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Social Contract Essay

Is the aim of the social contract to establish freedom, equality or merely ‘peace’? How far is it successful, and at what cost? (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) The Social Contract is a theory that originated during the Enlightenment, which addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or the decision of a majority, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

Its main proponents were Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. However, while they all advocated a social contract their formulations and ideas about it do differ to some extent. This essay will attempt to argue that Hobbes hoped his social contract would establish peace, amongst naturally competitive men; whilst Rousseau valued securing freedom and Locke wanted it to secure rights for people and stop them living in fear. However, all of these do come at some price, namely the cost of some liberties, however, as Locke agreed what was important was that relative to the state of nature, man now lived in a better, freer, more equal and peaceful society.

The first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed contract theory was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). According to Hobbes, the lives of individuals in the state of nature were ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (Leviathan. Ch13. p89), a state in which self-interest and the absence of rights prevented the ‘social’, or society. Life was ‘anarchic’, without leadership or the concept of a sovereign. Individuals in the state of nature were apolitical and asocial. Thus for Hobbes the state of nature is necessarily followed by the social contract.

He believed the social contract would involve individuals ceding some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs. This resulted in the establishment of the state, a sovereign entity like the individuals now under its rule used to be, which would create laws to regulate social interactions, in the hope that human life would no longer be ‘a war of all against all. ’ (Leviathan. Ch13. p89). Thus Hobbes attempts to prove the necessity of the Leviathan for preserving peace and preventing civil war, thus he is most concerned with securing a safe, protected state for man.

This is necessary because Hobbes has a negative view of man. He claims we are merely motivated by what he calls ‘aversion’ and ‘appetite. ’ (Leviathan. Ch6. p38) due to his belief that humans are all ‘self-seeking individuals, with no pre-disposition to cooperate with others or help them unless it is within their own interests. ’ (Trigg. 1988. ) Thus the ‘general inclination of all mankind (is) a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death’ (Leviathan. Ch11. p70) and that ‘men are continually in competition for honour and dignity. (Leviathan. Ch17. p119) Thus the social contract becomes necessary as a way of reducing such competition and securing peace. Furthermore, Hobbes believes it is possible to mitigate this competition with reference to his laws of nature.

The first that we ‘seek peace, and follow it’ (Leviathan. Ch14. p92) as it would clearly never be advantageous for us to reside in an insecure society, where we constantly feared being destroyed and competed with, as Hobbes writes, ‘that every man, ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it. ’ (Leviathan. Ch14. 92) This is successful and Hobbes has a strong point here, we can agree that we are stronger as a group and that it is prudent to ‘confer all power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices into one will’ (Leviathan. Ch17. p126) This is clear in the modern day, we elect those people we wish to represent our will, we do not all feel a need to self-govern. So although we are defined by our power and competitiveness in the state of nature, we will value peace and security so necessarily opt for this contract.

Furthermore Hobbes second fundamental law of nature is ‘that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself’ (Leviathan. Ch14. p92). This idea of mutual contracts concords with the ideas of Locke’s and Rousseau’s social contracts, that people would choose to live in society to maintain or create freedom and uphold natural values.

However, for Hobbes, men cannot know good and evil, and in consequence can only live in peace together by subjection to the absolute power of a common master, thus a cost of Hobbes’ social contract is that man is now subjected to absolute rule and appears to lose more of his freedoms than either Locke or Rousseau deemed necessary, yet for Hobbes this is the only way to ensure peace, despite it seeming that such controlled rule would only engender disagreement and revolt.

Hobbes theory has implications and his work emphasises some important aims of humanity, especially that peace is worth having at any cost, ‘a view Hobbes wants us to adopt after his reasoning in Leviathan. ’ It is common sense that without the base instinct of survival and survival itself, nothing else would be truly possible. (Bagby. 2009. p47) Furthermore Hobbes discusses fear as the basis of the existence of the state and although our world is a very different context to the world Hobbes experienced, Professor Ginzburg ‘does not see any change in the fear factor that sustains authority. (Kumar. 2007)

However, John Locke, although another social contract theorist, his conception differed from Hobbes’ in several fundamental ways, retaining only the central notion that persons in a state of nature would willingly come together to form a state. Locke believed that individuals in a state of nature would be bound morally, by the Law of Nature, not to harm each other in their lives or possession, but without government to defend them against those seeking to injure or enslave them; people would have no security in their rights and would live in fear, rather like Hobbes suggested.

Locke argued that individuals would agree to form a state that would provide a ‘neutral judge’ (Locke. 2003) acting to protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it. While Hobbes argued for near-absolute authority, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under law in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke argued that government’s legitimacy comes from the citizens’ delegation to the government of their right of self-defence of ‘self-preservation; (Locke. 2003).

The government thus acts as an impartial, objective agent of that self-defence, rather than each man acting as his own judge, jury, and executioner, the condition in the state of nature. In this view, government derives its ‘just powers from the consent (delegation) of the governed. ’ (Locke. 2003) Furthermore, for Locke peace is the norm, and should be the norm. We can and should live together in peace by refraining from molesting each other’s property and persons, and for the most part we do.

Yet it is clear in Hobbes that he believes man is naturally self-interest and will compete for resources. Locke’s fundamental target is political absolutism, understood as the exercise of power unconstrained by law or by any procedures for settling disputes between rulers and ruled. (Boucher. 2003. p. 184) Where Hobbes argued that absolute power was necessary to keep the peace between humans; instead Locke insists the point of political institutions is ‘to avoid, and remedy those inconveniences of the State of Nature, which necessarily follow from every Man’s being judge in his own case. (Locke. SecondTreatise. 2003) as Locke believed humans were born free and that by nature human beings are one another’s equals, so should not be dominated or restrained to the extent of Hobbes. These inconveniences, such as a social atmosphere of miserable uncertainty are not solved by subjecting all but one person in society to the rule of law. Thus Locke believed that people would be worse off under absolute power than they would in the uncertain mercy of other’s judgement, so he did not advocate this.

Locke’s contract aims to benefit individuals, it is an individualised functionalism. Thus for Locke an institution that is detrimental to individuals, relative to what they might secure on their own without government, is illegitimate, as ‘no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse. ’ (Locke. Second Treatise. 2003) Furthermore, Rousseau (1712–1778), in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, outlined a different version of social contract theory.

Rousseau’s social contract can be summarised as, ‘each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. ’ (Rousseau. Social Contract. 2002). For Rousseau the fundamental aim of the social contract is to establish freedom, believing that liberty was possible only where there was direct rule by the people as a whole in law making, where popular sovereignty was indivisible and inalienable.

However, people also desire the advantages of living in a society, because it is only as a citizen that man can fulfil himself and become virtuous. ‘Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains. ’ (Social Contract. p. 141). Thus Rousseau aimed to create a political and social order where this contradiction would be resolved, the key purpose being ‘to find a form of association that defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself, and remains as free as before. (Social Contract. p. 148).

For Rousseau the answer lay in the social contract. Thus everyone entering into civil association must give up his rights to the whole community; this is the ‘cost’ for Rousseau. Yet there are benefits too, as Rousseau argued ‘this passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces quite a remarkable change in man, for it substitutes justice for instinct in his behaviour and gives his actions a moral quality they previously lacked. ’ (Social Contract. p. 150).

This is successful because the whole citizen body is the sovereign, thus is cannot have interests contrary to the individuals who comprise it (Boucher. 2003. p. 247) as ‘the sovereign need give no guarantee to the citizens ‘the sovereign by the mere fact it exists, is always all that is should be. ’ (Social Contract. p. 150). Additionally, Rousseau rejected Hobbes’ view that man is self-seeking and competitive by nature. (Boucher. 2003. p. 240) However his notion does have similarities with Hobbes.

For Rousseau, in contrast with Locke, the state of nature is neither a social nor moral condition (Boucher. 2003. p. 241) and in fact nature gives us no sanction for legitimate authority, rather it is the condition where no one has a right to rule over another. There is no justice or injustice, man is merely solitary and self-sufficient. Furthermore Rousseau is hoping to diminish the dependence of man, however this cannot be done in its entirety; rather one form of dependence can be substituted for another. Boucher. 2003. p. 251) Rousseau’s political theory differs in important ways from that of Locke and Hobbes. Rousseau’s collectivism is most evident in his development of the ‘luminous conception’ (which he credited to Diderot) of the general will. Rousseau argues a citizen cannot pursue his true interest by being an egoist but must instead subordinate himself to the law created by the citizenry acting as a collective.

Rousseau’s striking phrase that man must “be forced to be free’ (Social Contract) reveals that the indivisible and inalienable popular sovereignty decides what is good for the whole, then if an individual lapses back into his ordinary egoism and disobeys the leadership, he will be forced to listen to what they decided as a member of the collective, as citizens. Thus, the law, in as much as it is created by the people acting as a body, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but its expression. Moreover, Rousseau believed that the laws that govern a people helped to mould their character, so law is a civilizing force.

Laws represent the restraints of civil freedom; they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. Thus enforcement of law, which may seem a ‘cost’ in his contract theory, is actually not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained. Ultimately the social contracts of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau are successful for the conception of man in the state of nature that each held; however due to this they all had varying aims.

For Hobbes, man begins as necessarily competitive and unsocial, thus his contract must aim to establish peace and thus requires absolute rule. However, for Locke, man is by nature a social animal and not purely self-interested, thus securing peace primarily is less important, rather man here retains the right to life and liberty, and gains the right to just, impartial protection of their property, as this is more prudent than each trying to protect their own and living in constant fear.

Yet for Rousseau the fundamental aim of the social contract was to establish freedom, as man was naturally free, but was restrained and this freedom needed realising and maintaining. Overall, the social contract of the three thinkers is markedly different, however each is justifiable given their different views of the state of nature and man’s inherent nature, nonetheless there are costs to man’s total freedom as he must give up rights to the rulers and follow new laws, to varying degrees. Fundamentally, the society posited by all three is seen to be an improvement on the state of nature in terms of its freedom, equality and peacefulness.

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