Social contract  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The term social contract describes a broad class of philosophical theories whose subjects are implied agreements by which people form nations and maintain a social order. Such social contract implies that the people give up some rights to a government and/or other authority in order to receive or jointly preserve social order.

Social contract theory provides the rationale behind the historically important notion that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. The starting point for most of these theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any structured social order, termed the “state of nature” or “natural state”. In this state of being, an individual’s words or action are bound only by his or her conscience. From this common starting point, the various proponents of social contract theory attempt to explain, in different ways, why it is in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily subjugate the freedom of action one has under the natural state (their so called “natural rights”) in order to obtain the benefits provided by the formation of social structures.

Common to all of these theories is the notion of a 'sovereign will', to which all members of a society are bound by the social contract to respect. The various theories of social contract that have developed are largely differentiated by their definition of the 'sovereign' will, be it a King (monarchy), a Council (oligarchy) or The Majority (republic or democracy). Under a theory first articulated by Plato in his Socratic dialog Crito, members within a society implicitly agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society. Thus implicit in most forms of social contract is that freedom of movement is a fundamental or natural right which society may not legitimately require an individual to subrogate to the sovereign will.

John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous philosophers of contractarianism, which formed the theoretical groundwork of democracy. Although the theory of natural rights influenced the development of classical liberalism, its emphasis on individualism and its rejection of the necessity to subordinate individual liberty to the sovereign will stands in opposition to the general tenets of social contract theory.

Contents

Philosophers

Hugo Grotius

In the early 17th century, Grotius (1583–1645) introduced the modern idea of natural rights of individuals. Grotius says that we each have natural rights which we have in order to preserve ourselves. He uses this idea to try to establish a basis for moral consensus in the face of religious diversity and the rise of natural science and to find a minimal basis for a moral beginning for society, a kind of natural law that everyone could potentially accept. He goes so far as to say even if we were to concede what we cannot concede without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, these laws would still hold. The idea was considered incendiary, since it suggests that power can ultimately go back to the individuals if the political society that they have set up forfeits the purpose for which it was originally established, which is to preserve themselves. In other words, the people i.e. the individual people, are sovereign. Grotius says that the people are sui juris - under their own jurisdiction. People have rights as human beings but there is a delineation of those rights because of what is possible for everyone to accept morally - everyone has to accept that each person is entitled to try to preserve themselves and therefore they shouldn't try to do harm to others or to interfere with them and they should punish any breach of someone else's rights that arises.

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651)

The first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed contract theory was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). According to Hobbes, the lives of individuals in the state of nature were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", a state where self-interest and the absence of rights and contracts prevented the 'social', or society. Life was 'anarchic' (without leadership/ the concept of sovereignty). Individuals in the state of nature were apolitical and asocial. This state of nature is followed by the social contract.

The social contract was an 'occurrence' during which individuals came together and ceded some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (e.g. person A gives up his/her right to kill person B if person B does the same). This resulted in the establishment of society, and by extension, the state, a sovereign entity (like the individuals, now under its rule, used to be) which was to protect these new rights which were now to regulate societal interactions. Society was thus no longer anarchic.

But the state system, which grew out of the social contract, was anarchic (without leadership). Just as the individuals in the state of nature had been sovereigns and thus guided by self-interest and the absence of rights, so states now acted in their self-interest in competition with each other. Just like the state of nature, states were thus bound to be in conflict because there was no sovereign over and above the state (i.e. more powerful) capable of imposing social-contract laws. Indeed, Hobbes' work helped to serve as a basis for the realism theories of international relations, advanced by E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau.

John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689)

John Locke's conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes' in several ways, but retained the central notion that persons in a state of nature would willingly come together to form a state. Locke believed that individuals in a state of nature would have stronger moral limits on their action than accepted by Hobbes, but recognized that people would still live in fear of one another. Locke argued that individuals would agree to form a state that would provide a "neutral judge", and that could therefore protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it. While Hobbes argued for near-absolute authority, Locke argued that laws could only be legitimate if they sought to achieve the common good. Locke also believed that people will do the right thing as a group, and that all people have natural rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Du contrat social (1762)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, outlined a different version of social contract theory, based on popular sovereignty. Although Rousseau wrote that the British were perhaps at the time the freest people on earth, he did not approve of their representative government. Rousseau believed that liberty was possible only where there was direct rule by the people as a whole in lawmaking, where popular sovereignty was indivisible and inalienable. Citizens must, in at least some circumstances, be able to choose together the fundamental rules by which they would live, and be able to revise those rules on later occasions if they choose to do so - something the English people as a whole were unable to do.

Rousseau's political theory has some points in common with Locke's individualism, but departs from it in his development of the "luminous conception" (which he credited to Diderot) of the general will. Rousseau argues a citizen can be an egoist and decide that his personal interest should override the collective interest. However, as part of a collective body, the individual citizen puts aside his egoism to create a "general will", which is popular sovereignty itself. Popular sovereignty (i.e., the rule of law), thus decides what is good for society as a whole, and the individual (including the administrative head of state, who could be a monarch) must bow to it, or be forced to bow to it:

[The social contract] can be reduced to the following terms: Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.

Rousseau's striking phrase that man must "be forced to be free" should be understood this way: since the indivisible and inalienable popular sovereignty decides what is good for the whole, then if an individual lapses back into his ordinary egoism and breaks the law, he will be forced to listen to what they decided as a member of the collectivity (i.e. as citizens). Thus, the law, inasmuch as it is voted by the people's representatives, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but its expression; and enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will. Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, the law is a civilizing force, and therefore Rousseau believed that the laws that govern a people helped to mold their character.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's individualist social contract (1851)

While Rousseau's social contract is based on popular sovereignty and not on individual sovereignty, there are other theories espoused by individualists, libertarians and anarchists, which do not involve agreeing to anything more than negative rights and creates only a limited state, if any.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) advocated a conception of social contract which didn't involve an individual surrendering sovereignty to others. According to him, the social contract was not between individuals and the state, but rather between individuals themselves refraining from coercing or governing each other, each one maintaining complete sovereignty upon oneself:

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No, that would mean but the continuation of [Rousseau’s] idea. The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society. In this, the notion of commutative justice<ref>http://www.textop.org/wiki/index.php?title=Commutative_justice</ref>, first brought forward by the primitive fact of exchange, …is substituted for that of distributive justice … Translating these words, contract, commutative justice, which are the language of the law, into the language of business, and you have commerce, that is to say, in its highest significance, the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.|Pierre-Joseph Proudhon|General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)}}

John Rawls' Theory of Justice (1971)

John Rawls (1921–2002) proposed a contractarian approach that has a decidedly Kantian flavour, in A Theory of Justice (1971), whereby rational people in a hypothetical "original position," setting aside their individual preferences and capacities under a "veil of ignorance," would agree to certain general principles of justice. This idea is also used as a game-theoretical formalization of the notion of fairness.

Philip Pettit's Republicanism (1997)

Philip Pettit (b. 1945) has argued, in Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1997), that the theory of social contract, classically based on the consent of the governed (as it is assumed that the contract is valid as long as the people consent to being governed by its representatives, who exercise sovereignty), should be modified, in order to avoid dispute. Instead of arguing that an explicit consent, which can always be manufactured, should justify the validity of social contract, Philip Pettit argues that the absence of an effective rebellion against the contract is the only legitimacy of it.

See also




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