Nikolas Wagner, Gregory Zane, Courtney Hall (Editor)

Social Contract:

A social contract is an agreement between a government and the governed. It states that the government has the obligation to its citizens to protect their interests, liberties, and rights; in return, the citizens will abide by the government's laws.

The Social Contract Theory became increasingly popular with philosophers during the Enlightenment Period. Three of the most famous and influential Social Contract philosophers were Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom you will read about below. Components of the theory that are consistent among most philosophers include the State of Nature (which is usually described as either a State of War or State of Peace) and thenecessity or lack there of an established government as a result of the state of nature.
The Mayflower Compact was one of the first known written social contracts. (Image from: Wikipedia)
The Mayflower Compact was one of the first known written social contracts. (Image from: Wikipedia)

Thomas Hobbes:
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived during the English Civil War. The Civil War was marked by turmoil and chaos which heavily influenced his philosophy. While exiled in France, he wrote Leviathan (1651), which refers to the sea monster found in the Bible. Hobbes was also influenced by the Scientific Revolution. He believed the discoveries made in the scientific world could be applied to human interaction and policy making.

In his book, Hobbes stated that man-kind was driven by both self-interest and reason, creating the State of Nature. He believed that the State of Nature is equivalent to a State of War. This is because "every man has a right to every thing, even to one anther's body" due to self-interest. Therefore, men spend their lives in constant anarchical war or as he described it, "bellum omnium contra omnes," which is Latin for, "A war of all against all."

However, Hobbes believed that mankind would use its reason to escape this perpetual violence by making a social contract with a government led by a sovereign. The sole purpose of the sovereign the was to maintain peace and security among the populous. Since, the state of nature is one of universal and unlimited rights, the sovereign must suppress and take away rights from the people through a social contract in order to reach that goal. The sovereign, as a result, holds complete authority over the citizens. The sovereign can be violent to maintain order, use censorship to silence others, and supersede courts. All liberties can be suppressed, even the right of rebellion. Hobbes stated that a revolution would completely defeat the purpose of the social contract because man would return to the State of Nature. Man must give up his right to absolute freedom in order to escape the State of Nature.

Surprisingly, Hobbes' philosophy was not accepted by the Monarchists because he didn't believe in the Divine Right of Kings. Since it was too secular, his philosophy was never able to reach mainstream popularity in England.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a British philosopher who possessed a negative outlook on the essential nature of mankind.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a British philosopher who possessed a negative outlook on the essential nature of mankind.

John Locke:
John Locke (1632-1704) had a much more positive outlook on humanity than did Thomas Hobbes. Locke proposed the idea that the State of Nature was simply a state in which every individual possessed absolute freedom and equality. This freedom does not, however, extend to the whims or personal gains of each individual; that is, individuals cannot simply do whatever they please. Although there is no established government, law enforcement, or even laws, Locke suggested that each individual was therefore free, not to accomplish his own ends, but to uphold and carry out the basic law of morality by which humanity must abide. This law is known as the law of nature, and states that one must not harm others in regard to their "life, health, liberty, or possessions." Therefore, because each person is free to pursue their own happiness within the limits of the enforceable Law of Nature, the original State of Nature is, according to Locke, essentially peaceful. Following the same logic, however, the lack of a civil government would postulate that once a war inevitably begins, it will go on indefinitely. It's for this reason that men must -and do- abandon their original state of freedom in favor of an organized government.

Locke's philosophy was very concerned with the right to personal property. Personal property is, as Locke defined, the result of combining one's physical labor with raw natural resources. Locke philosophized that while each man was entitled to his own property, following the Law of Nature, a single individual could not possess more property than he could make use of. The pursuit of the protection of personal property is, in Locke's opinion, the driving force behind mankind's decision to abandon the state of nature and adopt civilization.

This version of the theory of the social contract also includes Locke's definition of how a government is formed. Locke states that because every individual gives up his right to enforce the law of nature, that right therefore goes to the government. That government is a result of all citizens placing their faith and consent into a political body that grants three powers not found in nature: laws, the judicial power to interpret laws, and the executive powers to enforce the laws.

Locke also described the circumstances under which a government might be dissolved. He states that if a government becomes tyrannical and the people's rights are being jeopardized, the people have the right to overthrow the government. Locke's justification of this is that when a ruler becomes a tyrant, he removes himself from the civilization by violating the social contract with the governed. This tyrant is now in a state of nature, and a state of war against the people at that. This justifies the people's right to remove him from power and install a new government in his place.

John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher whose interpretation of the Social Contract Theory heavily influenced the Founders of the United States of America in later years.
John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher whose interpretation of the Social Contract Theory heavily influenced the Founders of the United States of America in later years.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
Jean-Jacques Roussseau (1712-1778) writer of the "Social Contract" in 1762 (Source: Wikipedia)
Jean-Jacques Roussseau (1712-1778) writer of the "Social Contract" in 1762 (Source: Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 28 June, 1712-d. 2 July 1778) was a philosopher, writer, and composer from Switzerland. His political philosophy helped to influence the French Revolution which began almost ten years after his death. One of his most famous published pieces of literature was The Social Contract. Published in 1762, Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the freedom that is given to us when we are born, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for which we enter into society. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, comes only from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual preservation. He also states that the grouping of citizens called the sovereign should be considered as an individual person. The sovereign expresses the general will that aims for the common good although also allowing for individuals to aim for their own interests. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believed that mankind was good by nature.

In his eyes, Rousseau believed that a person should be given the death penalty for violating the social contract.
The sovereign however does not mean a lack of government. Rousseau believed in having a state government to run day-to-day business and that an aristocracy, not a monarchy or democracy. This placement of government does create friction between the two and as he explains, will cause the destruction of a state, although a healthy state will survive a few more centuries. Rousseau also believed that a panel should be in charge of relations between the government, the sovereign and the people and allow for a brief dictatorship rule if necessary.

The "Social Contract" written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau which helped to influence the French Revolution in the late 18th century.
The "Social Contract" written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau which helped to influence the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

Rousseau also expresses that total participation by citizens is essential in order to keep a healthy government. But while participating, all citizens should vote for what is best for the general will and not for personal preferences. Lastly, he believed that while people should be able to practice any personal beliefs in private, a public religion should be created to encourage good citizenship.

For a more in depth bibliography, see

Relation to Other Topics
  1. Shays' Rebellion is one example of how the Social Contract would be applied in real life. In Shays' Rebellion, the state of Massachusetts created a state constitution that clearly favored the upper classes. Feeling that this government no longer represented the wants, needs, and rights of the common people, an insurrection of farmers rose up and rebelled. Fearful of the lack of power the federal government possessed (it could do next to nothing to end or prevent such a riot at this time), influential wealthy citizens called for change.This eventually led to the Articles of Confederation being discarded and the Constitution being adopted in its place. In the end, the efforts of the farmers from Massachusetts helped sway the creation of a new, more representative government for the people.
  2. 'Reasons for the American Revolution' also relates to the topic of the Social Contract. The colonists were unhappy with England's rule; they felt that the monarchy was developing into a tyranny. Following John Locke's theory of the Social Contract, this meant that the King -as the tyrant- had violated the social contract, which forced him back into the state of nature and a state of war against the people. The people therefore had the right to overthrow the restrictive government and form one better suited to the needs of the people. This was accomplished through the American Revolution and the formation of the United States of America.

Vocabulary Words:
Social Contract- an agreement between a government and the governed.
State of War- a legal state created by a declaration of war and ended by official declaration during which the international rules of war apply
State of Nature- a wild primitive state untouched by civilization
State of Peace- the absence of war or other hostilities.
Law of Nature-an empirical truth of great generality
Right of Rebellion-the right or duty, variously stated throughout history, of the subjects of a nation to overthrow a government that acts against their common interests.
Sovereign-One that exercises supreme, permanent authority, especially in a nation or other governmental unit
bellum omnium contra omnes- a Latin phrase first created by Thomas Hobbes meaning "the war of all against all" in human existence within the state of nature.
The Social Contract- book written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762 dealing with his own philisophical ideals and helped to influence the French Revolution.
General Will -

Section Questions:
1. Who viewed human nature in a negative way?
A. Hobbes
B. Rousseau
C. Locke

2. In what time period did the Social Contract Theory become increasingly popular with philosophers?

3. True or False? Rousseau believed that a sovereign meant a lack in government.

4. Who wrote the Leviathan, which states the state of nature is equivalent to the state of war.
A. Rousseau
B. Hobbes
C. Locke

5. The social contract is __.
A. an agreement among people to share certain interests and make certain compromises for the good of them all
B. the only popular political theory
C. an idea that became popular in the 20th century
D. all of the above

Current Events:
The civil war in Syria is well under way and many more images of rebels fighting Syrian military forces in city streets continue to flood the mainstream media. Finally fed up with the oppression under al-Assad, the people of Syria have taken up a violent revolt against the government. This article follows Feras, a Libyan student and veteran of the revolution in Libya, who came to Syria to be one of the many "foreign fighters" in the resistance. Feras states that the rebellion is solely for enhancing the freedom the people, rebutting statements that the resistance had strong connections with Al-quada and other Islamic extremists. He also expressed his frustration with the international community for not providing the same support it did in Libya, such as the no-fly zone. The Syrian civil war represents the Jeffersonian right of revolution in a modern setting. The Syrian people, after experiencing decades of nepotism, political corruption, and even the killings of citizens, decided that Assad's regime had broken its social contract and that it was time for a new government to take place.

Below is another URL discussing the Syrian conflict.

Sources: Hobbes:
Class Notes

Sources: Locke:

Sources: Rousseau:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau Bibliography
Social Contract Picture
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Social Contract Summary

Sources: Vocabulary
Defintion of State of War
State of Nature
State of Peace
Law of Nature
Right of Rebellion
Bellum omnion contra omnes