Social Contract Theory

                                    What is Social Contract Theory?

Social Contract Theory
Social Contract Theory

The social contract is a hypothetical compact, or agreement or actual, between the rules as well as their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each individual or object. In primeval times, according to the theory, individuals were born into an anarchic state of nature, which was happy or unhappy according to their particular version. They then, by exercising natural reason, formed a society (and a government) by means of a contract among themselves. The contract is known as social contract.

History of Social Contract Theory

The concept of the social contract was originally posed by Glaucon, as described by Plato in The Republic, Book II. They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when the men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arises laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice;—it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and be unpunished, and the worst of these, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honored by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.

The social contract theory also appears in Crito, another dialogue from Plato. Over time, the social contract theory became more widespread after Epicurus (341-270 BC), the first philosopher who saw justice as a social contract, and not as existing in Nature due to divine intervention (see below and also Epicurean ethics), decided to bring the theory to the forefront of his society. As time went on, philosophers of traditional political and social thought, such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau put forward their opinions on social contract, which then caused the topic to become much more mainstream.

Theories of the social contract differed according to their purpose: some were designed to justify the power of the sovereign, while others were intended to safeguard the individual from oppression by a sovereign who was all too powerful.

Modern Social Contract Theory by Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is best known for his political thought, and deservedly so. His vision of the world is strikingly original and still relevant to contemporary politics.

Hobbes’ political theory is best understood if taken in two parts: his theory of human motivation, Psychological Egoism, and his theory of the social contract, founded on the hypothetical State of the Nature. Hobbes has, first and foremost, a particular theory of human nature, which gives rise to a particular view of morality and politics, as developed in his philosophical masterpiece, Leviathan, published in 1651.

In Hobbes’ view, this mechanistic quality of human psychology implies the subjective nature of normative claims. ‘Love’ and ‘hate’, for instance, are just words we use to describe the things we are drawn to and repelled by, respectively. So, too, the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have no meaning other than to describe our appetites and aversions. Moral terms do not, therefore, describe some objective state of affairs, but are rather reflections of individual tastes and preferences.

In addition to Subjectivism, Hobbes also infers from his mechanistic theory of human nature that humans are necessarily and exclusively self-interested. All men pursue only what they perceive to be in their own individually considered best interests – they respond mechanistically by being drawn to that which they desire and repelled by that to which they are averse. This is a universal claim: it is meant to cover all human actions under all circumstances – in society or out of it, with regard to strangers and friends alike, with regard to small ends and the most generalized of human desires, such as the desire for power and status. In addition to being exclusively self-interested, Hobbes also argues that human beings are reasonable. They have in them the rational capacity to pursue their desires as efficiently and maximally as possible. Their reason does not, given the subjective nature of value, evaluate their given ends, rather it merely acts as “Scouts, and Spies, to range abroad, and find the way to the things Desired” (139).

According to Hobbes, the justification for political obligation is this: given that men are naturally self-interested, yet they are rational, they will choose to submit to the authority of a Sovereign in order to be able to live in a civil society, which is conducive to their own interests. Hobbes argues for this by imagining men in their natural state, or in other words, the State of Nature. In the State of Nature, which is purely hypothetical according to Hobbes, men are naturally and exclusively self-interested, they are more or less equal to one another, (even the strongest man can be killed in his sleep), there are limited resources, and yet there is no power able to force men to cooperate. Given these conditions in the State of Nature, Hobbes concludes that the State of Nature would be unbearably brutal. In the State of Nature, every person is always in fear of losing his life to another.

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