This page contains my unedited notes/discussion guide for social contract theory. I omitted the criticism of a "sovereign power" because I am focusing on the fundamental framework that SCT gives for understanding morality... which I think is more important than whether a king or powerful govt is necessary to enforce moral or legal rules.
Chapter 2: Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory
Main Idea: We need moral and legal rules because we want to escape the State of Nature, which is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Good/true moral rules prevent the State of Nature while bad/false moral rules increase chaos, disorder, human suffering, and a return to the State of Nature. Social Contract Theory gives criteria to judge any moral rule instead of simply saying “It’s right because my culture or my feelings say so.”
In the Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes asks us to imagine a “State of Nature” in which there are no legal or moral rules. In this State of Nature, each person has the ability to kill another, and each wants resources like excellent food and shelter.
Hobbes argued this “State of Nature” would become an awful “State of War” in which people are constantly disposed to harm others to achieve their goals. If, in the State of Nature, a brilliant individual builds a beautiful house, productive machines, and fruitful farms, others will come with “forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labor, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.” In short, the State of Nature is one of fear, violence, and distrust.
Hobbes explained that the State of Nature would have “no cultivating of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the comfortable building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no literature; no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
So, how do humans escape this pre-moral, pre-legal, and awful State of Nature? The best thing to do is to get together and create moral and legal rules that will help everyone flourish. Everyone must agree to these laws, they must agree to a sort of social contract. For example, they should agree to give up their liberty to kill others, so they can receive the benefits of civilization.
Again, the Social Contract is composed of moral and legal rules that help everyone flourish. We create property rights, and farms flourish. We create moral and legal rules against stealing, and investment and industry blossom. We create militaries, and the fearful natural state dissipates.
Self-Interested and rational people (i.e. egoists) should follow these rules because it is in their self-interest to do so. Hobbes’ idea, which was revolutionary in the 17th Century, is that morality is not a heavenly or divine matter; it is simply a matter of creating rules that maximize your self-interest (i.e. egoism). That is, we should create rules that lead to human flourishing because general flourishing causes individual flourishing, a rising tide lifts all ships.
Discovered or Invented?
At this point, it is interesting to think about whether Social Contract Theory implies the invention or discovery of moral and legal rules. Louis Pojman argued it means we both invent and discover moral rules.
Morality is analogous to the invention of the wheel. Let’s say someone once invented a square wheel and it did not work. Someone then invented a triangular wheel, and it did not work so well either. Finally, someone invented a circular wheel, which worked well and led to human flourishing. That is, someone discovered the circular wheel worked best.
So it is with morality. Cultures create all sorts of rules, but some rules lead to human flourishing and some do not. The study of history, comparative cultures, and ethics can help identify which rules work and which do not work. In short, Morality is both invented and discovered.
The wheel analogy is very helpful. It doesn’t matter if some people don’t want a cart that moves well. It doesn’t matter if the “desire to move the cart” is a subjective motive that people may disagree on. What matters is that is objectively true that simple circular wheels work objectively better than simple triangular wheels when we agree on the subjective purpose of carts/cars (i.e. to move with minimum energy).
How to use Social Contract Theory to judge moral opinions and practices
Since morality is partly discovered, Social Contract Theory gives the framework and tools we need to judge the moral practices of all cultures, including our own.
For example, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels explains why Martin Luther King, Jr. was justified in nonviolently breaking the law. According to Social Contract Theory, we are only obligated to obey the law because “we gain certain benefits in return for accepting certain burdens” (Rachels, 92). Again, the benefits are living in a society instead of the State of Nature. Of course, African Americans were not receiving the benefits of living in society and so they had no obligation to obey the law.
Rachels concisely summarized how Social Contract theory justifies Civil Disobedience:
“This line of reasoning suggests that civil disobedience is not an undesirable “last resort” for socially disenfranchised groups. Rather, it is the most natural and reasonable means of expressing protest. For when the disadvantaged are denied the benefits of social living, they are released from the contract that would otherwise require them to follow society’s rules. This is the deepest argument for civil disobedience, and the Social Contract Theory presents it clearly and forcefully.”
Weaknesses of Social Contract Theory
Notice how Social Contract Theory, like ethical egoism, reduces morality to self-interest. That is, the reason you should be moral is because it is in your self-interest to live in society instead of a State of Nature. But can your morality be reduced to self-interest?
To answer this question, attempt to imagine scenarios where you think an act is good, but it is not in your self-interest. For example, imagine you have the choice of saving ten children or yourself. If you can imagine such scenarios then not all of your morality can be reduced to Social Contract Theory because not all of your morality is self-interested.
Consider the following scenario. Mr. Jones believes it is in his self-interest to kill his wife for life insurance money. He knows he will not get caught or feel guilty, and he absolutely believes it is in his self-interest to kill her. But something deep inside tells him it is wrong. In this case, Mr. Jones’ morality is not solely based on self-interest. So, Social Contract Theory is not the whole of his moral story. In short, if some of your morality comes from altruistic (i.e. non self-interested) principles then it seems Social Contract Theory cannot fully explain your morality.
On the other hand, Hobbes would counter this criticism by arguing that some of your moral sensibilities arise only after you live in a society. According to him, societal living creates altruistic habits of mind and feeling that do not exist as strongly, if at all, in the State of Nature. So, it would not surprise Hobbes to find that some of your moral beliefs are not based on self-interest. Under this view, Social Contract Theory explains the self-interested origins of both self-interested and altruistic morality. I will leave it to the reader to weigh the merits of this view.
A second criticism of Social Contract Theory comes from John Locke, who argued the State of Nature is pre-legal, but not pre-moral. This means people have moral rights before any government arises. These moral rights are based in “Natural Laws” and the “God of Nature.” Therefore, the purpose of governments and contracts is to protect basic rights, not create them.
For example, the United States Declaration of Independence is derived from Locke’s understanding of moral rights because it speaks of rights given by “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.” The Declaration reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
So, Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory does not fully explain morality because morality exists before society and governments are formed. Governments may get their power from the consent of the governed, but moral rights exist before any consent is given. If you agree with Locke’s analysis, then Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory may explain where much of morality comes from, but it cannot explain the whole of it.
A third criticism of Social Contract Theory is that it weakens moral motivation; it allows one to more easily justify immoral acts. For example, imagine Mr. Baggins believes cheating is wrong. However, as a social contract theorist, he only believes this because he desires the benefits of social living and wants to avoid the State of Nature. In this case, Mr. Baggins can rationalize cheating because one act of cheating will not lead to a lack of trust or the collapse of society. So, he easily justifies a prima facie immoral act.
Most people feel there are powerful reasons for being moral, but Social Contract Theory provides little motivation. According to Social Contract Theory, an act is morally good if it is in your self- interest and will not lead the downfall of society. So, according to Social Contract Theory, there is nothing wrong with murder, stealing, and torturing kittens for fun, as long as you know you will not get caught. Again, the criticism that follows is Social Contract Theory does not explain the whole of your morality, it does not explain why you think these acts are wrong or why you feel you should not do them.
A fourth criticism of Social Contract Theory is that it misrepresents human nature in a State of Nature. Hobbes portrays humans as atomistic, isolated, and selfish individuals who seek their self-interest. But Rousseau disagreed with this view of humanity. For Rousseau, the State of Nature is more harmonious than society because people live in small communities with abundant resources. Humans naturally feel pity. Love, and altruism in the State of Nature. According to Rousseau, most people in their natural states are “noble savages.” The formation of property and contracts are a corruption of this morally ideal state, not the conditions that create morality.
A related criticism comes from feminists like Baier who argue the contract only explains the ideas of rights and obligations, and does not capture what it means to be a fully moral person. A fully moral person is not an isolated self-interested economic contractarian, rather a fully moral person cares for caring’s sake. A fully moral person is altruistic as well as self-interested. A fully moral person recognizes their dependence on others and this recognition deepens their morality. In short, this criticism is based on the idea that the western and legalistic idea of a contract cannot fully explain all aspects of what it means to be fully moral in both Nature and Civilization.
Although Social Contract theory has some weaknesses, it is a powerful theory that gives a clear reason for being moral most of the time. We should be moral because it is in our self-interest to live in society instead of the State of Nature.
- In the State of Nature, why would there be no (or very little) farming, literature, art, etc.?
- Can you think of any examples in history or literature where Hobbes’ awful State of Nature existed?
- What is wrong with cheating?
- According to Social Contract Theory, why should you be moral?
- According to Social Contract Theory, morality is ultimately based on self-interest. Is that correct? In your moral opinion, are there some acts that are immoral even though they are in your self-interest?
- Are some groups of people (e.g. minorities, infants, animals) left out of the Social Contract? Is this a problem for the theory?
- What does it mean to give consent to the social Contract? Have you consented to the rule of your government?
- Evaluate this criticism: “There is no actual physical contract, so Social Contract theory is false.”
- Is it logically consistent for a person to believe in God and Social Contract Theory?
- We would have the time or confidence to create them.
- War torn countries, Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, etc.
- According to Social Contract Theory, cheating decreases trust, a trust that holds society together and protects us from the State of Nature. However, the theory does not clearly explain why cheating is wrong if it is in your self-interest and will not lead to society’s collapse.
- We should be moral because it is in our self-interest. Society is better than the State of Nature.
- Answers will vary. Most people believe some acts are wrong even though they are self-interested.
- Perhaps. Infants, the mentally impaired, animals, and posterity cannot give their consent to this contract. The contract is based on the idea that rational and self-interested people will give up some of their power to get the benefits of society. “How can this contract account for moral duties to individuals who cannot benefit us?” (Rachels, 96)
- Consent is a tricky concept. Do you give consent by living in this country?
- We need not believe Social Contract Theory to be a historical account. The point is it is an implicit contract, a way of understanding the origin and purpose of moral and legal rules.
- It depends on the type of religion at work. Perhaps God created moral rules so each person can flourish? Perhaps God is a Social Contractarian?
Sources & Notes
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651).
- James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th ed, Ch. 6.
- Louis Pojman, How Should We Live? Ch. 1