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Introduction | Social Contract | Criticisms of Contractarianism | Contractarian Ethics
Introduction Back to Top

Contractarianism refers to both the theory in Political Philosophy on the legitimacy of political authority, and the ethical theory concerning the origin, or legitimate content, of moral norms.

Both were developed from the concept of a social contract, the idea that the people give up some rights to a government and/or other authority in order to receive, or jointly preserve, social order. Social contract theory provides the rationale behind the historically important notion that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed, where the form and content of this consent derives from the idea of contract or mutual agreement.

Contractarianism suggests that people are primarily self-interested, and that a rational assessment of the best strategy for attaining the maximization of their self-interest will lead them to act morally and to consent to governmental authority.

Social Contract Back to Top

Plato in his Socratic dialogue "Crito" who first pointed out that members within a society implicitly agree to the terms of a kind of social contract by their choice to stay within the society. Epicurus had also explicitly endorsed the idea that justice comes from a joint agreement not to harm each other.

During the Renaissance, thinkers such as the Spaniard Francisco Suárez (1548 - 1617) theorized a kind of natural law in an attempt to limit the divine right of an absolute monarchy. The early 17th century Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583 - 1645) introduced the modern idea of natural rights of individuals (human rights), which we have in order to preserve ourselves, and was brave enough to suggest that these laws would still hold even were there no God.

But it was Thomas Hobbes who took the theory forward in a more explicit way. He argued that, in a primitive unstructured social order (a “state of nature”), individuals have unlimited natural freedoms and their words or actions are bound only by their consciences. However, this general autonomy also includes the freedom to harm all who threaten one's own self-preservation (and for others to harm in their own interests), and Hobbes was of the opinion that humans are by their very nature nasty and mean. It is therefore, he argued, in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily subjugate his freedom of action in order to obtain the benefits provided by the formation of social structures and civil rights. So, individuals implicitly agree to a social contract with a state or authority in return for protection from harm and a more functional society. For Hobbes, however, as detailed in his "Leviathan" of 1657, it is important that this social contract involves an absolute government that does not rule by consent (effectively Totalitarianism), since in his view people cannot be trusted. The position of free individuals in a state of nature is presented by Hobbes as so dire (a life which is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short") that they are willing to contract to submit all except their actual lives to the will of a sovereign who thus exercises an almost absolute political authority.

John Locke developed the theory further, arguing that this contract is only legitimate to the extent that it meets the general interest. Therefore, when failings are found in the contract, we effectively renegotiate it to change the terms, using methods such as elections and legislature. Since rights come from agreeing to the contract and accepting responsibility for following its rules, then those who simply choose not to fulfill their contractual obligations (e.g. by committing crimes), deserve to lose their rights, and the rest of society can be expected to protect itself against them by the threat of punishment. In effect, society works by "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon". In the event of a contract leading to tyranny (the exercise of prerogative power to the detriment of the ends of the people), Locke saw the right of rebellion as a justifiable response. Locke's conception of the social contract was in the individualist liberal tradition, and was very influential in the development of classical Liberalism and modern democracy, and in the theoretical underpinnings of the American Revolution of 1775 - 1783.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his 1762 treatise "Du contrat social" ("The Social Contract", outlined a much less individualist (and much more collectivist) version of contract theory, based on the conception of popular sovereignty (the belief that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people, who are the source of all political power), and on his advocacy of direct democracy. He argued that, as an individual, the subject can be egoist and decide that his personal interest should override the collective interest. However, as part of a collective body, the individual subject puts aside his Egoism to create a "general will" (the persistence of equality and freedom in the society). Rousseau goes so far as to indicate that people who do not obey the general will must be "forced to be free". Rousseau's version of the social contract is the one most often associated with the term "social contract" itself. His theories had a strong influence on both the 1789 French Revolution and the subsequent formation of the Socialist movement.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 - 1865) advocated a conception of social contract which did not involve an individual surrendering sovereignty to others. He argued that the contract was not between individuals and the state, but rather between individuals themselves refraining from coercing or governing each other, while maintaining complete individual sovereignty, resulting in a non-aggressive, utopian state of Anarchism.

The most important contemporary political social contract theorist is John Rawls (1921 - 2002), who effectively resurrected social contract theory in the second half of the 20th Century. In his "A Theory of Justice", Rawls attempts to reconcile liberty and equality in a principled way, and he does so by appealing to the old idea of the social contract.

Criticisms of Contractarianism Back to Top

David Hume was an early critic of the validity of social contract theory, arguing against any theory based on a historical contract, on the grounds that one should not be bound by the consent of one's ancestors. He also questioned to what extent the fall-back "state of nature" which underlies most social contract theory is actually historically accurate, or whether it is just a hypothetical or possible situation. Others have pointed out that, with an assumed initial position which is sufficiently dire (such as that posited by Hobbes), Contractarianism may lead to the legitimization of Totalitarianism (as Hobbes himself foresaw).

Some commentators have argued that a social contract of the type described cannot be considered a legitimate contract at all, on the grounds that the agreement is not fully voluntary or without coercion, because a government can and will use force against anyone who does not wish to enter into the contract. In Rousseau's conception of the social contract, even individuals who disagree with elements of the social contract must nevertheless agree to abide by it or risk punishment (they must be "forced to be free"). It is argued that this idea of force negates the requirement that a contract be entered into voluntarily, or at least to permit individuals to abstain from entering into a contract. In response, it has been countered that the name "contract" is perhaps misleading ("social compact" has been suggested as an alternative), and that anyway individuals explicitly indicate their consent simply by remaining in the jurisdiction. Either way, social contract theory does seem to be more in accordance with contract law in the time of Hobbes and Locke (based on a mutual exchange of benefits) than in our own.

Other critics have questioned the assumption that individuals are always self-interested, and that they would actually want the benefits of society supposedly offered by the contract. A further objection sometimes raised is that Contractarianism is more of a descriptive theory than a normative guide or a justification.

Contractarian Ethics Back to Top

Contractarian Ethics (or the Moral Theory of Contractarianism) claims that moral norms derive their normative force from the idea of contract or mutual agreement. It is the deontological theory that moral acts are those that we would all agree to if we were unbiased, and that moral rules themselves are a sort of a contract, and therefore only people who understand and agree to the terms of the contract are bound by it.

The theory stems initially from the principle of social contract of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, which (as described above) essentially holds that people give up some rights to a government and/or other authority in order to receive, or jointly preserve, social order.

Contractualismis a variation on Contractarianism, largely developed by T. M. Scanlon (1940 - ) in his book "What We Owe to Each Other". It claims to be a moral theory grounded in reality, and is based on the Kantian ideas that ethics is an essentially interpersonal matter, and that right and wrong are a matter of whether we can justify the action to other people.

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