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The Social Contract Theory Philosophy Essay

The term social contract describes a broad class of philosophical theories whose subject is the implied agreements by which people form nations and maintain a social order. In laymen's terms, this means that the people give up some of their rights to a government in order to receive protection and 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. The starting point for most of these theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent any social order, termed the “state of nature” or “natural state”. In this state of being, an individual’s action is bound only by his or her conscience. From this common starting point, the various features of social contract theory attempt to explain, in different ways, why it is in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily give up the freedom of action one has under the natural state (their so called “natural rights”) in order to obtain the benefits provided by the formation of social structures.

Common to all of these theories is the notion of a sovereign will, which all members of a society are bound by the social contract to respect. The various types of social contract theory that have developed are largely differentiated by their definition of the sovereign will, be it a King (monarchy), a Council (oligarchy) or The Majority (republic or democracy). Under a theory first articulated by Plato, members within a society implicitly agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society and receive protection. Thus implicit in most forms of social contract is that freedom of movement is a fundamental or natural right which society may not legitimately require an individual to surrender to the sovereign will.

The social contract theory has some basic features where it says- firstly. State is an artificial institution signifying that it is a means to an end, secondly, it is created by human beings with the help of a contract, thirdly, the contract must be based on the consent of one and all, and lastly that prior to formation of state me lived in a hypothetical situation known as ‘state of nature’.

Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous philosophers of the social contract theory, which formed the theoretical groundwork of democracy. Although the theory of natural rights influenced the development of classical liberalism, its emphasis on individualism and its rejection of the necessity to subordinate individual liberty to the sovereign will stands in opposition to the general tenets of social contract theory.

According to Hobbes' theory, without society, we would live in a state of nature (a hypothetical situation since it cannot be supported by historical data), where we each have unlimited natural freedoms. The downside of this general autonomy is that it includes the "right to all things" and thus the freedom to harm all who threaten one's own self-preservation; there are no positive rights, only laws of nature and an endless "war of all against all". In other words, anyone in the state of nature can do anything he likes; but this also means that anyone can do anything he likes to anyone else. The state of nature according to Hobbes is presocial and pre political in nature and there is no scope for development to take place. To avoid this, we jointly agree to a social contract by which we each gain civil rights in return for subjecting ourselves to civil law or to political authority. In Hobbes' formulation, the sovereign power is not a party of the contract but instead the sovereign is its creation, and so is not bound by it. The command of the sovereign is law and the contract is irrevocable.

Alternatively, some have argued that we gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so; this alternative formulation of the duty arising from the social contract is often identified with militia, or defense activity.

State of nature is a term in political philosophy used in the social contract theories to describe the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state's foundation and its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. In a broader sense, a state of nature is the condition before the rule of positive law and order comes into being.

In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs: the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.

Hobbes's philosophy

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his famous work Leviathan first posited the concept of a state of nature in the 17th century. Hobbes described the concept in the Latin phrase ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’, meaning "the war of all against all”. In this state, any person has a natural right to do anything to preserve his or her own liberty or safety.

Hobbes believed that human beings in a state of nature would behave with cruelty towards one another. Yet Hobbes argued that people had every right to defend themselves by whatever means necessary in the absence of order. He believed that such a condition would lead to a "war of every man against every man" and make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He believed that in the international arena, states behave as individuals do in a state of nature.

Rousseau's theory

Hobbes's view was challenged in the 18th century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of the society in which they were raised. He affirmed instead that people were born pure and good; men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their bad habits were the products of civilization specifically social hierarchies, property, and markets

Natural rights are those universal rights that are seen as inherent in the nature of people and not contingent on human actions or beliefs.

One theory of natural rights was developed from the theory of natural law during the ‘Enlightenment’ in opposition to the divine right of kings, and provided a moral justification for liberalism.

The concept of natural rights can be contrasted with the concept of legal rights: A natural right is one that is claimed to exist even when the government or society as a whole does not enforce it, whereas a legal right is a right specifically created by the government or society, for the benefit of its citizens.

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who influenced nearly all-western political philosophy. He is best known for his contribution to the social contract theory of origin of state. Hobbes was greatly influenced in his ideas by the English civil war that broke out in 1642.

This led Hobbes to produce a book to set forth his theory of civil government in relation to the political crisis resulting from the war. It was based on an unpublished treatise of 1640. The State, it now seemed to Hobbes, might be regarded as a great artificial man or monster, composed of men, with a life that might be traced from its generation under pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions. The work was closed with a general "Review and Conclusion"; in direct response to the war, which raised the question of the subject's right to change allegiance when a former sovereign's power to protect was irrecoverably gone. In addition, he criticized religious doctrines on rationalistic grounds in the Commonwealth.

Hobbes’s Leviathan had immediate effects because of its secular nature and he had to appeal to the revolutionary English government for protection, which explains his fondness for monarchy and gratitude for royal patronage. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War; much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical powers. Hobbes explicitly states that the sovereign has authority to assert power over matters of faith and doctrine, and that if he does not do so, he invites discord.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher whose political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. Rousseau had lived a poor life full of hardship and travelled all over observing the inequalities among the rich and poor and the different lifestyles. This led him to write a famous book of his known as Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men.

Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. He contended that man was neither inherently good nor bad when in the state of nature (the state of all other animals, and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society. This idea has often led to the attribution to Rousseau the idea of the noble savage. He held that humans are good because they are self-sufficient and thus not subject to the vices of political society. He viewed society as artificial and held that the development of society, especially the growth of social interdependence, has been inimical to the well-being of human beings.

He claims that as humans were forced to associate together more closely by the pressure of population growth, they underwent a psychological transformation and came to value the good opinion of others as an essential component of their own well-being. Rousseau associated this new self-awareness with a golden age of human flourishing. However, the development of agriculture, metallurgy, private property, and the division of labor led to humans becoming increasingly dependent on one another, and led to inequality. The resulting state of conflict led Rousseau to suggest that the first state was invented as a kind of social contract made at the suggestion of the rich and powerful. This original contract was deeply flawed as the wealthiest and most powerful members of society tricked the general population, and thus instituted inequality as a fundamental feature of human society. Rousseau's own conception of the social contract can be understood as an alternative to this form of association.

In his famous work The Social Contract, he begins by saying, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are." Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. In the degenerate phase of society, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law.

While Rousseau argues that sovereignty should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereign and government. The government is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will and is composed of a smaller group of citizens, known as magistrates. Rousseau's ideas were influential at the time of the French Revolution although, since popular sovereignty was exercised through representatives rather than directly, it cannot be said that the Revolution was in any sense an implementation of Rousseau's ideas.

In Thomas Hobbes book Leviathan- Parts One and Two, he presents a commonwealth ruled by a sovereign leader that is based on the laws of nature and the kingdom of God. At the root of the commonwealth is a social contract, which is a covenant binding the individuals of the society to wills and judgments of the sovereign leader. The contract explores the asociality of the human species and self- preservation, which is fundamental to the human drive. Influenced by Hobbes’ social contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau published On the Social Contract presenting his theory of the social contract that both expanded and differed from Hobbes’ principles. Rousseau’s social contract presented the governing factor to be the general will. Although Hobbes and Rousseau have differing Social Contracts they each are represented by the phrase, “A kingdom divided cannot stand”; for, the former is a reference to a monarchy and the latter is a reference to the general will.

In Hobbes’ Leviathan, he presents the asociality of human nature. Because, he notes, human kind is equal in both the body and the mind, men are in a constant state of war with one another. For, from equality arises the desire to attain our goals, which leads to competition between men who are seeking the same end. Thus, out of equality develops diffidence and war. In this state of war men, live without any common power and thus, “every man is enemy to every man”. Their only security is their strength compounded with the strength of their associates. Because man has no common strength or power, there are no governing laws; hence, there are no injustices. Accordingly, there is no place in the state of war for rights and wrongs. Hobbes notes, “Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues”, both of these virtues are unjust. He concludes that the only motivation man has to seek peace is the fear of the consequences of war. The motivation of fear does not connote social tendencies of the human specie to aid one another; instead, it clearly notes humankind’s selfish disregard of each other.

In addition to humankinds’ tendency towards asociality, Hobbes presents people as being inclined towards self-preservation above all other concerns. The theme of self-preservation is presented in what Hobbes calls the right of nature. He explains this fundamental concept to be, “the liberty each man has to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature- that is to say, of his own life”, meaning that any man can go to whatever lengths necessary in order to preserve his own life. Furthermore, an additional law of nature notes that, as a rule, a man is prohibited from behaving in a manner that is destructive to his life. Hobbes also supports what the Christian bible has entitled “the golden rule”, or the declaration that one should behave, as he or she would wish to be treated. This is a law of self-preservation, which, if ardently followed, would greatly increase peace. Yet, the golden rule is not often followed in the state of war; for, one is disinterested in any other man’s desires besides his own. Thus according to Hobbes, in a state of war man is allowed to behave in any manner he wishes; however, his primary interest and natural guide are the rules of self-preservation.

Both humankinds’ nature of asociality and tendency towards self-preservation are incorporated into Thomas Hobbes’ social contract. His social contract presents a commonwealth in which there is one sovereign leader, to which all of his subjects have pledged a covenant to surrender their judgments to those wills and judgments of the sovereign. The covenant between the subjects and the sovereign entails very specific rules of conduct. First, the subjects are bound to maintain the same form of the government. They cannot lawfully make a new covenant among themselves; nor, can they break their covenant to the sovereign in any form. For, if one man dissents all of the other subjects should leave the commonwealth and return to a state of war, but this is a great injustice. In addition, they cannot try to replace their covenant to the sovereign with a covenant to God, for a covenant with God must be a lie, unless God, himself, contacted a subject, which, one must admit, is highly unlikely. Second, a sovereign cannot break the covenant with his subjects. Thus, none of his subjects can be freed from his discretion and will. Third, the subject is never endowed with the power to punish the sovereign. Fourth, the roll of the sovereign is to perform whatever is necessary in order to maintain a state of peace and to defend for all of his subjects. In addition, the sovereign determines what doctrines are appropriate to teach his subjects. Fifth, the sovereign is endowed with the right to create governing rules. According to such rules, subjects must lead his life. Furthermore, he has the right to declare peace or war. Lastly, he develops a hierarchy within the subjects, pending on their level of honor. Thus, the sovereign has ultimate control.

Hobbes believed that the sovereign ruler must be endowed with utter control; for he believed, “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand”. He recognized that often the dissolution of a commonwealth occurs due to the division of the sovereign power. For instance, if two states join, yet each maintains their previous rulers, the subjects will never have a definitive ruler or social code. Dissolution of the commonwealth is also spurred by abuse of power, monopolies, conquering of a state during wartime, and private judgments of good and evil. Although it is always an injustice if a subject questions the rulings of the sovereign, Hobbes occasionally acknowledges that it is necessary. Thus, the premise of Hobbes’ social contract lies in a single leader with entirely obedient subjects.

It is clear that Hobbes’ Leviathan influenced the social contract put forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau entitled On the Social Contract. At the onset of his book, Rousseau presents the fundamental problem for which he has developed his social contract:

Find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.

Rousseau presents the predicament of an association, which protects each associate, while heeding the common good, yet still obeys each associate’s judgment and will. To this, he proposes a social contract, which is composed of clauses defined by the nature of the act. These clauses are generally accepted and thus sprout from one’s reasoning. A violation of this social contract leads to each person regaining their liberty established prior to that association, but losing the liberty the association provided. Rousseau further simplifies his social contract by explaining that these clauses are reducible to one clause. This simplified clause states that the man who breeches the contract from each associate in the community, shall incur alienation from all associates. Rousseau finally condenses his social contract into one statement: “Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole”. Rousseau is concluding that each man places his power under the control of the general will or the balance of the sum of private wills with the sum of general interests.

The largest difference between Rousseau’s social contract and Hobbes’ is the state of nature. For, as previously stated, Hobbes’ state of nature between men was that of war and diffidence. Additionally, Hobbes believes that social order is a state of nature. Yet, Rousseau diverts from Hobbes on this matter. At the onset of his book, Rousseau notes that although the social order is sacred it is not a natural order. In addition, Rousseau explains that the state of war cannot exist solely between individuals, but a private war is one between two states. In such a case, individuals are enemies only due to the nature of war, not due to the nature of mankind. This gap is the primary reason that Rousseau and Hobbes’ social contracts differ. For, Hobbes’ social contract is pendent on the natural, perpetual state of war between men. Because of such a state, Hobbes feels that it is necessary to implement the strongest form of government, Monarchy. Accordingly, because Rousseau does not believe in this natural state of war, he finds the people more capable of reasoning the public’s best interest. Thus, he relies on the general will of all to determine the actions of the governing body.

Despite this difference, Rousseau’s social contract is very similar to that of Hobbes. They each are rooted in the principle of “a divided kingdom cannot stand.” It is clear that Hobbes’ social contract upholds said principle for it is based on the premise of the one sovereign leader. Additionally, Rousseau’s social contract unifies the kingdom differently. For, according to Rousseau, the unity of the citizens lies in their general will. Thus, the government will act in a manner favorable to the general will and accordingly, the public is united.

Hobbes’ Leviathan: Parts 1 and 2, presents a moral code of conduct established through prudence and science. His proposed commonwealth attempts to protect men from one another by unifying a group of subjects under one sovereign leader. His theory, however, does not account for potential lunatic dictators who incur mass genocide on their people or develop a state of divided classes, with an extremely impoverished lower class and an unnecessarily wealthy upper class, or overall misuse of their ultimate control. Yet, Rousseau’s social contract has its negative points too. As Rousseau admits, the public does not have the intellectual capability to rationalize the general good. Individuals may maintain the best intentions of determining the general will, yet each response will be skewed. Thus one needs to take into account only their intentions; yet, it is impossible to accordingly determine the general will. Hence, neither Hobbes nor Rousseau’s social contract is perfect.


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