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ETHICS EXPLAINER: SOCIAL CONTRACT

by The Ethics Centre
31 August 2016
EXPLAINER
Social contract theories see the exercise of political power as legitimate but only if it is given freely to the state by its citizens. They seek to justify and explain why the state has duties to its citizens and vice versa.

Although the idea of a social contract goes as far back as Socrates, it gained popularity during The Enlightenment thanks similar theories from thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Today the most popular example of social contract theory comes from John Rawls.

The social contract begins with the idea of a state of nature – the way human beings would exist in the world if they weren’t part of a society. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that because people are fundamentally selfish, life in the state of nature would be “nasty, brutish and short”. The powerful would impose their will on the weak and nobody could feel certain their natural rights to life and freedom would be respected.

 

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that because people are fundamentally selfish, life in the state of nature would be “nasty, brutish and short”.


Hobbes believed no person in the state of nature was so strong they could be free from fear of another person and no person was so weak they could not present a threat. Because of this, he suggested it would make sense for everyone to submit to a common set of rules and surrender some of their rights to create an all-powerful state (Hobbes called it the ‘Leviathan’) that could guarantee and protect every person’s right.

It’s called a contract because it involves a kind of exchange of services. Citizens surrender some of our personal power and liberty and in return the state provides security and the guarantee civil liberty will be protected.

READ MORE: Liberty Vs Security - Finding the Balance

Crucially, social contract theorists insist the entire legitimacy of a government is based in the reciprocal social contract. They are legitimate because they are the only ones the people willingly hand power to. Locke called this “popular sovereignty”.

Crucially – and unlike Hobbes – Locke thought the focus on consent and individual rights means if a group of people didn’t agree with significant decisions of a ruling government then they should be allowed to join together to form a different social contract and create a different government.

Not every social contract theorist agrees on this point though, because philosophers have different ideas on whether the social contract is real or a fictional way to describe the relationship between citizens and their government.

 

It’s called a contract because it involves a kind of exchange of services. Citizens surrender some of our personal power and liberty and in return the state provides security and the guarantee civil liberty will be protected.


If the social contract is a real contract – just like your employment contract – based on a consensual exchange, people could be argued to be free not to accept the terms. For example, if a person didn’t agree they should give some of their income to the state they should be able to decline to pay tax and as a result wouldn’t be able to enjoy use of state-funded hospitals, education and all the rest.

Like other contracts though, once the agreement is made there are penalties if one party decides to withdraw – so citizens who decide to stop paying taxes may still be subject to punishment.

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Critics of social contract theory believe individual citizens are forced to opt in to the social contract. Instead of being given a choice, they are just lumped together in a political system which they as individuals have little chance to control.

Of course the idea of individuals choosing not to opt in or out is pretty impractical – imagine trying to stop someone from using roads or footpaths because they didn’t pay tax. This is why Rawls proposes a hypothetical social contract. He suggests we ask what kind of contract all reasonable people would consent to. Which freedoms would all reasonable people be willing to surrender in exchange to having their rights protected? By answering this question and structuring government around the answer to this hypothetical, the government holds an implied social contract with its citizens.

 

Of course the idea of individuals choosing not to opt in or out is pretty impractical – imagine trying to stop someone from using roads or footpaths because they didn’t pay tax.


In established states it can be easy to forget the social contract involves the provision of protection in exchange for us surrendering some freedoms. People can grow accustomed to having their rights protected and forget about the liberty they are required to surrender in exchange. But according to social contract theory, to insist on unrestricted liberty is to accept limited involvement by the state in our lives – even when they might be helpful.

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