Analytical Essay on the Essence of Social Contract Theory

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“The idea of the social contract goes back at least to Epicurus. In its recognizably modern form, however, the idea is revived by Thomas Hobbes; it was developed in different ways by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. After Kant, the idea largely fell into disrepute until it was resurrected by John Rawls. It is now at the heart of the work of a number of moral and political philosophers. The basic idea seems simple: in some way, the agreement of all individuals subject to collectively enforced social arrangements shows that those arrangements have some normative property and they are legitimate, just, obligating, etc. Even this basic idea, though, is anything but simple, and even this abstract rendering is objectionable in numerous ways (Skyrms).”

“Social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. Socrates uses something quite like a social contract argument to explain to Crito why he must remain in prison and accept the death penalty. However, social contract theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defense by Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known proponents of this enormously influential theory, which has been one of the most dominant theories within moral and political theory throughout the history of the modern West. In the twentieth century, moral and political theory regained philosophical momentum as a result of John Rawls Kantian version of social contract theory, and was followed by new analyses of the subject by David Gauthier and others. More recently, philosophers from different perspectives have offered new criticisms of social contract theory.”

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“Social Contract theory is the idea that people gain benefit from living together and abiding by rules and laws that would be set forth by rational people. Social contract theory gained notice when Thomas Hobbes wrote about it in response to the English Civil War. He asserted that there was no right and wrong, that each person took everything they could, not caring for their fellow man. Life was nasty, short and brutish. According to Hobbes, this could be improved if people were willing to give up their liberty to a sovereign power, which would have absolute power and in return could offer them protection (Shaapera).”

“This theory also states that we all need the same basic things to survive, food, water, shelter and clothing. One person alone does not possess the ability to have these things easily and for certain, so we can work together to provide all of these things for everyone as long as there is a contract of sorts in place to ensure that everyone can live peacefully and without fear. John Locke however argued that a person’s right to life and property were natural and therefore, the social contract would need to be conditional, providing obedience only as long as there was protection for life and property and should the sovereign leader fail in this, he should be overthrown.”

“French born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that people were unwarlike and underdeveloped in their moral reasoning, so when people gave up their liberties and freedoms in exchange for protection, they would feel a sense of moral obligation. He stated that this meant that, in order to keep this sense of moral obligation the government must rest on the consent of the governed. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau made very good points, and all were theories needed for others to take and shape into a good social contract for others to abide by and flourish under (Shaapera).”

“Social contract is an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection. Theories of a social contract became popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries among theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects. The historical origins of sovereign power and the moral origins of the principles make sovereign power just and/or legitimate. It is often associated with the liberal tradition in political theory, because it presupposes the fundamental freedom and equality of all those entering into a political arrangement and the associated rights that follow from the principles of basic freedom and equality. From that starting point, often conceptualized via the metaphor of a state of nature, social contract theory develops an account of political legitimacy, grounded in the idea that naturally free and equal human beings have no right to exercise power over one another, except in accordance with the principle of mutual consent.”

“Social contract theory has its disadvantages. For one, it implies that everyone should be capable of abiding by this contract, but what about the mentally ill? Should we have no moral obligation to treat them well because they are not able to abide properly by the terms of the contract? It also leaves very little room to decide whether or not civil disobedience is justified. For me, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. It gives us a moral compass to guide our actions appropriately and helps us to determine the difference between right and wrong. It tells us what rules to follow and why those rules are needed. It tells us the circumstances under which we are able to break certain rules. Problems with the social contract theory include the following: It gives government too much power to make laws under the guise of protecting the public. Specifically, governments may use the cloak of the social contract to invoke the fear of a state of nature to warrant laws that are intrusive.”

“One example of pros of social contact theory is when a government takes away simple freedom to protect its citizens. Some people say that the full body scan at airports are a personal violating and are not legal. Now I say it is legal and ok, if the government using full body scanners protects me from being killed on a plane by someone then I’m ok with it. But on the other hand the con to it is that you are losing your own personal freedoms at the expense of others. Now some might say this is wrong but it does save lives. Thomas Hobbs was best known for his political thoughts, and deservedly so. He had a vision of the world that was surprisingly accurate and is still relevant to this day. He was mainly concerned with the problem of social and political power. He wanted all human beings to live together in peace, and to avoid the danger and fear of conflict. They thought that we should give our undivided obedience to an unaccountable sovereign. Another powerful political thinker on social contract theory is John Locke. He was a very influential political philosopher of the modern period. Locke claimed that men are born naturally free. Locke also believes in the separation of separation of legislative and executive powers. John Locke's version of social contract theory is striking in saying that the only right people give up in order to enter into civil society and its benefits is the right to punish other people for violating rights (Shaapera). No other rights are given up, only the right to be a vigilante.”

“Social contract theory tries to explain the beginning of men when people lived in the state of nature without the government or any law that could govern them. However, there was a lot of hardship and various forms of oppression, which forced society to enter into two forms of contracts known as Pactum Unionis and Pactum Subjections. Therefore, the focus of this task is to describe the main similarities and difference between three forms of social contract theory, the main contributions of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in the theory Social contract theory exists in different forms, which include the sexual contract, nature of the liberal individual, and Arguing from care. The sexual contract is argued that it is one lying beneath the myth of the idealized contract, as described by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. It is one of the fundamental contracts that bring a great concern between the relationship between men and women (Laskar).”

“Social contract theory says that people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. Some people believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it. Over the centuries, philosophers as far back as Socrates have tried to describe the ideal social contract, and to explain how existing social contracts have evolved. Philosopher Stuart Rachels suggests that morality is the set of rules governing behavior that rational people accept, on the condition that others accept them too (Kimmel, et al.).”

“Social contracts can be explicit, such as laws, or implicit, such as raising one’s hand in class to speak. The U.S. Constitution is often cited as an explicit example of part of America’s social contract. It sets out what the government can and cannot do. People who choose to live in America agree to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution’s social contract. Indeed, regardless of whether social contracts are explicit or implicit, they provide a valuable framework for harmony in society.”

Works Cited

  1. 'Social Contract Theory'. Csus.Edu,
  2. Kimmel, Allan J., N. Craig Smith, and Jill Gabrielle Klein. 'Ethical decision making and research deception in the behavioral sciences: An application of social contract theory.' Ethics & Behavior 21.3 (2011): 222-251.
  3. Laskar, Manzoor. 'Summary of social contract theory by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.' Locke and Rousseau (April 4, 2013) (2013).
  4. Shaapera, Simon Aondohemba. 'Evaluating the social contract theoretical ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau: An analytical perspective on the state and relevance to contemporary society.' (2015).
  5. Skyrms, Brian. Evolution of the social contract. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
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