Social Contract Essay

The social contract is an agreement between the people and government, according to which rulers agree to rule justly and the people to obey. The idea is most familiar from works of the great contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. But it has received considerable recent attention because of the work of John Rawls. In conjunction with the closely related idea of the consent of the governed, the social contract indicates popular control over government. As the people have agreed to it, they may view the contract as broken if government behaves unacceptably.

History Of The Concept

The social contract has a long history. Perhaps the earliest extant version is found in Book II of Plato’s Republic. Plato’s spokesman, Glaucon, argues that rules of justice arose from an agreement. People agreed not to take advantage of others, in exchange for not being taken advantage of themselves. However, this particular agreement established rules of justice, rather than political authorities to enforce them.

The contract developed into something approaching its classic form in the course of medieval struggles to place limits on royal authorities. A recognizable contract was expressed by Manegold of Lautenbach, a Saxon monk, in the late eleventh century, during the Investiture Controversy. Manengold argued that, if we would fire a swineherd who did not take proper care of our pigs, the same should hold with a ruler who did not take care of his charges. Arguments for limited authority were developed in the church by “conciliar” theorists, who claimed that authority in the church was held by the members generally (in different forms) and delegated to church officials on a conditional basis. Implications of this view were realized during the Great Schism of the Church, in the late fourteenth century, as two and later three competing popes contended for power. The Council of Constance (1414–1418), summoned to address the crisis, declared the authority of the council over that of the pope and resolved the problem of competing popes. Even though the conciliar position was beaten back in subsequent years, conciliar ideas were developed by later thinkers, who readily transferred them to secular bodies. An especially clear expression is the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, written in 1579 to justify resistance against the French monarchy. Arguments based on contracts between the king and the people were central to this and numerous other similar treatises

During the political turmoil of seventeenth-century England, Hobbes performed the impressive feat of using a contract argument to establish absolute government. Hobbes argued that the state of nature is a horrific condition, “a war of all against all” that is only remedied by the establishment of absolute government. To do so, people enter into an agreement that is literally unconditional, not a contract, but rather a grant of power by each individual to the ruler. In exchange for peace, they accept the inviolable authority of government.

The traditional contract doctrine, limiting governmental power, received classic expression in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Living under natural law that they enforce themselves in a generally peaceful state of nature, people come into conflict because of their self-interested natures, and so recognize the need for an impartial umpire. They leave the state of nature in two stages, through two agreements, forming first a community and then government. Although Locke does not refer to the crucial second agreement as a contract—he uses the language of “trust”—when its terms are violated, people have the right to resist.

The contract takes a radically democratic turn in Rousseau’s Social Contract. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau depicts natural man as little different from an ape, but happy and morally innocent. The movement into society corrupts man, a condition that can be largely reversed in a properly organized society. The remedy is the new contract Rousseau presents in The Social Contract. People give up all their rights to the community, receiving in return rights to vote on all laws. For Rousseau, only the terms of this particular contract can render government legitimate. The only legitimate form is direct democracy, in which the people rule themselves, with their votes determining the “general will.”

The historicity of a Lockean contract was sharply criticized by David Hume, in his essay, “Of the Original Contract.” Although he agrees with what he views as Locke’s fundamental claim concerning the limited nature of political power, Hume rejects an actual historical contract. There is no record of one, and people have no recollection of entering into one. Hume argues for limited government on grounds of social utility, without the fictions of an original state of nature or social contract. Government is necessary for the good of society. But if it ceases to be useful, it loses its rationale and so also its authority. Because of the enormous costs of changing governments, revolution can be justified only if governments become egregiously tyrannical. But in essence, this is what Locke too had held.

Hume’s arguments did considerable damage to the idea of an actual social contract, which had always been vulnerable on historical grounds. Although theorists had used it as an analytical device, they tended to be ambiguous in regard to its historical existence. Accordingly, Immanuel Kant made an important contribution, in viewing the contract as purely hypothetical, rather than an historical occurrence. Kant argues that government is limited by the terms of a hypothetical agreement, which the united people could accept.

Recent Developments

Contract arguments were revived by John Rawls. In his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls self-consciously places himself in the contract tradition. He argues that appropriate principles of justice are the product of an agreement between representative individuals in an artificial choice situation, the “original position.” The representative individuals are placed behind a “veil of ignorance,” which deprives them of knowledge of their personal attributes— age, race, level of talents, and so on—and so prevents them from choosing principles that would advantage themselves at the expense of other people. With Rawls and other recent thinkers who argue along similar lines, the contract is not only a purely analytical device, but is used to identify appropriate moral principles, rather than to constitute a limit on legitimate political authority.


  1. Cahn, Steven M. Classics of Modern Political Theory: Machiavelli to Mill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  2. Hobbes,Thomas. Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  3. Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” In Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett, 265–428. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  4. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
  5. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Basic Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, edited by Peter Gay. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987

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