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What is a Social Contract?

By Jessica Hobby
Updated May 23, 2024
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A social contract is an implied agreement between the governed and the government. The concept is based on the theoretical idea that governments or rulers are legitimate if they have the consent of the governed. Therefore, a social contract is the agreement whereby a government is granted authority by its people to govern them. Social contract theory has been a dominant political theory in the modern history of the West, which was first explained thoroughly by Thomas Hobbes and further explained and modified by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Social contract theory present in Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, relies on two assumptions. First, all humans are self-interested and only act in accordance with the motivation to better their own situations, which would lead to a state of perpetual war. Second, humans are rational actors who are capable of discerning which decisions will serve their best interests. These assumptions lead to the realization that humans acting rationally in their own best interests will want to submit to a governing authority to achieve peace and live in a civil society.

Hobbes lays out two explicit components of a social contract. First, humans must collectively agree to form an organized society where they relinquish the anarchy, or lack of order, that was present in a natural state. Secondly, they must agree to exist under common laws and create a government which acts as a mechanism of enforcement for the contract and its laws.

John Locke’s justification for a social contract in Two Treatises of Government differs greatly because he does not view man in a constant state of war. Instead, Locke views man as having morality. Humans are in an unorganized state and free to do what they please, but morality stops them from Hobbes’s perpetual state of war. War occurs because men try to steal from or enslave one another. Because there is no civil authority in place, man must defend his life, thereby beginning war which will most likely continue.

In order to avoid this inevitable disintegration, man must consent to forming a society and consent to be governed. Locke also conveys that the governed have the right to rebel against rulers when they become tyrannical. Tyrannical rulers create a state of war with their people, which forces men to defend themselves and begin to create a new government. Locke’s ideas have been used to justify the French and American Revolutions. Similarly, his ideas also aided in shaping the constitutions of many countries.

In his work The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau outlines a contract based on popular sovereignty. Rousseau’s account of the social contract contrasts with the individualistic concepts delivered by Hobbes and Locke. According to Rousseau, if a person decides to choose his interests over the collective interests, he must be forced to choose what is best for society as a whole.

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Discussion Comments
By mrwormy — On Mar 29, 2014

I may or may not agree with my president's political leanings, but at the end of the day I have to agree he's part of the government and I'm not. There's a social contract in place and we both agreed to the terms.

By Phaedrus — On Mar 29, 2014

The most common social contract I can think of happens at practically every movie theater before every show. Those animated rules and regulations about not talking during the movie or bringing in outside snacks are actually part of a social contract between the theater and patrons. The theater agrees to show the movie with the understanding that patrons won't do anything to spoil the experience for others. Offenders can be asked to leave, with or without a refund.

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