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MPA 8300
Leadership Ethics







Overview of Social Contract Theory:

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"Man was born free, but everywhere is in chains!"
J. J. Rousseau (The Basic Political Writings, 1987, p. 49)


The theory of a social contract is a hypothesis explaining how society originates as well as the presumed relationship between its members, how they incur responsibilities, and their rights.  Early proponents of the social contract, like Hobbes (1985) and Locke (2003), differed in their views and both have been surpassed by Rousseau whose influential 1762 treatise, The Social Contract, has made him synonymous since its publication with the theory of the social contract.

The basic hypothesis...

In broad and general terms, social contract theory emerged during the Enlightenment in response to the changes imposed upon human beings as society evolved from an arrangement characterized by independence—“each on one’s own” living in the “state of nature”—to the economies afforded human beings as they came to live together in small families and clans and, then, as they formed small communities.  Complicating these arrangements further was the later transition from rural, agrarian society to that of industrialized, urban society.

While members of contemporary American society live out their lives bound within a social contract comprised of a set of legal, political, and social arrangements that seem "natural" and oftentimes are taken for granted—like the air humans breathe and the water fish process through their gills—these arrangements have evolved and changed over time.  As these arrangements first began to shape European society, it was Rousseau who asserted, “Man was born free, but everywhere is in chains” (1987, p. 49).  Looking back upon the evolution of society, Rousseau posited a “social contract” hypothesizing how human beings can remain free yet live together in a society where no one person has a right to govern other persons and where the only justified authority is that generated out of agreements or covenants among members.

In general terms, then, the social contract states:

Members of society are accorded certain rights in return for giving up certain freedoms society's members would otherwise possess in the state of nature (where lawlessness reigns) or by remaining alone (as Robinson Crusoe).  Society (in the sense of a “state”) emerges to enforce the rights and responsibilities borne by its members.  Because these rights and responsibilities are neither “natural” nor “fixed,” they can be altered should a societys members so desire.  However, they must remember that exercising additional rights will always entail bearing additional responsibilities, and bearing fewer responsibilities will always entail exercising fewer rights.

For Hobbes, without a government that is capable of functioning as a referee over all human beings, the members of society are condemned to exist in a state of chaos and civil war because people would seek only what is in their individual self interests.  Creating a government or sovereign appears to be the only way for humanity to escape this state of nature, one where human existence is characterized by chronic chaos and insecurity.

The proponents...

Social contract theorists assert that in order for a society to function, there must be a real or hypothetical agreement among its members regarding the rights and responsibilities of both the state—which is concerned with advancing the common good—as well as its citizens—who are concerned with advancing their self-interests.  For this contract to work, every member of society must be presumed to agree to its terms.

While this hypothesis makes sense in the abstract, the problem it poses concerns a very concrete matter: How are individual members of society “contracted”?

Some have asserted that the obligation to conform to the terms of social contract is a consequence of birth.  Baldly stated, children are born into a particular society at a particular point in time, are reared within that society and, thus, are obligated to follow its laws.

Others have argued that the obligation to conform to the terms of the social contract is strictly legal, that is, anyone living in any particular locale is obligated to follow “the law of the land.”  Some laws are penal, carrying with them penalties for failure to comply (a negative view of the social contract).  Other duly-approved and promulgated laws, like laws structuring marriage and setting standards with regard to basic needs, including among others safety, health, and education, make social life possible (a positive view of the social contract).  These laws assist human beings to function, flourish, and perhaps even to prosper because they are members of society.

In contrast, social contract theorists reason that the free choice to remain a member of society—not birth and not locale—is what binds each member of society to the contract's terms.  In this sense, human beings “volunteer” to belong to society simply because it is rational and in one's self-interest to do so (Lessnoff, 1986).  Laws—whether penal or non-penal—are non-coercive in that, once children have observed society and matured, they can choose as adults to stay or to leave.  The choice to stay is what binds a citizen to the social contract and to abide by its terms.  This is how the “contract” emerges, as has been argued at least as early in intellectual history by Plato (1981).  In Crito, Socrates maintained that a decision to remain in society confers legitimacy to the social contract and imposes its obligations upon a citizen; a decision to leave society signals illegitimacy and, although relieved of its obligations, a citizen now must submit to suffer the consequences of this decision or to leave society.

Taking their cue from Hobbes (1985) in Leviathan, other proponents of social contract theory have argued that in order for citizens to keep from perpetrating injustices against one another and to live in peace, there must be a guarantee in the event that one citizen perpetrates an injustice against another citizen society will not retrogress to the law of nature.  For these theorists, the social contract emerges not from birth, law, or the choice to remain, but from the virtue of justice.  Deliberation about what justice requires—reason alone—then, convinces members of society not only to cooperate with one another but also to adhere to their agreements as well (Gauthier, 1986).

The opponents' arguments...

Feminists and race-conscious philosophers, in particular, have argued that social contract theory is deficient for the reason that it subjects individuals and groups to an agreement that does not advance their particular self-interests.  The issue for these philosophers concerns how the social contract has systematically excluded women and non-Caucasians from its provisions solely by means of the reasoning from which the social contract has been derived.

For feminists, what is wrong with the social contract is that much of Western philosophy was written by men and  is based on instrumental rationality which supports the subordination of women (called “patriarchy” and “partriarchal right”).  Women and their experience, then, are excluded from the social contract and its provisions.

Pateman (1988) argues that the social contract, as an exemplar of this patrimony, was crafted by brothers, literally or metaphorically, who, after overthrowing their father's rule, agreed to share their domination of the women previously controlled by the father.  According to Pateman, the social contract, then, is nothing more than a means by which men continue to exert hegemony over and to dominate women, especially as this ideology evidences itself in the marriage contract (which prohibits the legal category of marital rape), the prostitution contract (which accords males sexual access to female bodies), and the contract for surrogate motherhood (which requires access by men to women in the instance of women’s reproductive rights).

Other feminists argue that the social contract considers only managing social relations—an approach delineating fundamental rights and responsibilities—and does not account for ethical relations characterized not so much by equality (as the social contract presumes) as by dependence.  For the feminist theorists who assert this critique, including Gilligan (1982) and Noddings (1992), the question is not “What does justice require?” and the instrumental rationality that provides an objective response to that question.  The important question is: “What does care require?” and the intuitive feeling that human beings experience which demands a subjective response.

For Held, to view human relationships in purely contractual terms represents “an impoverished view of human aspiration” (1993, p. 194).  Thus, when confronting ethical dilemmas, feminists like Held assert, the issue is not what the terms of the contract require equally of all members of society but what relationships require of equally of people who are dependent upon one another.  Consider, for example, the mother-child relationship.  This relationship, one that is necessitated by nature and where subjective feelings oftentimes will trump objective facts, is where human beings are formed into the ethical agents who are capable of entering into contracts.  Social contract theorists have it wrong, feminists of this ilk assert, because social contract theorists start by establishing the contract and, then, impose it backwards upon human relationships in order to govern them.

Race-conscious theorists are equally critical of Western thought.  However, these theorists assert that the social contract has excluded both male and female non-Caucasians.

Mills (1977), for example, argues that a “racial contract” is even more fundamental to Western society than is the social contract.  The latter specifies “fully human” as being Caucasian and male, and accords only those persons who meet those standards equal rights and, in particular, the right of entering into contracts.  Those who do not meet those standards—e.g., people of color—are denied this privilege and consigned to the status of objects of contracts.

Arguably, because the racial contract provides the fundamental substructure upon which the  American political system, non-Caucasians continue to be oppressed and affirmative action and other social policies designed to include more non-Caucasians in political institutions are flawed policies.  What race-conscious theorists demand instead is a fundamental re-examination of the assumptions upon which American society has been constructed.  For example, starting not with the social contract but with the racial contract, a different history of American society can be narrated, a history that theorists like Mills assert holds the promise of making it possible for all American citizens to someday actually live up to the norms and values that are at the heart of the Western political traditions.

Writing about the origins of international law, the historian Thomas Woods argues against the social contract from a much different perspective.  Noting that Hobbes' notion of a social contract requires that the nations of the world would find themselves in the same situation as individuals of a single nation do before the creation of a government to rule them.  Woods maintains that a sovereign—a world government that would be much more powerful than the United Nations—must be established in order to ensure that the same kind of conflict and disorder that exists between individual citizens does not emerge between nation state.

Yet, Woods notes, establishing this government does not solve the problem.  Instead, it merely shifts the problem to another level.  He writes:

Government can enforce peace and prevent injustice among the people it rules.  But the people are now in a state of nature vis-à-vis government itself, since there is no common umpire that stands above both government and people.  If the government possesses the sovereign authority that Hobbes recommends, it must have the last word on the extent of its own powers, on right and wrong, and even on the adjudication of disputes between individual citizens and itself.  Even if Hobbes believed in democracy, mere voting can hardly be expected to restrain such an institution.  If a power above both government and people were established in order to ensure that government did not abuse its powers, it would only push the problem to yet another level, for there would now be no authority above this new power.  (2005, p. 148)

Because the social contract is a purely hypothetical concept that attempts to answer the question, “Why must people obey laws?”, detractors assert for a variety of reasons that “the contract isn’t worth the paper that it’s written on.”  Yet, despite its detractors, social contract theory continues to exert tremendous influence upon American legal and political thought.

Summing up...

Social contract theory hypothesizes about how it is that human beings are willing accept certain restrictions upon their freedom for the benefit of society.  Such restrictions oftentimes take the form of laws which society requires its members to follow.  In addition, social contract theory specifies the benefits of rule by the consent of the governed as opposed to living in the state of nature.

Held (1993) dissents, arguing that Contemporary Western society is in the grip of contractual thinking (p. 193) and perforce the instrumental form of rationality that supports such thinking.  As with other critics, Held questions the fundamental assumptions supporting a society constructed upon the bedrock of the social contract theory, arguing that such a society defines membership in such a way as to exclude many human beings—women and persons of color, among others—from full and active participation in society.

As helpful as critiques like these are in promoting discourse about the relationship of human beings to themselves, to one another, to society, and society to its members, these critiques have not dealt a mortal wound to social contract theory.  Law, politics, and social organization in American society are rooted in social contract theory, a theory that provides a substantive rationale for answering questions about fundamental social issues, including fairness, liberty, and ethics.  It is quite likely that social contract theory will continue to be at the center of debate for the foreseeable future.


Gauthier, D.  (1986).  Morals by agreement.  New York: Clarendon Press.

Gilligan, C.  (1982).  In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Held, V.  (1993).  Feminist morality: Transforming culture, society, and politics.  Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hobbes, T.  (1985).  Leviathan (C. B. Macpherson, Ed.). London, UK: Penguin Books.

Lessnoff, M.  (1986).  Social contract.  New York: Macmillan.

Locke, J.  (2003).  Two treatises of government and a letter concerning toleration.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mills, C.  (1997).  The racial contract.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Noddings, N.  (1992).  The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Pateman, C.  (1988).  The sexual contract.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Plato.  (1981).  The Crito.  In Five dialogues (G.M.A. Grube, Trans., pp. 45-58).  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Rousseau, J.  (1987).  The basic political writings (D. A. Cress, Trans.).  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Woods, T. E.  (2005).  How the Catholic Church built Western civilization.  Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc.