During the enlightenment period many philosophers presented commentaries on the political realm of their society. Such writings have encouraged revolutions such as: the English, American and French revolution. One observes that Enlightenment philosophers operated on the notion that the existing social and political orders could not withstand critical scrutiny and were rooted in religious myth and mystery and founded on vague cultures. This negative analysis and critique of existing institutions had positive overtones in the area of theory construction and in delineating models of ideal institutions. A notable philosopher of this period was Thomas Hobbes. Bearing in mind the above succinct introductory discourse this essay sets out on a path to identify and discuss the critical tenets outlined by Thomas Hobbes’ Contract theory and subsequently assess their relevance in explaining human conduct in contemporary societies. Thomas Hobbes main concern was the problem of social and political order, that is, how human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict (Bistow, n.d. para. 1). This essay argues that Hobbes concern which lay at the heart of his social contract theory is still relevant to contemporary society, since contemporary philosophy and institution are yet to debunk Hobbes view on the ‘state of nature’ as particularly demonstrated in the behaviors of individuals in failed states.
A Social contract according to Hobbes is seen as “the mutual transferring of rights” (Thomas Hobbes: Social Contract”, n.d., para. 4). Before such contract man existed in a ‘state of nature’. Life in the ‘state of nature’ for Hobbes (in Burger 2013) is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and also that man is in continual fear, and in danger of a violent death. Solitary, because everyone was on his or her own; poor, because such isolation made impossible the cooperation that economic development requires; nasty, because everyone looking out for him or herself would result in constant conflict ; brutish because such a life is fir for animals; short, because humans seeking their own interest will kill each other. Hobbes described this natural condition with the Latin phrase “bellum omnium contra omnes” (meaning war of all against all), in his work De Cive. Here Hobbes is clearly stating his belief that in a world without a ruler, man would not be able to adequately progress in his life. Thus, he was in constant fear of losing what he gained and in his own self interest he made the social contract. This can be noted in the fact that “a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive to his life, to take away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved” (Hobbes: 1996).
The social contract theory clearly has benefits but also shortcomings. An advantage as mentioned in (Brown 12) is that it provides very clear answers to very difficult questions in ethical theory. For example: What moral rules are we bound to follow and how are those rules justified? Why is it reasonable for us to follow the moral rules? Under what circumstances are we allowed breaking the rules? It also seems to provide an objective basis for morality. Browne (n.d. para. 13) states, one disadvantage of the social contract theory is whether the social contract ever had a basis in history. Most recent proponents of the social contract such as John Rawls are clear about the fact that the social contract does not necessarily refer to a real historical event. The point of the social contract is to act as a test for the justification of moral principles. Also, it can be said that we implicitly participate in such a social contract by acting cooperatively in our social arrangements. We vote by going along with the outcome. David Hume also points out that there had never been a situation called the state of nature’ and that nobody had consented to a social contract, mainly because the social contract was purely hypothetical (Rusling n.d. para. 5). Since we are born into a society and we don’t need a contract theory because our belief is that the government is in our best interests and therefore the people support its continuation. P a g e | 8 Moreover, Olynyk (2010) states that Hobbes makes no allowance for the moral side of people and society. Therefore his theory implies that people without states would have no moral limits. It is difficult concur with Olynyk analysis since modern day experiences particularly in Somalia and the Middle East have shown that where there is state failure life appears brutish and nasty as Hobbes describes. One must admit that Hobbes social contract theory has much relation to contemporary society. Even though we are not born in a hypothetical state of nature, we form a social contract every time we vote for a party. The agreement lays that we give up our rights to be protected, to progress economically. The laws instituted by the state are binding upon all citizens. Like Hobbes secularization state many modern rulers (government) including Guyana do not claim authority from God, but his or her ability to provide and / facilitate development of citizens; such acts legitimize the ruler (i.e. government). However there is an important caveat, given modern experience of the division of powers, Hobbes illustration of a monarchial ruler who makes laws, execute taxation etc are extreme and atypical. In Guyana there are separations of power i.e.: Executive, judiciary, and legislation such division is to ensure that power will check power (i.e. each division will keep the other in check). Since according to Lord Acton ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Notwithstanding old and new criticisms of Hobbes’ social contract and one notable exception with regards to the nature of legitimacy of rulers, Hobbes social contract still has a huge relevance for our society as it is apparent that the ‘state of nature’ argument is still pertinent. Hobbes theory has laid an important and lasting foundation for modern states to live a fair and friendly environment with laws to keep order to society.