Back To CourseAP World History: Help and Review
31 chapters | 407 lessons
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 75,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Try it risk-free
Matthew teaches university-level History and is currently finishing a PhD at Lehigh University.
You're likely already familiar with the concept of contracts. Marriage, citizenship, and employment are all forms of contracts. Put simply, a contract is an agreement between two parties. If one party violates the terms of the agreement, the contract is no longer valid.
Societies are controlled by governments. This is the starting point for discussing social contract theory. Thinkers who believe in this theory argue that people benefit from living together in countries, kingdoms, or under other types of governmental oversight. Living in society, however, requires rules and laws. Societies are the result of compromises, and social contracts provide the framework for how people and governments interact.
Individuals who live within a social structure gain protection from outsiders who may seek to harm them. In return, they must give up certain freedoms (like the ability to commit crimes without being punished), and they should contribute to making society stable, wealthy, and happy.
The idea of a social contract has a long history dating as far back as Ancient Mesopotamia. However, it was not until the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that social contract theory gained widespread attention from philosophers and historians. The Enlightenment was a time when intellectuals began to question established views relating to religion, science, economics, and government.
Social contract theory challenged both the moral and political elements of traditional sources of power in Europe. In fact, morality and politics were seen as linked. Rulers were to govern fairly, and people were supposed to help improve societies.
Three Enlightenment thinkers are usually credited with establishing a standard view of social contract theory: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They each had different interpretations of social contracts, but the underlying idea was similar.
Thomas Hobbes held a dark view of humans, which was likely influenced by the chaotic political events he witnessed in England during his life. Hobbes believed that in nature, individuals had to do whatever was necessary to survive. But he also believed that people were still likely to fight even if they lived together. Therefore, a contract was necessary. In Hobbes' view of the social contract, people were not capable of living in a democratic society. A powerful, single ruler was needed. If everyone did his or her part, society could function relatively smoothly.
You are likely familiar with John Locke's philosophy without even realizing it. His ideas are expressed in the American Declaration of Independence. He argued that people deserve life, liberty, and property. This trio forms an essential part of social contracts. Governments need to protect individuals' lives, ensure they are free to prosper, and enforce a system of laws that rewards efforts to improve society economically.
Locke's contractual theory of government outlines his ideal for a modern society. People had to willingly do things like pay taxes and serve in the military, but in return, the government had to listen to their desires and provide for their needs. Locke challenged the idea that a king was to rule unquestioned. Kings might still rule, but the people had a say in how they went about doing so. For Locke, governments were created to ensure that wealth and property were protected. In a primitive state of nature, this would be impossible. Dangerous competition would be the norm and a cooperative society could not exist.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, 'Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.' What he meant was that many European kings and queens ruled unfairly. They took advantage of their subjects and made life difficult. In order to check the authority of these monarchs, ordinary people needed access to education. They could then defend themselves against abuses of power and maybe even participate in government.
If people learned what a truly fair society should look like, they could take steps to make life better for everyone. Rousseau wanted to rewrite the contract. He believed that everyone could cooperate and that human nature was not as bad as Hobbes believed.
The 18th-century Scottish thinker David Hume believed that social contracts were not needed because everyone was born equal. Social contracts came to exist only because governments (kings, conquerors, emperors, and so on) attempted to subjugate people. In other words, only in cases when greedy and power-hungry rulers wanted even more power, did they need to justify their control over others.
In an article entitled, 'What is Enlightenment,' written in 1784, Immanuel Kant summarized the problems we still face today. He wrote, 'Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!' What Kant seems to mean is that people should discuss what is wrong with government and society. People should be free to express their opinions without fear of persecution. However, if people rise up in anger and violence, nothing can be accomplished.
Kant shows exactly why social contracts are so difficult, even today. People have different needs and different goals. Some people are selfish, while others are kind. Creating a government and a society is a challenge that remains incredibly problematic.
Various thinkers, beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing through today, have proposed their differing ideas of social contract theory. Social contractarians (those who support the theory) believe that living together in a society is better than living alone in nature. What they mean is that if people come together and cooperate, society can take steps towards creating fair and equal environments where all individuals benefit.
To accomplish this goal, compromises, or some kind of social contract, is necessary. All classes of society have to give certain things up in exchange for safety, prosperity, and happiness. If either the government or the people violate the conditions of the contract, a new one is needed. Those that reject the theory argue that neither governments nor individuals are capable of making compromises. For these thinkers, no matter how many times a contract is rewritten, the same problems will arise.
The ideal balance between laws and freedoms, and between competition and cooperation, has yet to be discovered. The question we have yet to answer is: how can we create a society in which everyone wins and nobody loses?
When you are finished, you should be able to:
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseAP World History: Help and Review
31 chapters | 407 lessons