Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is a political philosophy that questions the origins of society, and the legitimacy of governmental control over individual people. It is an argument that all men have an obligation to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbs made the point that, if people aren’t willing to set aside some of their own wants, in favor of the good of all, society can only exist in chaos. To explore this concept, consider the following social contract theory definition.

Definition of Social Contract Theory


  1. A class of theories on how people form societies, and maintain social order.


18th century book “The Social Contract” (by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

What is Social Contract Theory

As philosophers began to examine the nature of societies, and the formation of state governing entities, the question of how rulers take their power over any group of people surfaced. Seventeenth century political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, suggested that man, in his natural state, would tend to take on unlimited freedoms – holding he has a “right to all things.” Having no obligation to others, many would be free to take what they want, plundering, murdering, and even raping. Hobbes said that, in such a state, life for humans would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

To avoid such a life, people banned together, establishing political communities in which they contracted one with another to act in a mutually beneficial way, establishing security and order. Modern views on social contract theory equate it to our moral and political lives.

Social Contract Theory and Government

Political philosophers throughout history have had differing views on how governments rule over people. Sixteenth century philosopher, John Locke, believed that, when men transfer their rights to a government, a social contract is entered into. In subjecting themselves to a sovereign ruler, or other form of government, the people gain security.

Locke expressed a belief that people had certain basic rights that must be supplied by the government, as a result of its contract with the people. These include the right to life, liberty, and property. He also put forth the concepts of a separation of powers, and majority rule. John Locke’s political philosophies had great influence in the American Revolution, as the Founding Fathers penned these beliefs into the nation’s Constitution.

Holding to his belief that all humans have the same feelings and experiences – than none are inherently better or worth more than others – Locke put his ideas of human equality into the organization of politics, saying that governments gain their power or authority from the people. In opposition to Hobbes’ belief that people need a government to keep them from falling into chaos and violence, Locke believed that government exists to help and serve the people.

While both Hobbes and Locke believed that a social contract is entered into when people give over some of their rights to a government, they disagreed in how that would work. Hobbes supported the rule of kings, which held absolute power over the people, as they would be able to keep men from reverting to their natural states. Locke, on the other hand, favored government by representation.

Consent of the Governed

The most fundamental concept of a democratic government is that the government exists only to secure the rights of the people. Men join a society, submitting to its government, by explicit consent in order to gain three things not given them by natural law:

  1. Laws
  2. Executive power to enforce the laws
  3. Judges to arbitrate and settle conflicts in law

While under the laws of nature, it is theorized that man had an absolute right to protect himself, and to punish those who disobeyed those laws. Once a social contract has been entered into, by organizing under a government body, each person largely transfers his power to protect himself, and to personally punish those who do wrong, to that government.

Consent of the Governed in America

As Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he attempted to express the Founding Fathers’ desires and intents in forming the new government. In this example of social contract theory, Jefferson expressed their belief that government is created to serve man, and serves at men’s behest:

“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…”

Social Contract Theory Example

As an example of social contract theory in practice, consider if William accuses Adam of stealing $1,000 from him. Adam denies having done it. In a natural law state, the men might settle the matter by fighting – or perhaps William would break into Adam’s home and attempt to take the money back. Once a social contract has been entered into by forming a cohesive society, governed by law, the men must put their faith in the legal system.

In the United States, the people have elected representatives to run the government, which consists of three separate branches, each keeping the others in check. Each member of society has given up his right to take matters into his own hands, expecting that everyone else will do the same. One of the benefits, in this example of the social contract theory, is that no one is free to get revenge on people they think have wronged them.

Another example of social contract theory might occur if two men wake up in the woods. Nether knows where he is, or how he got there. While they have no supplies, both men have guns, and a healthy distrust of the other. As the men walk around looking for edible plants and berries, each keeps looking behind himself, fearing the other might steal what he’s found, or hurt him. Not only are the men distracted, it is difficult to gather food carrying a gun around. However, if both men agree to lay down their guns at the same time, they can go about their tasks without fear. To add another dimension to the contract the men have just entered into, they might agree to search for what they need together, sharing equally.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Explicit Consent – Consent given voluntarily, with full knowledge of the options, and their consequences.