A Critical Appraisal Of Hobbes’ Idea Of Social Contract

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Chapter One

General Idea Of A Social Contract

The social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that person’s moral or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement between them to form a society.1 On the mention of the term contract, then, what comes to mind immediately is agreement. The New Webster Dictionary of the English Language defined the term ‘contract’ as “an agreement or a covenant”.2 On the other hand, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines social contract as a basis for legitimate legal and political power in the idea of a contract. Contracts are things that create obligation.”3 Hence, if we can view society as organized, i.e., a situation where a contract had been formed between the citizen and the sovereign power, this would necessarily ground the obligation of each to the other. The idea is one of a contract between citizens as a result of which power is vested in government. Traditionally, the term has been used in arguments that attempt to explain the nature of political obligation and or the kind of responsibility that rulers have to their subjects.4 Philosophers such as Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, had a varied but similar positions that life in a prepolitical “state of nature” would be very difficult such that it would lead them to agree either with one another or with a prospective ruler, which eventually leads to the creation of political institutions. Such individuals believe that such a creation would necessarily improve their lot.

Despite the fact that many of the social contract theorists admit that there is almost never an explicit act of agreement in a community; however, they maintain that such an agreement is implicitly made when members of the society engage in certain acts through which they give their explicit consent to the ruling regime. Now, how do we definitely understand the terms of a social contract, which establishes a state? Are we to judge it as when the people agree to obey the ruler? Do they surrender their power to him as Hobbes would have us believe? Or do they lend him that power, reserving the right to take it from him, if and when they see fit, as Locke maintained? What really are the terms of a social contract posited by its theorists? It is worthy of note to state that amidst controversies surrounding their interpretation:

Social contract arguments have been important to the development of modern democratic states: the idea of the government as the creation of the people, which they have right to overthrow, if they find it wanting, contributed to the development of democratic forms of polity in the 18th and 19th Centuries.5

In this chapter, we shall critically, but in a lighter form, expose the idea of some major theorists on social contract, excluding Hobbes who we shall, later in this work, critically examine his detailed approach on the idea.

1.1 Major Proponents Of The Idea

The idea of a social contract could be traced back to the time of Socrates. Plato and Aristotle, on the other hand, represented their individual views on a social contract. However, these views came to be modified and moreso, the Hobbessian contract marked a turning point in some respect, a genuine innovation in history of political philosophy. Let us now briefly run through the ideas of some major proponents of a social contract.

1.2 Socrates’ Argument

Socrates here was so much indebted to the laws of Athens. He personified these laws and appreciated so much the privilege, which the law granted him, especially for his existence. For him, it was the law that made his father and mother to marry each other and beget him. It is believed that there is no force or coercion between the laws and the citizens. One willingly chooses to be part and parcel of the city, thereby accepting the codes of the laws. The citizens on growing and “once they see how the city conducts itself, can choose whether to leave, taking their property with them, or stay.”6 According to Socrates, “staying implies an agreement to abide by the laws and accept the punishment that they met out.”7 Herein lies the terms of the contract. For one to stay in such a society means that the individual accepts the terms laid down by the laws. This invariably hooks the person in a mutual contract with the state and the ruling authorities. The contract described by Socrates is an implicit one. It is implied by his choice to stay in Athens, even though he is free to leave.

1.3 Plato’s Idea

Plato, in his Republic, and representing his thoughts in Glaucon, noted that each man thought it good to inflict injustice upon others and had to suffer injustice at the hands of others. For him, all men behave in like manner. This means that it is in the nature of man to inflict injustice upon the other. This is because man sees injustice as something good and then works towards inflicting injustice upon the other.

However, “in due course, men came to consider the resulting state of affairs intolerable and proceeded to agree to covenants and laws that obliged them to behave less rapaciously.”8 This is the view of Plato as represented by Glaucon in the book II of Plato’s Republic. Going further, Plato noted that men accept such laws because it is in their interest to do so. By the very fact of the acceptance of the terms of that agreement, men have entered into a social contract. Plato notes that this is the origin of justice, which is merely what agreed-upon laws command. He further stressed self-interest as the central motivating factor in political behaviour. This invariably leads to the formation of a new society.

1.4 John Locke’s Idea

The English Empiricist and moral and political philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), is renowned for his political thought and especially his social contract theory. Locke’s “state of nature” was meant to be harmonious and peaceful. Men are bound to preserve peace, mankind and even avoid hurting the other. The well keeping and execution of the law of nature is meant for every member of the society. The actual violation of this law by the individual in the society leads to an eventual state of war between the person and others. The power of a man against the other is neither absolute nor arbitrary and must be proportionally restrained. According to James Gordon Clapp, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the state of nature was for Locke, a society of men, as distinct from a state of government, or a political society.”9 Before his view, however, on the state of nature, Locke had analysed property to be prior even to society. He then proceeded to derive society from the consent of its members. According to George Sabine and Thomas Thorson, Locke defined civil power as:

The right of making laws with penalties … for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing force of community in the execution of such laws… all this only for the public good.10

We must remark here, that such a power would only be arrived at when there is consent, and though it may be tacitly given, it must be the consent of each individual for himself. This is a natural entitlement. It is the very fact of the existence of certain inconveniences in a state of nature, such as men’s partiality and inclination of some men to violate the rights of others.11 This is Locke’s view of man in the state of nature. To escape these ‘inconveniencies’, Locke notes that men now consent to a civil government. Thus, it is by common consent that men form a social contract and create a single body politic. The aim of the contract “is to preserve the lives, freedom and property of all, as they belong to each under natural law.”12 This is the basis of the state. The general reason for its establishment is for the protection of the lives and property of the individuals in the state.

1.5 The Social Contract According To Jean Jacques


Rousseau (1712-1778) developed increasingly deeper and more sophisticated ideas about the origin and nature of the condition of man in the society and what ought to be done to ameliorate this condition. Rousseau regrettably announced that increasing scientific knowledge and refinement of arts and letters, instead of leading to a peaceful and harmonious society, was in fact, the bane of the civilized society. He notes that such sophistication is the offshoot of luxury and idleness and has developed to feed people’s vanity and desire for ostentatious and aggressive self-display. N. J. Dent, in his commentary on Rousseau remarks that:

Rousseau allows for the fact that there are a few people of genius who genuinely enrich humanity by their ideas. But the majority are not improved but harmed, by exposure to the higher learning.13

In his work, “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality”, Rousseau gives an account of the fall of humankind. For him, natural man, left alone in his natural environment is self-sufficient. In this state, man is peaceable. Later on, increase in population forces people to live together. Jealousy and envy became the order of the day as “men come to demand esteem and deference.”14 This leads men to compete for precedence, which makes life to be tainted by aggression and spite.

Lack of individual self-sufficiency, Rousseau argues, requires the individual to associate together in the society. He however does not support a condition of enslavement as the price of survival for those who embark on this contract. Freedom is seen as an essential human need and the mark of humanity. Rousseau holds that freedom and association can only be combined if all the persons of the association make up the sovereign body for that association. In other words, in this contract, there ought to be a mutual consent, freedom and choice made by the individuals as they submit their general will to be ruled by an established authority. Rousseau, however, made it clear that the terms of the contract holds that governmental function must be thoroughly subordinate to the sovereign judgement of the people. Generally, Rousseau’s idea of social contract depicts the union of free and equal men who devise laws under which they shall now proceed to live their lives as citizens of a state.

This now brings us to where our beam light heads: Hobbes’ idea of social contract. Before then, let us first of all see what really lead Hobbes to posit his idea of social contract.

A Critical Appraisal Of Hobbes’ Idea Of Social Contract

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