Social Contract Theory
The Social Contract is a
that some prominent philosophers have used to justify the
state and adherence to law and social rules.
It can give answers to some of the basic
questions of secular ethics, namely: What makes authority legitimate?
and, Why should I
As we shall see, the answer to these questions stem from the view that the SC is
based on the
It is important to stress the distinction between control over others and
, or rightful control.
As Jean Hampton puts it: “Authority is about the
entitlement to rule; mere power isn’t enough.”
Going back to the Greeks, there are four
theories that seek to define and legitimate the nature and extent of political authority.
The first three have fallen out of favor in modern times.
They are the ‘divine authority
theory,’ the ‘natural subordination theory,’ and the ‘perfectionist theory’ (re: the
Guardians of Plato’s
, who are trained to have superior knowledge and be
remain popular, and the SC model is
the best known among them.
The basic idea
is a covenant.
For the philosophers using this model, it is the
covenant, which marks the mythical transition from asocial or pre-social human existence
to living in groups, i.e., societies, villages, cities, and states.
Because no one really
knows when, how, or even if humanity made such a transition, it is necessary to keep in
mind that SC theory is a fiction.
We are not referring to some actual historic event.
Nonetheless, it is a useful fiction that provides insights for understanding the birth of
ethics and how society is possible.
Some philosophers, such as Jean Jacques
and Thomas Scanlon, use the SC as a criterion for
determining whether a law or act of government is just or unjust, by reflecting on if we
can assume the consent of the governed.
The starting point and history
: To give this fiction a bit of plausibility, SC theorists posit
the state of nature
, for which we must consider the human condition prior to organized
Before there was a social collective with rules and authority, humans existed in a
perfect, total freedom
, by definition, are restrictions on our liberty.
Thus, before there were laws, we were completely free.
The English philosopher,
(1588-1679) contends that none of us want to live in perfect freedom.
Even if I can do whatever I please, others can as well, and this makes the state of nature