Social contract theory Paper Example

The idea of the social contract goes back, to Thomas Hobbes; John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant developed it in different ways. After Kant the idea largely fell into disrepute until John Rawls resurrected it. It is now at the heart of the work of a number of moral and political philosophers. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contract the social contract theorists and their views on the origin of state. THOMAS HOBBES: (1588-1679) Background: He was born into a time of violence when the civil war broke out in England between the royalists, who supported the king and the Protestants, who supported the parliament.

Hobbes was a robust supporter of monarchy and in my opinion the fear of death was the centralized assumption behind all his theories. But in order to gain a clearer understanding of Hobbes’s theory it is essential to turn to another revolution- the scientific revolution. It emphasized on the extraction of knowledge from observation and experimentation by understanding the world from an empirical point of view. Ideology: Hobbes developed a utilitarian psychology: Behavior based on pleasure and pain. According to Hobbes humans strive to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

He says that the will is “ the last appetite in deliberating”1. Meaning will, is that pleasure that a person determines to acquire after deliberating upon the variety of pleasures available to him, from which he can choose to acquire the greatest. Thus the final act of deliberating is what Hobbes terms as human “ will “. All men are pleasure seekers, and therefore power seekers as well. And since desires are unlimited, so is power. (He uses geometrical reasoning to make power analogous to pleasure- a scientific approach). This logic of “power and pleasure” sets the foundation of Hobbes’s theory.

Psychological profile of man: Hobbes stated that man is fundamentally egoistic. In the “state of nature” man acts under a primitive sense of emotion, and not by reason. Hobbes views man as a self-interested and self-regarding creature who uses his intellectual capacity to further his ends and preserve himself at all costs. This power hungry creature is said to have no will, as will is the power to choose between options. Man however has no choice and will only run towards one direction- the place where greatest pleasure lies.

It is important to discuss his view on human nature as it has a profound effect on his political theory. This psychology of pleasure and pain, influences his theory of Social Contract. Social contract theory: It is a theory, which was proposed to justify the creation of the state. It says that the state was a result of mutual consent and a “contract” between humans, and the scope and extent of the powers of the state are determined by the terms and conditions of the contract. In order to determine the structure of the state, it is essential to rationalize the nature of its creators (humans).

The essence of human nature is determined by creating a precontract situation in which the state did not exist. This is known as the state of nature. There was no civil society and therefore no laws in this state. Thus it was a reflection of true human nature, and the innate characteristics would be displayed in the absence of any hindrance. This state of nature is merely a mental construct or a “thought expression”. This is a state of absolute liberty, equality and freedom. In this state, there are power hungry individuals, who are equals and who have equal access to all pleasures.

This results in a clash of interest, in which all become subjects to attacks from one another. In order to survive each man has to “do unto others, before they do onto you”. 2 Consequently Hobbes concludes that there is always a state of “war of everyone against everyone”3. The individual’s life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”4 in this state of nature. Human nature if not constrained, would annihilate itself. This pessimistic view shows humans to be innately antisocial. Being the self-preserving creatures that men are, they are logically compelled to create a state in order to secure peace.

It is in this state of peace where they will potentially find pleasure. Thus men contract out of the state of nature, and into the state of civil society. It is important to note that men contract to “seek peace” in order to avoid the pain of war, but not because peace is morally proper. All men contract with one another to set up an Authority and “surrender to it mutually, absolutely, and irrevocably all natural rights except the right to self-preservation”. This social contract creates a Leviathan, which is both governmental and political.

Hobbes characterizes this authority as a sovereign that has absolute and irrevocable power. The state: The terms of this contract transfer the power from the hands of the people, into the government ABSOLUTELY. Thus the state would be: … As if every man should say to every man, I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all this actions in like manner…. and he is called the sovereign and is said to have sovereign power, and everyone besides his subject.

5 This government is a “board of directors” that is in charge with the task of actually exercising the sovereign power of the “corporation: which we call the state. 6Hobbes believes in a monarchial system of government, where the absolute power lays in the hand of one individual in order to reduce a clash of interest. Hobbes compares this state to a machine, which has no more of an ethical purpose than a rock7. Further human beings will have no ethical grounds to be a part of this state either. Rather they will engage in this contract to obey the laws of the sovereign, as disobedience will result in some form of punishment.

Hence by creating an omnipotent sovereign to rule the people, a stable environment will be created. An ingenious combination of material physics, utilitarian psychology and a new scientific epistemology and theory of language was the political theory of Thomas Hobbes. 8 JOHN LOCKE: (1632-1704) Background: Though he was Hobbes’s contemporary, his political theories were very different from that of Hobbes. This difference can be attributed to the differing influences confronted by them. Locke came from a well-to-do puritan family, and his father was the captain in the parliamentary army.

His family played an active part in the English Civil war. The Levellers influenced him; they were a radical wing of the army that promoted high levels of liberty and democracy for that period of time. 9 Therefore unlike Hobbes, he had a “liberal” and “democratic” outlook on politics. Locke’s arguments for the social contract, and for the right of citizens to revolt against their king were enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas Jefferson, and the founders of the United States. State of nature and The nature of man:

Locke advanced his social contract theory in “The Two Treatises of Government”10, published in 1690. Locke presented two contrary views on the state of nature, and therefore two contradictory views on human nature as well. One being the opposite of Hobbes’s and the other being almost identical. According to his first view, the state of nature is one where absolute freedom and perfect equality is present. However he has a more optimistic opinion on the nature of man. Men in this state, do not use their natural freedom to destroy one another, instead there is: … A state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possession. 11 He thus introduces the concept of natural law, according to which humans are social creatures capable of rising above sheer self-interest. The State of Nature is pre-political, but it is not pre-moral. Persons are assumed to be equal to one another in such a state, and therefore equally capable of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature.

Thus in the state of nature, despite there being no authority or laws, there is peace as humans discover moral truths and obey them by following natural law. The state of nature is however not the same as the state of war, as it is according to Hobbes. It can, however devolve into a state of war, in particular, a state of war over property disputes. Since in the State of Nature there is no civil power to whom men can appeal, and since the Law of Nature allows them to defend their own lives, they may then kill those who would bring force against them. 12Since the State of Nature lacks civil authority, once war begins it is likely to continue.

And this is one of the strongest reasons that men have to abandon the State of Nature by contracting together to form civil government. Man’s rationality allows him to punish others for not abiding by the natural law. But, this sense of retribution is not objective because man “is not sure his judgment is not prejudiced”13. Thus, the shortcomings of the state of nature are a dearth of written laws and penalties and an ineffective organization. Locke also believed that man is an inherently social animal. The shortcomings of the state of nature and man’s inherent sociality coalesce to form a social contract.

Whereas Hobbes believed that man was pushed towards the formation of a social contract for his own self-preservation, Locke viewed man as more altruistic- he enters into a social contract for the betterment of society. He points out a more serious mistake in Hobbes’s assumption of formation of state. Hobbes assumes that the creation of a government will eliminate the state of war. He fails to consider that this government may become corrupt with power and exercise more force that the one instilled in it. Locke goes ahead and suggests that a state of war is more likely to occur within a civil society with concentrated power.

In his view the object of contracting out of the state of nature is not to create an absolute government as Hobbes maintains, but to create a common authority, which is incapable of abusing power. Locke makes it very clear that the government is not to be confused with society and that it exists merely as an agent and trustee of the society, and not as its overseer and master as Hobbes suggests. Since the government is merely a trustee of societal values, its powers cannot be absolute. The rights and liberties that the citizen carries with him into society limit it.

The terms of his contract allow the individual to deposit some rights with the government and retain the rest. Locke however has another, contradictory interpretation of the state of nature. If humans are innately social creatures with ethics, then why is it necessary to form a government at all? His l view on this is a little less optimistic. According to this view, men are not so peaceful in their natural state, since they don’t have the capacity to use force against each other. He says that they are rational creatures with the right to life, and those things necessary to preserve life. He calls this right, a right to property.

According to Locke, private property is created when a person mixes his labor with the raw materials of nature. So, for example, when one tills a piece of land in nature, and makes it into a piece of farmland, which produces food, then one has a claim to own that piece of land and the food produced upon it. Given the implications of the Law of Nature, there are limits as to how much property one can own: one is not allowed to take more from nature than one can use, thereby leaving others without enough for themselves. Because nature is given to all of mankind by God for its common subsistence, one cannot take more than his own fair share.

Property is the linchpin of Locke’s argument for the social contract and civil government because it is the protection of their property, including their property in their own bodies, which men seek when they decide to abandon the State of Nature. The social contract and The state: In Locke’s theory, people come together and consent to the formation of a social contract. This contract, like Hobbes’, is unanimous and irrevocable. The social contract creates a civil society, whose purpose is the creation of laws, preserving property, and executing the laws.

Locke especially focuses on property rights, describing them as “indefeasible or inviolable claims”14. Locke’s theory provides for a second contract for the formation of the government. The government is subordinate to civil society, and unlike the social contract, which is irrevocable; the second contract may be revoked. The function of the government is to provide an unbiased authority to resolve disputes and to protect its own citizens. The sovereignty of the state lies with the people and not with the government; the best form of government is that of a limited democracy.

Although both theorists had some similarities; their theories- from the state of nature, to the formation of a social contract, and the state- were profoundly different. Having created a political society and government through their consent, men then gain three things which they lacked in the State of Nature: laws, judges to adjudicate laws, and the executive power necessary to enforce these laws. Each man therefore gives over the power to protect him and punish transgressors of the Law of Nature to the government that he has created through the contract. JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU: (1712-1778) Background:

He was the intellectual “father” of the French revolution. In his major political work, the social contract, he states that “man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains”. It is pertinent to note that he wrote during the age of enlightenment. He was one of the bright lights of that intellectual movement, contributing articles to the Encyclopdie of Diderot, and participating in the salons in Paris, where the great intellectual questions of his day were pursued. Ideology: According to him, the only reason for people to behave unlike the loving creatures that they are is because of the absence of liberty.

This loss of liberty is due to the inequality produced due to the emergence of private property. For Rousseau the invention of property constitutes humanity’s ‘fall from grace’ out of the State of Nature. Introduction of private property produces competition for goods, power, honor and status. All this destroyed the innate goodness in man and created unnatural social desires. Conflict replaced cooperation, and envy replaced love. Humans started to do anything to raise themselves above the others. Worst of all, inequality perversed reason and reasoning became nothing more than a mean towards vanity.

Psychological nature of man: He spoke about the wretched state of man known as amour-propre. In his writings the term generally refers to man’s desire to satisfy his own needs and desires. The uniqueness of Rousseau’s theory is how he combines elements of both Hobbes and Locke’s theories of contract in a way that challenges both their theories. Rousseau insists that human beings are naturally amoral (not immoral as Hobbes suggests) and asocial (not antisocial). He argues that language is an invention of civilization, and primitive man had no knowledge of it.

Like Aristotle, he shows that language is a necessary precondition for human sociability and morality. Though he agrees with Hobbes that humans are innately asocial, he does not conclude that the state of nature is a state of war. Rather, he agrees with Locke that they are decent creatures and that their natural condition is that of peace. But unlike Locke he does not attribute this state of peace to the ability of the individual to follow natural law. Without language and logical reasoning, man could have not known what his moral obligations were.

What then drives men towards peace? It is the natural virtue of pity. It is the only emotion that is universal in nature. Savage man…. tempers the ador he has for his own well being by an innate repugnance to see his fellow man suffer. 15 Social contract theory: Simply put, Rousseau believes the state of nature is a state of peace because men are naturally “good” and they have a natural empathy for their fellow creatures. His state of nature is not a metaphor of human nature. In his mind, the fundamental flaw in Hobbes and Locke’s philosophy is that “….

they spoke about savage man and they described a civilized man”. His conception of the state of nature is an illustration of the extent of repression of human goodness by civilization. The passing from the state of nature to the civil state produces in man a very remarkable change, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving to his actions a moral character that they lacked before. 16 Men become truly free for the first time by creating a contract which creates “…. moral liberty, which alone renders man a master of himself”.

According to Rousseau, each person contracts to form a social contract and “submits to the general will” of the people. Rousseau proposed a single contract, unlike Locke’s dual contract theory. The state: The society that the contract is supposed to create according to Rousseau is one in which reasoning is united with feeling. This unification requires a society wherein inequalities between men are put aside, and men are public-interested and loving. For this to be achieved it is necessary to have a sovereign power which is absolute in nature, as Hobbes suggested.

Without this the society would disintegrate into an individualistic state of nature. But unlike what Hobbes suggests, each individual turns over his natural rights to every other individual and not just a specific person or a monarch. The government is dependent on the people. Therefore, Rousseau advocates popular sovereignty. The government reflects the voice of the people, and is used as a tool to carry out the goals of the community. Both Locke and Hobbes stated that people have the right to protest, in case their governments failed to protect them.

However, Rousseau’s idealistic society was a direct democracy in which all persons form the government, thus he did not believe that people need the right of revolution. THE VEIL OF IGNORANCE: The veil of ignorance and the original position are concepts that, by other names, had been in use for centuries by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant whose work discussed the concept of the social contract. The modern usage was developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice.

It is a form of envy test in which, a group of people are gathered to plan their own future society, hammering out the details of what will basically become a Social Contract. Rawls calls this the “Original Position. ” In the Original Position, the future citizens do not yet know what part they will play in their upcoming society. They must design their society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance. “No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.

” 17Neither do the people know what type of society they will be entering. They do not know its culture, its economic situation, or political climate. It is important for Rawls that the planners of this future society operate behind this Veil Of Ignorance, for as Rawls says, “if a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle. To represent the desired restrictions, one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information.

”18 Rawls contends that if “rational persons concerned to advance their interests” found themselves in this type of Original Position, they would agree to a Social Contract in which there existed an equal distribution of liberties and social goods. Original Position is behind a Veil Of Ignorance, the parties to the Social Contract being drawn up will want make certain that —no matter what physical, mental, economic, or social condition they wind up with in the coming society— they will get a fair share of the things they need to make for themselves a good life.

Rawls calls these necessary things Primary Social Goods, and they include: 1) Rights and Liberties, 2) Powers and Opportunities, 3) Income and Wealth, and 4) conditions for Self-Respect. These Primary Social Goods “are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these values is to everyone’s advantage. ”19.