Social Contract Theory: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Social…
  • 1:03 Examples of Social…
  • 4:22 Problems With Social Contracts
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Schandler

Matthew teaches university-level History and is currently finishing a PhD at Lehigh University.

Since the beginning of human civilization, social contracts have helped structure how people and governments worked together. Learn about social contract theory and what some important thinkers from the 1600s onward had to say about it.

Definition of Social Contract Theory

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 If one party violates the terms of the agreement, the contract is no longer valid.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.

Examples of Social Contract Theory

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.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher, held a dark view of human nature.
Thomas Hobbes

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.

John Locke, an American philosopher, argued that the government should insure the protection of people
John Locke

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.

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