Social Contract Theory

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Reply Fri 1 Apr, 2011 05:06 pm
1. 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 between them to form society.
2. Social Contract Theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defence by Hobbes.
3. After Hobbes, Locke and 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.
4. This essay will therefore discuss the views of x and y on this intriguing subject.

Hobbes (1588-1679)
State of Nature:
1. men are naturally self-interested, yet they are rational, they will choose to submit to the authority of a Sovereign in order to be able to live in a civil society, which is conducive to their own interests.

2. Hobbes argues for this by imagining men in their natural state, or in other words, the State of Nature. In the hypothetical State of Nature, men are naturally and exclusively self-interested, they are more or less equal to one another, (even the strongest man can be killed in his sleep), there are limited resources, and yet there is no power able to force men to cooperate.

3. The State of Nature would be unbearably brutal. In the State of Nature, every person is always in fear of losing his life to another.

4. The State of Nature is the worst possible situation in which men can find themselves. It is the state of perpetual and unavoidable war.

The Social Contract
1. Because men are reasonable, they can see their way out of such a state by recognizing the laws of nature, which show them the means by which to escape the State of Nature and create a civil society.

2. The first and most important law of nature commands that each man be willing to pursue peace when others are willing to do the same, all the while retaining the right to continue to pursue war when others do not pursue peace.

3. Being reasonable, men can be expected to construct a Social Contract that will afford them a life other than that available to them in the State of Nature.

4. This contract is constituted by two distinguishable contracts.
i) First, they must agree to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in the State of Nature.
ii) Second, they must imbue some one person or assembly of persons with the authority and power to enforce the initial contract.
In other words they must both agree to live together under common laws, and create an enforcement mechanism.

1. Since the sovereign is invested with the authority and power to mete out punishments for breaches of the contract which are worse than not being able to act as one pleases, men have good, albeit self-interested, reason to adjust themselves to the artifice of morality in general, and justice in particular.

2. And, no matter how much we may object to how poorly a Sovereign manages the affairs of the state and regulates our own lives, we are never justified in resisting his power because it is the only thing which stands between us and what we most want to avoid, the State of Nature.

Commodious Living:
1. Morality, politics, society, and everything that comes along with it, all of which Hobbes calls ‘commodious living’ are purely conventional. Prior to the establishment of the basic social contract, nothing is immoral or unjust – anything goes.

2. After these contracts are established, however, then society becomes possible. The Social Contract is the most fundamental source of all that is good and that which we depend upon to live well. Our choice is either to abide by the terms of the contract, or return to the State of Nature, which Hobbes argues no reasonable person could possibly prefer.

1. Given his rather severe view of human nature, Hobbes nonetheless manages to create an argument that makes civil society, along with all its advantages, possible.

2. Within the context of the political events of his England, he also managed to argue for a continuation of the traditional form of authority that his society had long since enjoyed, while nonetheless placing it on what he saw as a far more acceptable foundation.

Locke (1632-1704)
Hobbes vs Locke:
1. For Hobbes, the necessity of an absolute authority, in the form of a Sovereign, followed from the utter brutality of the State of Nature. The State of Nature was completely intolerable, and so rational men would be willing to submit themselves even to absolute authority in order to escape it.

2. For Locke, the State of Nature is a very different type of place, and so his argument concerning the social contract and the nature of men’s relationship to authority are consequently quite different.

3. While Locke uses Hobbes’ methodological device of the State of Nature, as do virtually all social contract theorists, he uses it to a quite different end.

4. Locke’s arguments for the social contract and for the right of citizens to revolt against their king were enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas Jefferson, and the founders of the United States.

Two Treatises:
1. Locke’s most important and influential political writings are contained in his Two Treatises on Government. The first treatise is concerned almost exclusively with refuting the Divine Right of Kings, which was a very dominant theory in seventeenth-century England.
2. The second treatise contains Locke’s own constructive view of the aims and justification for civil government.

State of Nature:
1. According to Locke, the State of Nature is a state of perfect and complete liberty to conduct one’s life as one best sees fit, free from the interference of others.

2. This does not mean, however, that it is a state of license: one is not free to do as one pleases. The State of Nature is not a state without morality.

3. Persons are assumed to be equal to one another in such a state, and therefore equally capable of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature, given to us by God. We must not harm others with regards to their “life, health, liberty, or possessions”.

4. In summary, because we all belong equally to God, and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming one another. So, the State of Nature is relatively peaceful.

1. The State of Nature is not the same as the state of war, as it is according to Hobbes. It can devolve into a state of war, in particular over property disputes.

2. Whereas in the State of Nature persons recognize the Law of Nature and therefore do not harm one another, the state of war begins between two or more men once one man declares war on another, by stealing from him, or by trying to make him his slave.

3. Since in the State of Nature there is no civil power to whom men can appeal, and since the Law of Nature allows them to defend their own lives, they may then kill those who would bring force against them.

4. Since the State of Nature lacks civil authority, once war begins it is likely to continue. And this is one of the strongest reasons that men have to abandon the State of Nature by contracting together to form civil government.

Private Property:
1. Property plays an essential role in Locke’s argument for civil government. According to Locke, private property is created when a person mixes his labour with the raw materials of nature.

2. (This led Locke to conclude that America didn’t really belong to the natives who lived there, because they were, on his view, failing to utilize the basic material of nature. In other words, they didn’t farm it, so they had no legitimate claim to it, and others could therefore justifiably appropriate it.)

3. Given the implications of the Law of Nature, there are limits as to how much property one can own: one is not allowed to take so more from nature than oneself can use, thereby leaving others without enough for themselves. One cannot take more than his own fair share.

4. Property is the linchpin of Locke’s argument for the social contract and civil government because it is the protection of their property, including their property in their own bodies, that men seek when they decide to abandon the State of Nature.

The Social Contract:
1. According to Locke, the State of Nature is not a condition of individuals, as it is for Hobbes. Rather, it is populated by mothers and fathers with their children, or families – what he calls “conjugal society”. These societies are based on the voluntary agreements to care for children together, and they are moral but not political.

2. Political society comes into being when individual men, representing their families, come together and agree to each give up the executive power to punish those who transgress the Law of Nature, and hand over that power to a government.

3. Having done this, they then become subject to the will of the majority. They make “one body politic under one government” and submit themselves to the will of that body.

4. One joins such a body, either from its beginnings, or after it has already been established by others, only by explicit consent.

5. Having created a political society and government through their consent, men then gain three things which they lacked in the State of Nature: laws; judges to adjudicate laws; and the executive power necessary to enforce these laws.

6. Each man therefore gives over the power to protect himself and punish transgressors of the Law of Nature to the government that he has created through the compact.

1. Given that the end of “men’s uniting into common-wealths” is the preservation of their wealth, and preserving their lives, liberty, and well-being in general, Locke can easily imagine the conditions under which the compact with government is destroyed, and men are justified in resisting the authority of a civil government, such as a King.

2. When the executive power of a government devolves into tyranny, then the resulting tyrant puts himself into a State of Nature, and specifically into a state of war with the people, and they then have the same right to self-defence as they had before making a compact to establish society in the first place.

3. When protection of life, liberty and property is no longer present, or when the king acts against the interests of the people, they have a right, if not an outright obligation, to resist his authority. The social compact can be dissolved and the process to create political society begun anew.

1. Because Locke did not envision the State of Nature as grimly as did Hobbes, he can imagine conditions under which one would be better off rejecting a particular civil government and returning to the State of Nature, with the aim of constructing a better civil government in its place.

2. It is therefore both the view of human nature, and the nature of morality itself, which account for the differences between Hobbes’ and Locke’s views of the social contract.

Rousseau (1712-1778)
Rousseau, lived and wrote during what was arguably the headiest period in the intellectual history of modern France–the Enlightenment.

Two Social Contracts:
1. Rousseau has two distinct social contract theories.

2. Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men is an account of the moral and political evolution from a State of Nature to modern society. It contains his naturalized account of the social contract, which he sees as very problematic.

3. The second is his normative, or idealized theory of the social contract, and provides the means by which to alleviate the problems that modern society has created for us, as laid out in the Second Discourse.

State of Nature:
1. According to Rousseau, the State of Nature was a peaceful and quixotic time. People lived solitary, uncomplicated lives. Their few needs were easily satisfied by nature.

2. Because of the abundance of nature and the small size of the population, competition was non-existent, and persons rarely even saw one another, much less had reason for conflict or fear.

3. Moreover, these simple, morally pure persons were naturally endowed with the capacity for pity, and therefore were not inclined to bring harm to one another.

Private Property:
1. As the overall population increased, the means by which people could satisfy their needs had to change. People slowly began to live together in small families, and then in small communities.

2. Divisions of labour were introduced, both within and between families, and discoveries and inventions made life easier, giving rise to leisure time.

3. Such leisure time inevitably led people to make comparisons between themselves and others, leading to shame and envy, pride and contempt.

4. Most importantly, however, was the invention of private property, which constituted the pivotal moment in humanity’s evolution out of a simple, pure state into one characterized by greed, competition, vanity, inequality, and vice. For Rousseau the invention of property constitutes humanity’s ‘fall from grace’ out of the State of Nature.

Naturalized Contract (Inequality due to Property):
1. Some have property and others are forced to work for them, and the development of social classes begins.

2. Eventually, those who have property notice that it would be in their interests to create a government that would protect private property from those who do not have it but can see that they might be able to acquire it by force.

3. So, government gets established, through a contract, which purports to guarantee equality and protection for all, even though its true purpose is to fossilize the very inequalities that private property has produced. Marx would have agreed wholeheartedly with this.

4. This is the naturalized social contract, which Rousseau views as responsible for the conflict and competition from which modern society suffers.

Normative Contract:
1. The normative social contract is meant to respond to this sorry state of affairs and to remedy the social and moral ills produced by the development of society.

2. The distinction between history and justification, between the factual situation of mankind and how it ought to live together, is of the utmost importance to Rousseau.

3. We must resolve those problems through our capacity to choose how we ought to live.

The Social Contract:
1. The Social Contract begins “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”. This claim is the conceptual bridge between the descriptive work of the Second Discourse, and the prescriptive work to come.

2. Humans are essentially free, but the ‘progress’ of civilization has substituted subservience to others for that freedom, through dependence, economic and social inequalities, and the extent to which we judge ourselves through comparisons with others.

3. Since a return to the State of Nature is neither feasible nor desirable, the purpose of politics is to restore freedom to us, thereby reconciling who we truly and essentially are with how we live together.

4. So, this is the fundamental philosophical problem that The Social Contract seeks to address: how can we be free and live together? We can do so by submitting our individual wills to the general will.

5. Like Hobbes and Locke before him, all men are created equal, and therefore the only justified authority is the authority that is generated out of agreements or covenants.

1. The most basic covenant, the social pact, is the agreement to come together and form a collectivity, which by definition is more than and different from a mere aggregation of individual interests and wills. This act, where individual persons become a people is “the real foundation of society”.

2. Through the collective renunciation of the individual rights and freedoms and the transfer of these rights to the collective body, a new ‘person’ is formed.

3. The sovereign is thus formed when free and equal persons come together and agree to create themselves anew as a single body, for the common good.

4. Included in this version of the social contract is the idea of reciprocated duties: the sovereign is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual is likewise committed to the good of the whole.

5. Given this, individuals must be made to conform themselves to the general will, they must be “forced to be free”.

1. For Rousseau, this implies an extremely strong and direct form of democracy. The general will depends on the coming together periodically of the entire democratic body, to decide what laws to enact.

2. As it is constituted only by individual wills, these wills must assemble themselves regularly if the general will is to continue.

3. One implication of this is that the strong form of democracy which is consistent with the general will is also only possible in relatively small states.

4. Although the conditions for true democracy are stringent, they are also the only means by which we can save ourselves, and regain the freedom to which we are naturally entitled.

1. Rousseau’s social contract theories together form a single, consistent view of our moral and political situation.

2. We are endowed with freedom and equality by nature, but our nature has been corrupted by our contingent social history.

3. We can overcome this corruption, however, by invoking our free will to reconstitute ourselves politically, along strongly democratic principles, which is good for us, both individually and collectively.


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