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Explaining the Theories of Social Contract

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Ahsan Naveed

The concept of the social contract in political philosophy refers to a real or hypothetical agreement between the governed and their rulers, outlining the rights and responsibilities of each party. According to this theory, individuals in primeval times were born into a state of nature, and then, through the use of natural reason, formed a society and a government through a social contract.

The social contract theories, which gained prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries, were a product of the Enlightenment era and the intellectual ferment of the time. Associated with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, these theories were a response to the prevailing political and social conditions. What set these theories apart was their attempt to justify and limit political authority based on individual self-interest and rational consent. By comparing the benefits of organized government with the drawbacks of the state of nature, they aimed to demonstrate why and under what circumstances government is necessary and should be voluntarily accepted as an obligation by reasonable individuals. These conclusions were then codified in the form of a social contract, from which it was assumed that all the essential rights and duties of citizens could be logically derived.

The interpretations of the social contract, as put forth by Hobbes and Locke, were not only distinct but also sparked a lively debate. While Hobbes sought to justify the power of the sovereign, Locke’s aim was to shield individuals from oppression by an overly powerful sovereign. This intellectual tug-of-war adds depth and intrigue to the concept of the social contract.

In Hobbes’s interpretation, the state of nature was characterized by a lack of enforceable standards of right and wrong, leading to a scenario of constant conflict and a life that was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ This can be illustrated by the example of a group of individuals stranded on a deserted island, where each person is solely responsible for their survival and there is no higher authority to enforce rules or resolve disputes. This state of war could only be ended if individuals agreed to give up their liberty in exchange for the protection of their lives under the sovereign power through a social contract.

Hobbes contended that the authority of the sovereign is absolute, with no authority above it, and that the social contract allows individuals to transition from the state of nature to civil society. However, the state of nature remains a threat and reemerges if governmental power collapses, although this is unlikely as long as the power of the sovereign is unchallenged.

On the other hand, Locke envisioned the state of nature not as a condition of complete license but as a state in which individuals, though free, equal, and independent, are bound by the law of nature to respect each other’s rights to life, liberty, and property. These rights, known as ‘natural rights,’ are inherent to all individuals and cannot be taken away by any government or authority. Individuals then agree to form a commonwealth and leave the state of nature in order to establish an impartial power capable of settling disputes and addressing grievances. For Locke, the obligation to obey civil government under the social contract was contingent upon the protection of these natural rights, and sovereigns who violated these terms could be justifiably overthrown.

Locke’s ideas, which form the bedrock of modern democracy, underscore a fundamental principle of political liberalism: that subjection to power requires consent. Once a political society has been established, citizens are obligated to abide by decisions made by the majority. Legal decisions are made by the legislature on behalf of the majority, with the ultimate power of selecting the legislature resting with the people. Even the powers of the legislature are not absolute, as the law of nature serves as a permanent standard and a safeguard against arbitrary authority. This democratic framework, articulated by Locke, continues to shape our understanding of political governance.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a significant figure in political philosophy, offered a distinctive perspective on the concept of the social contract. In his work “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” Rousseau portrayed the state of nature as a time when humans lived independently, in a healthy, happy, and free manner. However, the formation of nascent societies introduced negative and destructive emotions like jealousy and pride, leading to social inequality and vice. According to Rousseau, the introduction of private property further exacerbated inequality and necessitated the establishment of law and government to protect it. He criticized the concept of private property, attributing it to the emergence of social horrors as the earth transitioned from belonging to no one to being owned by individuals.

Rousseau also discussed civil society in his work, emphasizing its role in providing peace and ensuring property rights, particularly for the wealthy. He viewed this form of social contract as disadvantageous for the poor, as it primarily benefited the rich, effectively creating a fraudulent social contract. However, Rousseau proposed the potential for a genuine social contract where individuals would exchange their independence for a superior form of freedom, known as true political or republican liberty. This liberty, as outlined in “The Social Contract,” involved obedience to the “general will,” which aimed to serve the common good or common interest.

Rousseau’s conception of citizenship differed significantly from that of Locke, emphasizing a more organic and collectivist approach. In Rousseau’s view, the surrender of natural liberty for political liberty meant that individual rights, including property rights, were subordinate to the general will. He conceptualized the state as a moral entity, with its laws derived from the general will and its purpose centred on the liberty and equality of its citizens. For Rousseau, any government that usurped the power of the people breached the social contract, granting citizens the right to disobey and, in certain cases, rebel.

It’s worth noting that Rousseau and other social contract theorists recognized the hypothetical nature of their concepts, acknowledging that these ideas served as useful hypotheses for addressing timeless political issues.

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