The 3 Forms Of Social Contract Theory

Posted: October 23rd, 2013





The Three Forms of Social Contract Theory

The social contract theory came to be in the 17th and 18th century during the age of enlightenment. Philosophers and intellects purposed to reform society’s reasoning and actions by challenging existing beliefs. They also came up with new theories using scientific methods to advance understanding on issues previously not clearly understood and offering a different reasoning not based on tradition and religion. The social contract theories posed arguments regarding the existent beliefs on society’s origin and the state imposed authority over the people questioning its legitimacy. Some of the main contributors of the social contract theory were Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose theories all questioned the legitimacy of the government having power over the individual’s rule.

According to John Hobbes’ Leviathan theory that was formulated in 1651, Hobbes identified the state of nature where each individual had full freedom to do whatever he/she pleased and had a right of access to all things. In this kind of society, there were no limits to rights and there was no leadership system in place governing people’s actions. Therefore, the society was barbaric and full of commotion, as everyone would have a right to everything they wanted, leading to rape, murder and plundering of the things they got. After this, he came up with the social theory where the individuals would agree to give up all of their individual freedom to restore some kind of civilization and order making life tolerable. In the proposed social contract, a state with the power to impose rules regulating relations between individuals was introduced. He mostly preferred a monarchy, where a single ruler, preferably himself, would hold all powers and allow individuals only one right in society. He would reserve the right to choose which right to give to the individuals.

This kind of social theory shows the level of greed that he had, as he wanted to have sovereign power by asking everyone to give up their rights and give him the power to dictate their lives. By so doing, he puts himself in the position of God. He states that if the sovereign authority abused its power, the society would have to accept it and consider it the price they had to pay to obtain peace. He, therefore, shows that his main reason for introducing the sovereign power was to afford himself the freedom and right to everything, a right that would be stripped from the society. However, this theory has its weakness, because as much as there was leadership in the state, there was no body powerful enough to rule over the relations between different states. Therefore, the state of nature would be transferred from the individuals to the states competing against each other to achieve their own self-interest. Hence, Hobbes’ theory did not address the issue of self-interest but only transferred it to a higher level being that of a state’s self-interest. The theory by Thomas Hobbes, however, played an important role in the development of the realism theory.

However, John Locke’s one differed from that by Hobbes in that, it did not consent to the supremacy authority of the government that Hobbes’ theory suggested. John Locke argued that the state of nature of self-interest in individuals would lead to lawlessness that could result in chaos, but the Law of Nature would prevent individuals from harming each other. This shows that Locke had a better understanding of the innate good nature of humans and had a belief in their responsibility to the teachings by the religions in that period. Religion offered rules of living, and by recognizing the Law of Nature, Locke showed his belief in a supreme being who controlled human nature. He also knew that humans can also be greedy and perverse, thus, Locke identified that a government or a higher authority would be necessary to protect individuals from those who intended to harm them. This they would do by being the judge of individuals’ actions deciding whether they were in the best interest of others and the society it represented. In the Second Treatise of Government that was ratified in the year 1689, Locke’s social contract theory identified that the government could only act within the jurisdiction of those who put it in power. It would only carry out the duties delegated to them; consigned to protect the society they represented.

Locke’s theory contributed to consequent political philosophy by other intellects such as Rousseau. It also played an important role in the American Revolution where the Americans lead by George Bush rejected the British rule, as it was tyrannical and exceeded the powers it had been given by the American people. This is because they believed in Locke’s social contract where the body in authority was elected to represent the interests of the society and not to act in their own self-interest. In order to satisfy Locke’s theory, Baron de Montesquieu; Charles secondat’s, philosophy of separation of power had to be incorporated. It states that in order to prevent corruption and attainment of liberty, the powers allocated to the government have to be divided among different bodies such that each body’s actions can be monitored by the other bodies. This eliminates the presence of a single sovereign leader. This was implemented in the foundation of the American government where it was divided into three supreme bodies: the executive, legislative and judiciary, where each would check the actions of the other.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762 came up with a treatise that suggested that popular rule was to be sovereign to the government demands. The government was to rule with consideration to the wants of the society. It introduced the notion of political rights to the people, as the law was not imposed on them, since they had a say in its creation. The social contract suggested by Rousseau brought about the concept of collectivism, where individuals put aside self-interest and participated in the creation of law that would govern social relations and interactions. This theory is different from the two previous theories, since it does not leave the law-making power to the chosen government.

Hobbes and Locke’s theories give the government power to create laws although Locke’s theory differs from that by Hobbes that has selfish intents. Rousseau’s theory does not give the government the power to impose laws on the people who elect it to power. It merely gives the government the role of implementing the laws the society itself creates. The theory by Rousseau leads to individual expression as the laws created express what the society wants. This theory is evident in the reign of Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of America, who believed in republicanism opposing elitism, having a more privileged people compared to other and the equality in political matters. This equality in political opportunity has become the foundation of freedom in the country allowing each person equal freedom to participation in politics.

This theory brings about positive freedom as all individuals give up the same amount of freedom to create laws that are equal and govern every person by the same standards. By allowing individual to make the laws, he brings in the idea of a direct democracy as the individuals’ views are of more power, hence, are implemented. This differs from Locke’s theory where representative democracy takes precedence. In his theory, the rights to make laws are held by the government, where the government is expected to make laws that represent the best interests of the people. It also differs from Hobbes’ theory; as unlike Hobbes’ theory where all the rights to make laws belonged to the sovereign body, Rousseau’s theory allows the society to have all the law-making power. It also allows freedom and responsibility as one’s actions are judged against a law they helped create themselves. In Hobbes’ theory, one is judged based on the sovereign leader’s standards, as he is responsible for making all the laws.

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