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Social contract

Social contract is a phrase used in philosophy, political science, and sociology to denote a real or hypothetical agreement within a state regarding the rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens, or more generally a similar concord between a group and its members. All members within a society are assumed to agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society.

The social contract, as a political theory, explains the origin and purpose of the state, and of human rights. The essence of the theory (in its most common form, namely the one proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau) is as follows: In order to live in society, human beings agree to an implicit social contract, which gives them certain rights (such as the right to life) in return for giving up certain freedoms they would have in a state of nature (such as the freedom to kill others). Thus, the rights (and responsibilities) of individuals are the terms of the social contract, and the state is the entity created for the purpose of enforcing that contract. Also, the people may change the terms of the contract if they so desire; rights and responsibilities are not fixed or "natural". However, more rights always entail more responsibilities, and fewer responsibilities always entail fewer rights.


Contract theory is certainly not new; in Plato's Republic (c.360 BCE) Glaucon suggests that justice is a 'pact' among rational egoists, while Cicero (106-43 BCE) posited such a theory in the latter stages of the Roman Republic. The first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed contract theory was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who contended that people in a state of nature ceded their individual rights to a strong sovereign in return for his protection. John Locke (1634-1704) also posited a contract theory; however, unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that people contracted with one another for a particular kind of government, and that they could modify or even abolish the government.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, outlined a different version of contract theory. Rousseau's theory has many similarities with the individualist Lockean tradition, but also departs from it on many significant points. This theory has already been presented in the second introductory paragraph of this article, since Rousseau's version of the social contract is the one most often associated with the term "social contract" itself. It is also worth noting that in the century following Rousseau's death, his theories were an important influence in the formation of the socialist movement.

John Rawls (1921-2002) proposed a contractarian approach that has a decidedly Kantian flavor, whereby rational people in a hypothetical "original position," setting aside their individual preferences and capacities under a "veil of ignorance," would agree to certain, general principles of justice.


Because social contract theory assumes the existence of a contract binding upon individuals who have not explicitly accepted it, the theory has been found flawed by some philosophers, such as Lysander Spooner. However, the usual response to this objection is that many contracts and acceptances of same in a modern economy also tend to be implicit, e.g. copyright which exists in a work regardless how marked, entry into private spaces where rules of access and exclusion are posted (but not explicitly accepted other than by actually entering premises), and software and web site licenses. In the same way that implicit contracts in these circumstances standardize interactions to make them simpler and cheaper to support, enhancing the value of capital, social contract can likewise increase the social capital (a formal term for trust), and what's more this is measurable.

However, the parallel between the notion of the social contract and the examples of informal, implicit contracts is not entirely persuasive, because all those other contracts require some acknowledging act, while acceptance of the social contract seems to be implied by accident of birth. Similarly, the argument for geographical assent ("if you don't like how it works here, move to xxx") assumes that country "xxx" would permit the dissenter to enter. That is, a dissenter to the perceived local social contract cannot necessarily vote with his feet. On the other hand, there are many other situations where a person cannot make the choice he or she wants simply because that choice is not available, yet those situations are generally not considered to be restrictive of the person's freedom of choice (for example, you may wish to buy a certain product that is not available on the market, just like you may wish to move to a type of country which does not exist or which refuses to receive you).

Sometimes, social contracts are informal (for example, when they are not codified in law), and many are not well understood. In very dynamic or mobile societies the local consensus is often rapidly shifting as people move in and out of groups. Conflict often arises out of different understandings of the local aggregate expectations as well as disagreement regarding appropriate rules of behavior and interaction. This can be very stressful for group members until new informal agreements have been informally negotiated between interacting members of the group, community, or society. Such fluidity argues for a minimum of forceful imposition of the social contract, given the likelihood of disagreement over its terms and conditions.

The modern "nation state" presumes the acceptance of the social contract from birth. Typically nation states make newborns automatic citizens. This is a contract which serves the perpetuity of the nation state as newborns do not have the capability to consent to the contract; thus the contract should be rendered null and void. However, there is no way out - there is no realistic possibility of escaping to a place where no social contracts exist, nor is there a possibility of an individual to secede from a nation state without the probable involvement of that nation's police for the breaking of its laws (the first likely to be tax evasion), which the person never formally consented to following in the first place. Going about one's daily business in a society cannot be construed as implied consent, as there is no alternative.

As long as humans congregate, each will need protection from the potentially malicious others. This protection may be offered by the individual themselves or by another person. In a climate of hostiles, indviduals protecting themselves may leave little time for personal pursuits, and may lead to their deaths.

Thus, protection is generally offered by others. However, the protector cannot be everywhere at once. As such, the malicious ones need to fear something greater than themselves to keep the congregation from dispersing. The threat of attack - fear - must thus be everpresent. If people attack one another then there will probably be no net benefit from congregation. Thus human societies greater than one person will always need something to fear - the givers of force. Force has, and always shall be, the supreme authority from which all other authorities derive. In small groups this is one person - the leader. In larger groups it is the military and police which are always heirachical in nature, having their own leaders whom ultimately report to one person. People who refuse to consent will always be removed forcefully - hence the nature of the prison. Non-violent secession can never occur as it will always be resisted by the leader, and thus, always by force. Not only does a secession damage the group through the loss of a member but it emboldens others to leave and damages the collective. Thus, as protector of the collective, the leader will always attack secession with force. Thus, any secession attempts must have the backing of the force equivalent to that of the leader. All human societies have been this way, and various names of systems merely veil in different ways this basic immutable concept of the social contract.

There has almost never been any backing to the statement that for some, the benefits of joining a nation state do not outweigh the benefits of remaining alone. There has never been a society which has freely offered the choice of remaining alone.

However, it can also be argued that humans who do not join societies eventually become victims of natural selection because of no one to mate with, or through attrition in the protection process. Thus societal living has provided a survival advantage, and through these mechanisms has become dominant over time.

See also: social capital, contract, Debian Social Contract, Mayflower Compact

The Social Contract is also a term used to by both the Labour government of Harold Wilson in 1970s Britain and the New Democratic Party government of Bob Rae in 1990s Ontario to describe attempts to impose austerity measures on the labour movement.

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