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A social contract is an agreement that can explain and justify a citizen’s rights and responsibilities. It can also give an account of our moral obligations and the legitimacy of the state. Social contract theory explores the scope, content, role, and possible justification of any such social contract.
In his dialogue Crito, Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) illustrates the power of the notion of a social contract. He depicts Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE) arguing against escaping his prison cell on the eve of his execution. His voluntary residence in Athens and acceptance of the benefits of Athenian society, Socrates claims, show he has implicitly agreed to do the state’s bidding—including accepting its unjust death sentence.
Writers often describe the state of nature as the human condition outside political society. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously argued that the state of nature is a state of war where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (1968, p. 186). Without any settled conceptions of justice, people come to universal and violent conflict. In Leviathan (1651) Hobbes describes how individuals secure safety and prosperity only by agreeing with one another to submit themselves completely to an absolute sovereign power. Despite his authoritarian conclusions, Hobbes is one of the founders of the liberal political tradition, which traces political legitimacy and political obligation to the free consent of the governed.
John Locke (1632-1704) denied that the state of nature is necessarily a total war but admitted it has inconveniences (e.g., unfair enforcement of the law of nature). People thus agree to a limited state whose right to rule they may rescind if it is abused. Lockean liberalism thereby justifies a right of revolution. Not all subjects explicitly agree to a state’s rule, so Locke argued that residence in a state’s territory is implicit consent to the state’s authority. Later commentators, such as David Hume (1711-1776) and, more recently, A. John Simmons (b. 1950), criticized the idea that such tacit consent can make a state legitimate or obligate individuals to obey the laws.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that both Hobbes and Locke built distorting effects of civilization into their accounts of the state of nature. In Rousseau’s view, civilization introduces all pernicious inequalities (such as in wealth and status), so society should fashion a social contract in order to secure human freedom. The “general will” is properly sovereign; it wills neither private goods nor aggregates of them but wills the common good. Individuals who then voluntarily will the general will best realize their own freedom by sharing in the public good.
More recently, John Rawls (1921-2002) rooted a theory of justice in a social contract whose participants are in an “original position” marked by a fair bargaining situation. Behind a “veil of ignorance” where they are denied knowledge of morally irrelevant features about themselves such as race, sex, class, or religion, individuals unanimously select two principles to govern the basic structure of society. First, everyone has an equal right to maximal basic liberties consistent with a similar amount for all others. Second, once fair equality of opportunity is secure, any inequalities in social and economic goods must advantage all—especially the least well-off.
Contemporary social contract scholarship explores the scope, number, and power of the agreements. Scholars consider, for instance, whether the social contract is national or international, whether participants are actual or hypothetical persons, and whether and how the contract includes nonhuman animals and the disabled.
- Hobbes, Thomas.  1968. Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson. New York: Penguin.
- Hume, David.  1987. Of the Original Contract. In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics.
- Locke, John.  1960. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- 1892. Crito. In The Dialogues of Plato. 3rd ed. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. London: Oxford University Press.
- Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  1987. On the Social Contract and Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. In The Basic Political Writings. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
- Simmons, A. John. 1979. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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