The belief that people’s moral and/or political duties are contingent on a contract or agreement among them to establish the society in which they live is known as social contract theory. To explain to Crito why he must remain in prison and accept the death punishment, Socrates offers a social contract argument. Social contract theory, on the other hand, is appropriately linked with contemporary moral and political philosophy, and it was Thomas Hobbes who gave it its first comprehensive exposition and defence. Following Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the most well-known proponents of this hugely important idea, which has dominated moral and political philosophy throughout the history of the modern West.
As a result of John Rawls’ Kantian version of social contract theory, moral and political theory regained intellectual impetus in the twentieth century, and was followed by fresh studies of the subject by David Gauthier and others. New objections of the social contract theory have lately been made by philosophers from various backgrounds. Feminists and race-conscious philosophers, in particular, have argued that social contract theory is at best an imperfect account of our moral and political lives, and that it may even conceal some of the ways in which the contract is parasitic on the enslavement of certain groups of people.
The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, the Discourse on Political Economy, The Social Contract, and Considerations on the Government of Poland are the most prominent of Rousseau’s contributions to political philosophy. However, sections in many of his other writings, both big and minor, amplify or elucidate the political themes in those works. His basic political concept is that a state can only be legitimate if its citizens act in accordance with their “general will.” The Social Contract is the most thorough exposition of this concept known as the Social Contract Theory. Rousseau’s normative social compact, argued for in The Social Contract, is intended to address this unfortunate state of affairs and to address the social and moral evils that have resulted from society’s growth. For Rousseau, the contrast between history and justification, between mankind’s real position and how it should live together, is crucial. While we should not disregard history or the roots of the issues we face, we must address them by using our ability to choose how we should live. Despite how frequently it tries to, might never makes right.
The Social Contract opens with Rousseau’s most famous quote:
“Man was born free, but he is chained everywhere”.
Humans are inherently free, and were free in the State of Nature, but civilization’s “progress” has replaced such freedom with subservience to others, owing to dependency, economic and social disparities, and the extent to which we assess ourselves by comparisons with others. Because a return to the State of Nature is neither conceivable nor desirable, the goal of politics is to restore our freedom, allowing us to reconcile who we are and how we live together. This idea forms the fundamental philosophy behind Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory.
In the social contract theory, the most basic covenant, is the agreement to join together and create a people, a collectivity, which is greater than and different from a mere aggregation of individual interests and wills, according to the idea. This act, in which individuals become a people, is referred to as “the true basis of society.” A new ‘person’ is established by the communal surrender of individual rights and freedoms that one possesses in the State of Nature, and the transfer of these rights to the collective body. When free and equal people join together and choose to re-create themselves as a single body, focused toward the common benefit, the sovereign is formed. As individual wills are directed toward individual interests, the general will, once created, is oriented toward the common good, which is recognised and agreed upon by everyone. The notion of reciprocal responsibilities is included in this form of the social contract: the sovereign is dedicated to the welfare of the people who make up the whole, and each individual is similarly committed to the benefit of the whole. However, he also understands individuals cannot be given the freedom to choose whether it is in their own best interests to perform their obligations to the Sovereign while still enjoying the advantages of citizenship. They must be compelled to adhere to the collective will i.e., in essence they must be “forced to be free.”
This, according to Rousseau, entails a very powerful and direct kind of democracy. One cannot, as one may in representative democracies, pass one’s will to another to do with as one deems fit. Rather, the general will is dependent on the whole democratic body, each and every citizen, coming together on a regular basis to determine collectively, and with at least near unanimity, how to live together, i.e., what laws to pass. Because it is made up entirely of individual wills, the general will must be reassembled on a regular basis if it is to persist and this general will and reconciliation among members of society forms Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory.
However, there were two implications of his theory which were interconnected with each other and played an important role in society when the theory was formulated. The first was that no government, including liberal democracy, was legitimate, and therefore, citizens were free to revolt and overturn any government in the world. The second, and perhaps more ultimately destructive implication, was that, since mankind was happiest during a state of nature, the main duty of a government was to “improve” its citizens, to take them out of their current misery and mold them into happier versions of themselves. These new, improved people could thereafter govern themselves satisfactorily. These implications meant a downfall of the existing government and could lead to a very debilitating instability in society.
While Rousseau’s social contract theory contains flaws, it was a significant step forward in resolving society’s issues. The theories of Rousseau’s social contract provide a coherent, cohesive picture of our moral and political condition. By nature, we are gifted with freedom and equality, but our nature has been tainted by our haphazard social past. However, we may resist this corruption by using our free will to re-establish ourselves politically, based on strong democratic ideals, which is beneficial to us both personally and collectively.
- James Fieser, Social Contract Theory, INTERNET ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY(January 14, 2009, 3:56 PM) https://iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/#SH2a
- Brian Dunigan, The Social Contract and Philosophy, BRITANNICA, https://www.britannica.com/story/the-social-contract-and-philosophy
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