an alternative institutionalised power source. It begins
to sound like a potential threat to the sovereign. For example, think of the US
constitution, it starts ‘we the people’, the context of which is ‘don’t you members of
government think you came out of nowhere’. We the people made you and gave you
those powers, and we gave them on terms of which the constitution is about to set out.
The constitution also tells us under which terms we can take those powers back. In the
US, the term ‘we the people’ is quite a potent threat to Hobbesian society.
Hobbes argues that there is no such thing as the people, the covenant is between
individuals who are in the state of nature; there is no such thing as the people establishing
the sovereign. They are scattered individuals with no such relations. They are utterly
fragmented; they can’t as individuals have any shared/collective identity. They are not a
body or institution. They do not have any of these characteristics until they authorise a
body to act on their behalf. The people can’t exist until they are embodied and
represented by the sovereign. Although the sovereign can only get its power from the
people, that is not a problem because it is not a threat. The people are fragmented until
they are brought into being by the sovereign, so therefore it is the sovereign who has the
power. We can see that Hobbes is trying to steer a path between the competing view of
the radical republicans who think that the people should ultimately be sovereign and the
divine theorists who believe all power comes directly down as a gift from God.
The most obvious liberal strand in Locke is what the currency of the deal is. What is that
we are trading with one another when we enter into a social contract? It is just one right;
we only trade and collectivise the right to punish people. We start out as right holders
generally, but in particular we start out as individual enforcers of the law of nature.
However this is pretty inefficient, so we collectivise the right to punish, we agree how
people should do it as a group. Since the government can only get the rights which the
people have given up the government must be very limited and its power restricted. The
government can’t encroach on our substantive rights to our freedom to our bodies or to
our possessions, we haven’t given any of those up, all we have given up is our individual
power to punish offenders.
However, that presupposed something that is absent in Hobbes and Rousseau. According
to Locke we start off in a natural moral community. We can all as individuals recognise
natural law, we can all see and work out what natural law obliges us to do. We are all
therefore part of a morally defined society at the beginning. We don’t need a contract to
launch basic social relationships and moral law – it is natural to us.
However, when the contract comes, it’s a bit more like Rousseau’s contract than
Hobbes’s. Its in two stages, the first stage is the collectivisation of the right to punish
offenders – moving from being individual enforcers to a proper political society. We can
then make rules to define property. The second stage is government, and as for Rousseau
governments are no big deal, it is a matter of what is convenient, to begin with we may
not need a government, we can act as a collective; coming together to make a joint
decision over punishment. However, as things become more complicated that will
become more inconvenient and tiresome. Instead we will appoint particular individuals
and institutions to enforce the law. This second element is a matter of administrative
convenience. The important thing is the formation of the sovereign political society by
contract by all who are equal. But with Hobbes, government is a big deal; society can not
exist with government.
We now get the liberal payoff, the way Locke has used the same components amounts to
a radically different picture, principally in that which happens when things go wrong.
When we are oppressed we can appeal to an alternative source of power other than the
government, you can appeal to the political and civil society that entrusted power to the
government in the first place. Other people are still apart of your moral society, there is a
set of real social relationships in place which are independent from and prior to
government. You have somewhere else to go if you think the government is abusing
your rights; society and the moral community can act together to take back the
Hobbes has constructed his picture so that there is no society independent of the one
made by the contract. There is nothing but fragmented individuals potentially at war with
one another. There is no where to go and nothing to appeal to beyond your own power,
you can accept the law of the sovereign or return to the state of nature – the war of all
Rousseau’s view is similarly stark, there is in principle something to appeal to if you feel
oppressed by the demands of law, but the problem is that the whole people as sovereign
are the supposed source of legal principals. The presumption is there is no law that will
oppress others interests, you as members of the public must share that interest.
Locke has encapsulated what will become a liberal view in the next 200 years, by
sidelining politics. Political power is just the stuff we give to politicians for convenience,
and for most of the time we just want them to get on with it as long as they don’t overstep
the bounds. If they really do step out of line there is a strong set of social relations which
we can draw upon to get the politicians back in line. We the people will use our collective
identity and strength to take back the power and change the terms under which
government can operate. Hobbes can’t do that because ‘we the people’ do not exist
outside of the society the contract creates.