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What is a Social Contract? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 What Is a Social Contract?
  • 1:24 Origins of the Social Contract
  • 2:03 Examples
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the idea of a social contract. Then you can understand how the concept has helped people to create modern governments all over the world that are more responsible to their citizens.

What Is a Social Contract?

A social contract is not an actual contract. No one signs it, and more often than not, no one actually agrees to it. If they had to, they would probably want to negotiate a few things first. In fact, the idea of a social contract is a very recent one, no more than a couple hundred years old. A social contract is simple: it's when a group of people agree to give up certain rights and accept a central authority in order to protect their other rights.

The social contract is what allows any government to work, but it's important to note that government and a social contract are different things. You can change every part of a government without changing the contract.

The idea of a social contract might seem a little silly, but imagine a world where no one wanted to give up any of their rights. There would be no laws. The strongest or the smartest person could take whatever they want, killing, stealing from, or abusing anyone. When they fell asleep, this person, in turn, could be killed. Life would be short and brutal like that.

But, what if everyone agreed that killing, stealing, and abusing was wrong? If they agreed, there should be some authority to protect everyone, then they would have the beginnings of a social contract. If the authority was given the power to set up laws, a judge to interpret them, and a police force to enforce them, then they'd have a government.

Origins of the Social Contract

Really, the idea of a social contract is as old as the idea of revolution. If a government's job is to protect people in exchange for the people giving up their rights, then revolution makes sense under certain conditions. If a government no longer protects its people, then some of those people may feel it's their responsibility to overthrow that government. You could think of the American Revolution as an example of overthrowing the government and setting up a new one. The same goes for the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. Most of the revolutionaries in all of these cases believed the government of the day had failed. They felt it was their responsibility to set up a new one.

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