Social Contract theory signify a theoretical agreement which is used to explain
the origin of state and society. Before the formation of state and government
,man used to live in the state of nature. No law was there to regulate them .
The Theorists compared the advantage of an organized government with that to the
state of nature and analysed as to why man should accept and obey government.
The conclusion came with the setting of a social contract explaining the rights
and duties of citizens towards the sate.
The social contract theory gives
importance to individuals as an architects of society Although the concept of
Social Contract has been discussed predominantly by the English philosophers
Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Meaning Of Social Contract Theory
Social contact theory is a hypothetical agreement between the ruled , or between
the ruled and their rulers defining the rights and duties of each individual. By
this contract, individuals being born in the state of nature, by exercising
their reason and collective agreed to from a state and government.
Thus Social Contract theory can be of two form:
- A Contract that led to the formation (origin) of sate: this contract
shows the willingness of the people to establish a Sovereign state.
- A written contract of state or government: the contract specify the
terms and conditions for the establishment of the state. It spells out the
term and conditions of governance and their promise towards the citizens.
Most important is the promise of obedience by the citizens in return to the
promise made by ruler/state of protection and good governance to its
The Social Contract Theory
The term "Social" stands for society where an individual person live and the
term "Contract" is an agreement or a promise made between two or more individual
and a group/society. This theory has explained the origin of state in a
"systematic" manner. This theory states that the society or the state came into
being by a contract that was made between the individual and society or the
contract that was made amongst the individual people. As a result of this
contract, man surrendered his right in part or whole to establish a state which
would provide him security and protection.
Basically, social contract is based on the express or implied consent of the
people to give up some of the freedom that they enjoyed in the state of nature
in exchange for the protection of their rights and maintenance of social order.
Major Social Contract Theories
Major social contract theory as propounded by various Philosophers differ from
each other .Some theories focus on justifying origin of Sovereign ,while others
deal with the protection of individual from the oppression of a powerful
Thomas Hobbes's theory of social contract
Thomas Hobbes was the first philosophers who put forward the theory of social
contract in Leviathan, where he describes about the natural state of humankind.
According to him, man lived in the STATE of NATURE was one of fear and
selfishness. They lived in the chaotic condition of constant fear. Life in the
State of Nature was solitary ,poor, nasty , brutish and short.
In order to remove fear and pain and to secure self-protection and
self-preservation, man entered into a contract. Through this contract,they
voluntarily surrendered all their rights and freedoms to some authority, who
must command obedience. This led to the emergence the institution of "ruler "or
"monarch" who shall be the absolute head .They had no right against the absolute
authority or the Sovereign and he is to be obeyed in all situations however bad
or unworthy he might be .Sovereign was the duly authorized representative of all
individuals and individuals had authorized him to act on his behalf through the
Features of Thomas Hobbes's theory
Criticism of Thomas Hobbes's theory
- Individual agreed to a set of rules and in turn, they were guaranteed basic equality and Protection
- Sovereign possess all the powers and be like a 'mortal God'
- The Sovereign can enact any law that it deemed fit. Law was the command of sovereign and the sovereign was supreme and even above law.
- The contract was perpetual and irrevocable
- As the contract was entered by the individuals with each other and not with the sovereign, there was no escape. They had a duty to obey the sovereign.
- The sovereign power is unlimited, inalienable, permanent and absolute. This power was derived from a contract and willingly agreed upon.
Hobbes theory was critised as he provided absolute power to single authority
without adequate standards to prevent the abuse of power. He supported
absolutism. Another criticism was that the "ruler was not the party to a
Hence ,Hobbes theory of state of nature was based, unreal and misleading.
John Locke's Theory Of Social Contract
John Locke's social contract theory is totally different from Thomas Hobbes's.
According to him man lives in the state nature but his concept of the state of
nature is completely different as contemplated by Hobbesian Theory. He describes
his state of nature as being free, independent,and equal where all humans
enjoyed the right to life and liberty. Locke's view about state of nature is not
as miserable as Hobbes's. It was a state of "peace, goodwill, mutual, acceptance
Locke state of nature was pre-political order rather than pre-social order (that
is before the formation of any administrative law) Humans are governed by the
State of nature and assumed to be equal to one another. In the state of nature
,man is governed by the State of nature where God made everything for
subsistence and not for waste. Therefore, man had no rights to take his life or
the life of another since it is given by God.
Property plays an important role in Locke's argument. According to him, there
are limits as to how much a person can own, one is not allowed to use so much
from the nature than one can use.
Thus, Man in the state of nature felt the need to protect their property and so
they entered into a "social contract " for the protection of their life ,liberty
So it can be said that ,under Locke's theory there are two aspects:
- The individuals did not submitted all their all their rights to one
single individual, but they surrendered only the rights to maintain law and
order and right to restore their grievances and execute the law. After the
establishment of political society and government man gained three things
which they lacked :law, judges to adjudicate laws and executive power to
required to enforce these laws.
- If the government fails to fulfill the promise or if it's performance is
not satisfactory ,then laws would have no validity and people could take
steps to change it.
In Locke's view, unlimited sovereignty is contrary top natural law.
Criticism of John Locke's Theory
Locke's concept of state of nature is vague as any conflict with regard to
property always leads to chaos in any society. Hence there cannot be a peace in
a society ,if they have been conflict with regard to property. Locke's has
written extensively on right to property but didn't says much on right to life
and liberty .
Jean jack Rousseau's Theory Of Social Contract
Jean jack Rousseau gave a new interpretation to the theory of social contract in
his work "The social contract" and "Emile".According to him life in the State of
nature was happy and there were equality among men .With the increased in the
population, human started facing certain challenges. People began to live
together in small families and then in small communities.
Division of labour was introduced ,discoveries and inventions made life easier,
giving rise to leisure time, such leisure time led people to make comparisons
between themselves which developed the feeling of jealousy, pride and contempt.
According to Rousseau, most important was the invention of private property
which resulted in humanity's evolution out of simple, pure state into one,
characterized by greed, vanity and differences.
This interdependence led to inequality . Man who was supposed to become more
free lost his independence . For Rousseau the invention of property constitutes
humanity fall from a "state of Divine favour into sin". Thus, they surrendered
their rights not to a single individual but to the community as a whole which
Rousseau termed as "general will".
As per him consent is the basis of public authority and man should enter into
society (relationship with other) out of his own will and consent .Each
individual is not subject to any other individual but to the "general will " and
to obey this is to obey himself. The "general will " therefore, was the consent
of all individuals to which blind obedience was to be given.
Thus ,Rousseau favoured people sovereignty.Rousseau gave importance to the
general will of the community along with the need to protect individual freedom.
He tried to establish an democratic society which will be governed by the will
Criticism of Jean jack Rousseau's Theory
Jean jack Rousseau's has faced several criticism over time. Critics questioned
on the practicality of implementing Rousseau's idea of direct democracy in such
a large communities. They argued that it might not be possible to include all
citizens in decision-making. Rousseau emphasized on "general will "and the
dominance of individual will to the collective can lead to the suppression of
individual's freedom and right . Rousseau's Theory was vague as it did not
specified about the process and structure of governance
Do we need a renewed Social Contract in 21st century?
Although, the traditional contract theories revolved around origin of state and
society while the modern version of social contract is not concerned with that.
The social contract on which society is currently based largely emerged as a
means to address post war problems and are no longer fit for purpose .The social
contract need to be changed and updated with the coming circumstances.
The Covid pandemic that the world has witnessed in 2020 called a need for a
renewal social contract. United nation in his part ll of "Our Common Agenda
-Report of The Secretary General "has proposed an idea of "A New Social Contract
for a New Era"
A social contract suitable for contemporary society should address three
fundamental challenges. First is the familiar elements of safety net such as
social insurance and pension benefits, there is a need to address a new set of
circumstances, such as need of the people to reskill during much longer working
lives . Second, social contract must be relevant in a world being reshaped by
technological revolution and the transition to clean energy economy. Third, a
modern social contract must tackle inequalities and exclusions that curse
societies in all corners of the world.
Social contract theory is a hypothetical and philosophical concept that explores
the idea of individual forming a society with an agreement to ensure mutual
cooperation and protection . Different philosophers have contributed to this
theory through varying interpretation. A significant conclusion to be drawn from
the social contract theories is that, law and political order is not natural but
have been created by humans for achieving maximum good and benefit of all
individuals in the form of protection of civil liberties ,law and order and