The Social Contract Theory


TheSocial Contract Theory

TheSocial Contract Theory

Thesocial contract theory is the view that the political and moralobligations that a person ascribes to are dependent on an agreementamong the people living in that society. According to this theory,man lived in the state of nature with no rules or government togovern their interactions. Due to this state of nature, some membersof the society were oppressed and to remedy the situation, twoagreements were entered into.

Thefirst agreement, pactumunionis,was to ensure the protection of the lives and property. Through thisagreement, people agreed to respect one another and live peacefully.The second, pactum subjectionis, was to establish an authority in thesociety where people gave that authority the mandate to govern themto ensure law and order.

Throughthese agreements, the people renounced their rights against oneanother and agreed to be governed by an authority. This authority inturn guaranteed the people protection of their property and to anextent, ensured them liberty. This way, the governments came intobeing.

Anearly exposition of this theory was by Socrates when he made anargument for the reason he would stay in prison and take the deathpenalty even when he had the option of seeking refuge in anotherGreek city. According to him, there was an obligation to obey thelaws of Athens.

Further,Socrates noted that one has the freedom to leave the state if hefeels aggrieved by the laws that govern the state. By not leaving, itmeant that one had agreed to be bound by the laws of that state andin this case, he agreed to the death penalty that was passedaccording to the laws of Athens.

ThomasHobbes (1588-1679)

Inthe leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes states that man lived in a stateof war. The means of protecting his rights were what created thestate of war as every man has the right to protect himself in the wayhe deemed fit. The only way to do this was to ensure that if a manhad to exercise his rights, he was not in any way supposed tointerfere with the rights of other people. He alluded to the law ofthe gospel that man should do unto others what he would like othermen to do unto him.

Inthe social contract, people transfer their natural rights unlike inthe state of nature where everybody is entitled to everything. Lifein the state of nature according to Hobbes was solitary, short,nasty, brutish and poor. It was life in fear and one that a lot ofselfishness were exercised. Man had thus to look for means to ensurethat he lived in harmony with no misery or pain.

Theauthority that men gave their liberty to demand obedience from thepeople. The ruler or monarch thus became the absolute head and he hadto be obeyed at all circumstances. This was illustrated in the letterby Socrates where he stated that if one did not like the way theruler was governing and the laws governing the state, that person hadthe option to live. However, Hobbes was of the view that theauthority had to act in accord with natural law that bound him as aruler.

Hobbesupheld the principle that might equals right and the stronger a rulerwas, the better placed he was to instil his authority on thesubjects. In this measure, civil law was the real law. He furtherstates that men are self-centred and only pursue that which isbeneficial to them. Men will thus naturally be drawn to the thingsthat they desire and will reject those things that they do not like.Everything a man does is because, he is benefiting from that thingeven in the case of parents taking care of children. In this example,the reason they do so is because there is an obligation on the childto survive and not to die.

Inaddition, men are also reasonable and are rational in pursuing theirdesires. The reason that the authority commands the subjects to obeythe civil law is because there has to be a limit on the naturalliberty of some men in order to prevent the interference by thosemen, of the rights to the liberty of other men. Men thus cometogether to fight a common enemy. Their self-interest coupled withthe reasonableness is what makes men obey an authority, as thisauthority will ensure that their rights are protected and they canthus pursue their self-interests in a civil society.

JohnLocke (1632-1704)

Accordingto Locke, the state of nature was not as bad as Hobbes put it. It wasa golden age where life was enjoyable save that the property was justnot secure. It was a time when man could lead his life without theinterference by other people where all men were independent andequal. It did not mean that the people were not moral. They weregoverned by the law of nature.

Propertywas essential in the social contract and the need for governance wasto ensure that one did not take more than what they could use andleaving others without property. His idea of the social contract wasnot that man gave up all his liberty to one individual, but that heonly gave one right: the implementation of the law of nature. Otherrights were natural and inalienable to all men. The men thus got lawsto govern them judges interpret those laws and the executive toenforce the laws. He thus advocated for the principle of a state ofliberty not of license.

However,in analysing the social contract theory, it is important to considerwhether the citizens have a choice to obey the command of the rulersor not. The argument propounded here that the subjects obey theauthority no matter what he does or law he implements is not factualtoday.

Thereis the right to go on strike or even to overthrow the government.This theory seeks to show that the only limit on the ruler is naturallaw. It is thus important to consider a situation where the rulerdoes not obey this law.

Rachel’smoral philosophy is premised on three issues: utilitarianism,kantinianism and an appeal to virtue. Compared to the socialcontract, this theory applies in modern times as it gives way toreason and what works for the common good. This way, man is not justseen as a machine that just follows the commands of the sovereign. Helooks at the common good. His theory appreciates that all men haveinterest that all counts and one does not just do what is beneficialto them. It is thus an obligation of man to do good to others, norjust because there is a reward. All persons are important and haveequal rights.

Inthe modern world, Rachel’s theory would be the most preferred as itgives equality to all. Not all men are selfish and not everybody doeswhat they do just because there is a reward. There is the aspect ofthe reason that works well in the common world where there areseveral branches of the government where one acts as a check on theother.


Hampton,J. (1986).&nbspHobbesand the Social Contract Tradition.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes,T. (1651) a.&nbspLeviathan.C.B Macpherson (Editor). London: Penguin Books (1985)

Locke,J.&nbsp(2003). TwoTreatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Yale University Press.

Sandel,M. (1982).&nbspLiberalismand the Limits of Justice.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.