The great question among political thinkers during the European Enlightenment was how the authority of the State could be reconciled with the freedom of the Subject. Inspired by the theory of Empiricism and the Protestant Reformation, a radical new understanding of humans as inherently free and equal was developed. This profound shift away from the now antiquated philosophy of intrinsic inequality precipitated the need for a new theory reconciling the political domination of individuals who were also free and equal. The social contract theory resolves the contradiction by postulating that all governments were, at one hypothetical prehistoric moment, established by the consent of their subjects.
Contractualism was the dominant trend in political theory between 1650 and 1800, and different conceptions and explanations of the initial covenant abounded. However, the social contract as we know it is widely recognized as being drawn from the ideas put forward by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan (1651) in the wake of the devastating English Civil War. Hobbes reasoned that man was born naturally free and equal and that he would agree to forfeit his natural liberty and equality in society out of fear of violent death. Hobbes’ idea of the social contract was largely dependent on his conception of human nature, which he saw as being vainglorious, covetous, and in constant search for new sources of power. This unique understanding of the human psyche led Hobbes to postulate that conflict was inevitable amongst men competing for power, safety, and honor. Hobbes defines the period of human existence prior to the union of mankind in civil society as the “state of nature”. Due to the continuous competition rooted in human nature, the Hobbesian state of nature is equivalent to a perpetual state of war, which fosters “continual fear and danger of violent death, and [makes] the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. To exit from this state of fear, man was to enter into a covenant with his fellow men and create a Commonwealth by forfeiting his rights and freedoms to a Sovereign whose will would become the general will of society. For this union to work, the sovereign’s power must be absolute, and he would guarantee the lives of his subjects in exchange for their obedience. This contract functions so long as the people entered into it voluntarily and recognized the will of the sovereign as their own collective will.
John Locke revised the idea of the social contract by adopting a more optimistic view of human nature and challenging Hobbes’ dismal outlook on the relation between subject and sovereign. In the Two Treatises of Government (1689) Locke reasoned that man was not a competitive animal by nature; he prefers peace and cooperation to conflict and competition. Using his innate faculties to create and claim property through labor, man is able to develop the world in a peaceful and non-rival way. Locke’s new conception of human nature separated the state of nature from the state of war. The state of war is now an individualized affair that occurs between individuals rather than between all of mankind. For Locke, man was driven into the arms of civil society not out of universal fear of others, but rather from fear of others’ unpredictable behaviour, and to assure the protection of his property. Once established, Locke’s sovereign is not nearly as invasive as Hobbes’; its powers are separated between the legislative and executive bodies, and the preferences of its subjects are taken into account in the decision making procedure by means of a representative legislature. Furthermore, Locke developed the notion of inalienable rights, especially that of property. By doing so, he stipulates that the social contract was designed to protect the lives of the subjects, but also to guarantee certain natural rights that carried over from the state of nature into the Commonwealth.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau expanded on these ideas and took the social contract in a radical new direction. By explaining that slavery and the rule of the stronger could not legitimize a political union between men, Rousseau explains in The Social Contract (1762) that only free agency and voluntary action can justify the social contract. However, this exercise of free agency proves to be the limit of man’s ability to exert his preferences if they do not conform to the newly determined will of the majority. Taken holistically, Rousseau’s philosophy of human nature paints a bleak picture of the transition from the state of nature into the civil state. Although an individual is independent and free in the state of nature, he explains in the Discourse on Inequality (1754) that man becomes dependent and fragile in civil society. He develops the notion of amour-propre or “love of self image”. This amour-propre is distinct from the natural impulse of self-preservation which leads man to dominate and oppress those around him for nothing more than status and pleasure. Thus, his idea of a social contract is modeled off the polities of Antiquity (namely Sparta) and functions by forming a general consensus (or will) that becomes the basis for the decisions of the sovereign. This unity under one ideology works to instill proper morals and virtues in the polity and keep its direction consistent with the will of the majority.
The philosophies of these three theorists paints a general picture of the Social Contract Theory. The social contract is a agreement made by men in the state of nature where they agree to forfeit some of their rights in order to achieve a certain level of protection for their lives, properties, and liberties. Driven by fear of fellow man or the unknown, men voluntarily agree to enter into this agreement and obey a sovereign power constituting of the polity. This sovereign can take diverse forms and retain varied degrees of power. This transition from the state of nature into the civil state is creates the Commonwealth and gives legitimacy and authority to government.
Common to all theories of Contractualism is the hypothetical use of the social contract. It is merely a thought experiment to be used as a philosophical tool to understand the existence of government and political inequalities. While this may have been the theory’s purpose in the 17th century, the modern written constitutions demonstrates how the social contract transcended the theoretical realm and came to be tangible.
The legacies of the social contract theory are clearly seen in existing written constitutions. A principle shared by all Contractarians is the sovereign is bound by the laws of nature in his dealings with the people. While Locke and Rousseau went as far as explicitly mentioning protections for matters such as property, even Hobbes concurred that certain actions are against the laws of nature and restrict what the sovereign can compel its subjects to do. The protections of natural rights and reverence for natural laws as stipulated by the social contract are apparent in modern written constitutions. Documents like the US Bill of Rights prevent the government from overstepping its bounds, thus ensuring the contract is not violated. Since the social contract is based on consent, it requires the continued agreement of its members throughout time. This presents a problem to the agreement: how does the state determine if all its subjects consent to the original stipulations of the agreement? While the explicit consent of the first generation is implied by the creation of civil society “which presupposes unanimity at least once,” the tacit consent of those that succeed them is more difficult to ascertain. Inheritance, enjoyment of property, and active participation in the legislative process could all be interpreted as legitimate means of consent. But how do those who are unable or unwilling to participate or own property express their tacit consent? The written Constitution provides the answer. Because adults possess enough reason to interpret the written word, and to agree to the contract one must understand its stipulations, a written constitution provides a literal outline of the social contract. It facilitates the understanding of it to its benefiting members, and also enables those with no tangible stakes, such as property ownership, in the enterprise to understand what they must conform to in order to continue residing in the commonwealth. The explicit nature of the written constitution facilitates the ability to tacitly consent to the social contract.
While the social contract may take on various forms, the written constitution is a document that breathes life into the theory. The constitution enables the social contract to fulfill its requirement of making known to the people the stipulations of the agreement it binds them to. By virtue of it being an explicit written contract outlining the duties of the state, it becomes a means of assisting the subjects in understanding the duties of the citizen, perfecting civic virtues, and maintaining stability.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: with Selected variants of the Latin Edition of 1668, edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. 1994.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Riley, Patrick. “Social contract theory and its critics.” In The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, edited by Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler, 347-375. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and other Political Writings, edited by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.