Social Contract Theory, Contractarianism and Contractualism

The first major normative ethical theory we discussed was Utilitarianism, which defines the right action as the one that maximizes utility. Utilitarianism is the prominent type of Consequentialist ethical theory, which more generally define the right action in terms of the consequences the action produces. However the next two theories we will discuss are very different and and require the agent to proceed in their ethical reasoning very differently than an agent would if he or she were reasoning in a consequentialist. Consequentialist theories, in their basic form, define something as good and then require the agent to maximize that good thing. Social contract theories require the agent to consider his role as one member of a society in which all members agree certain rules, the social contract, and then to act according to the previously agreed upon rules, regardless of the consequences. Social contract theories determine the rightness and wrongness of actions based on certain rules rather than on the consequences of any particular action. The two different types of social contract theory are known as contractarianism and contractualism. Although both think about right and wrong in terms of the social contract the two theories are actually very different, as we shall see.

Contractarianism and Contractualism

  • Contractarians
    • Thomas Hobbes, Robert Nozick*, David Gautier, Gibert Harman
  •  Contractualists
    • Jean Jacques Rousseau (sort of), Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Timothy Scanlon
  •  Contractualism does not attempt to derive morality from pure self-interest (prudentiality), for contractarians there is nothing but prudentiality
  • Have different definitions of reason and differing views regarding what types of actions are rational
    • For Hobbes, and contractarians, reason is purely prudential (or instrumental). Reason is an instrument to get what we want, however reason doesn’t tell us what we should want or ought to do beyond what we already want. For Hobbes it would never be rational to act against one’s self-interest. Reason never tells us we ought to act in such a way as to forgo our self-interest for some other end. Although it may tell us we need to curtail our pursuit of self-interest in order to achieve a long term goal i.e. it can tell us to forgo short desires or interests in favor of long term desires or interests.
    • For Kant, and contractualists, reason possesses a normative power which goes beyond merely telling us how to achieve our pre-set ends, it actually commands us to set certain ends, even if we have no interest in those ends. Kant, thinks it is perfectly intelligible to say that although I want something and I have no self-interested reason not to pursue it, reason nevertheless commands me not to pursue it. Kant thinks reason has is not merely instrumental and that in additional to being instrumental it is also normative. In simple terms reason might tell us we have self-interested reasons for doing or not doing a particular action but it also informs us of the moral reasons we have for doing or not doing a particular action.

Contractualism or Hobessian Social Contract Theory

Basic Assumptions

  • Everyone is motivated by self-interest and is completely rational in pursuing their own self-interest
  • Everyone does best when we all agree to live by certain rules

Prisoner’s Dilemma

  • A situation where everyone would be better off by cooperating but to minimize risk and maximize gain through the direct pursuit of self-interest both become worse off
  • The prisoner’s dilemma is supposed to be analogous to the way people make economic/social decisions in society

State of Nature

  • The pre-contract state of human beings
  • Term was introduced by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan
  • The state of nature is a “war of all against all . . . in which the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”
  • State of nature is a prisoner’s dilemma because by attempting to maximize self-interest everyone is made worst off
  • To get out of the state of nature we need two things
    • Rules that work to everyone’s benefit if followed
    • Someone to enforce the rules


  • Contractarianism offers a clear metaethical justification of moral rules

◦                     And this justification is rooted in self-interest which is an undeniable source of motivation

◦                     Provides a naturalistic and scientific explanation of what morality is and how it arises

The Problem with Contractarianism

  • The Fool Objection

◦                     Hobbes tries to show that even the person who is entirely self-interested ought (prudentially) to follow moral rules/laws of society

◦                     This is sometimes called “the freerider problem”


The Moral Community

  • Contractarianism doesn’t seem to countenance  moral duties to people outside our contract, this could include animals, children, other societies, intelligent life on other planets, etc


Thommas Hobbes – Leviathan

Everyone is roughly equal (116)

  • This is not some philosophical statement about the absolute dignity of all persons, this is a crude statement of the facts
  • “The weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest”

From equality of ability arises equality of hope (117)

  • and competition and fighting (diffidence)
  • which leads to misery for all (prisoner’s dilemma)

This leads to a state of war (117)

  • a state of war of everyman against everyman (bellum omnium contra omnes)
  • the state of war is a the disposition to fighting i.e a fight can happen anytime

◦                     “For war consisteth no in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to conted by battle is sufficiently known by; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.”

◦                     Everyman is enemy to everyman

◦                     There is no security

◦                     No industry because the fruit of industry is uncertain, No navigation or trade by sea, no commodious building, no large moving equipment, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, not arts, no letters, no society

◦                     Continual fear and danger of violent death

◦                     “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”

Nothing is unjust in a state of war (119)

  • in a state of war everyone has a right to everything
  • “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.”

What leads us out of the state of war? (119)

“The passions that incline men to peace are: fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace upon which men my be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called laws of nature”

Natural law (jus natural) (119)

  • Hobbes asserts that natural is really nothing other than the right to one’s own self preservation


  • “By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments”
  • Hobbes uses a negative definition of liberty
  • Positive liberty includes rights to be given certain things (education, healthcare, basic standard of living, etc)

First Law (and Summary thus far) (120)

“as long as this natural right of every man to everything endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he may be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.”

The Second Law (120)

  • “From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavor peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth 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.”
  • In the state of nature everyone has a right to everything, we get out of the state of nature by agreeing to renounce our right to everything if others are also willing to do so


“the mutual transferring of right is that which men call contract.” (121)

The third law

  • “that men perform their convenants made” (122)

The Commonweath/The Leviathan

  • The commonwealth ensures that the punishment for breaking contracts is sufficiently great and reliable such that it is not in anyone’s interest to break a contract or  more generally act unjustly in any way
  • “Therefore before the names of jusgt and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to comple mean equally to the performance of their convenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their convenant, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.”
  • The Leviathan refers to an absolute monarch

◦                     Hobbes thought this was the best form of government

The Fool (123-4)

  • Is it against reason (one’s interest) to follow through with contracts made?
  • Hobbes says “No”.

◦                     First – something may work out in your favor but that doesn’t mean it is wisely done.

◦                     Second – If you break your covenants you are removing yourself from society and putting yourself back into the state of nature, which is a bad thing. You will not be able to be received by any society. You might happen to fool some group of people but it is not wise (rational and prudential to assume that you will be able to do so).

◦                     A more formal reconstruction

1.A rational person always prefers a state of peace than a state of war.

  1. If you break contracts (act like a fool) then you are removing yourself from a state of peace and putting yourself in a state of war.
  2. No breaking of a contract is ever guaranteed to go undetected.
    1. The odds of one’s being detected, no matter how small, and punishments that might result from that breach of contract always make it irrational to break a contract.

1.So, breaking a contract is never rational (prudential).

Premise 4 is the crucial missing premise that seems somewhat implausible. Although 1 also seems somewhat suspect as well.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau: The Social Contact

Opening question and statement:

“I want to inquire whether in the civil order there can be some legitimate and sure rule of administration, taking men as they are, and the laws as they can be: In this inquiry I shall try always to combine what right permits with what interest prescribes, so that justice and utility may not be disjoined.” (Rouseau 55)

Most famous quote:

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (55)

This is  perfect example of how we don’t want you to write, but it is great writing nonetheless.

Does humankind belong to the rulers (one-hundred men) or do the rulers belong to humankind? (56)

Are some naturally superior and born to lead/rule and some meant to follow? (57)

“Aristotle was right, but he mistook the effect for the cause. Any man born in slavery is born for slavery, nothing could be more certain. Slaves lose everuthing in their chains, even the desire to be rid of them, they love their servitude, as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness. Hence if there are slaves by nature, it is because there were slaves contrary to nature. Force made the first slaves, their cowardice perpetuated them.” (57)

The right of the stronger

“The stronger is never stong enough to be forever master, unless he transforms his force into right, and obedience into duty.” (57)

Do monarchs have a right (divine right) to rule?

“all power comes from God, I admit it; but so does all illness. Does this mean it is forbidden to call the doctor?” (58)

“Let us agree, then, that force does not make right, and that one is only obliged to obey legitimate powers.” (58)

The key question is what makes a power/ruler legitimate, and Rousseau has a slightly more different concept of this than hobbes.

What would make someone alienate themselves i.e. give their freedom to a ruler?

“To renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s quality as man.” (59)

It can be merely tranquility: “Life is also tranquil in dungeons; is that enough to feel well in them?”

Rousseau’s discussion of slavery (58-61)

His main point is that there can never be a right/justified convention of slavery, slavery is the mere exercise force

A convention must be mutually beneficial and recognizes both parties rights, slavery does not do this:

“ These words slavery and right; they are contradictory; they are mutually exclusive. Either between one man and another, or between a man and a people, the following speech will always be equally absurd. I make a convention with you which is entirely at your expense and entirely to my profit, which I shall observe as long as I please, and which you shall observe as long as I please” (61)


A multitude vs A society (61)

Before a people can give themselves to a king they must be a unified group

  • Even a majority vote is a convention
  • “Before examing the act by which a people  elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which a people is a people. For this act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true foundation of society.” (62)

“each man’s force and freedom are his primary instruments of self-preservation, how can he commit them without harming himself,, and without neglecting the care he owes himself? This difficulty can be stated in the following terms. “TO find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force, and by means of which each, unity with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem to which the social contract provides the solution.” (62-3)

The terms of the contract are the same everywhere

  • “The clauses of this contract are so completely determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would render them null and void; so that although they may never have been formally stated, they are everywhere tacitly  admitted and recognized; until, the social compact having been violated, everyone is thereupon restored to his original freedom for which he remounced it.” (63)

Introduction of the concept of the general will

  • “Each of us puts his person and his full 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.” (63)

Individual will vs general will

  • Why are we obligated to act according to the general will when our individual will contradicts the general wil
  • “Indeed each individual may, as a man, have a particular will contrary to or different  from the general will he has as a Citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest; his absolute and naturally independent existence may lead him to look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will harm others less than its payment burdens him and, by considering the moral person that constitutes the state  as being of reason because it is not a man, he would enjoy the rights of a citizen without being willing to fulfill the duties of a subject; an injustice, the progress of which would cause the ruin of the body politic” (65)
  • “Hence for the social compact not to be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the following engagement which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body: which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each Citizen to the Fatherland, guarantees him against all personal dependence; the condition which is the device and makes for the operation of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engagements which would otherwise be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most enormous abuses.” (65-6)

The transition from the state of nature to the civil state

“This transition from the state of nature to the civil state produces a most remarkable change in man by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and endowing his actions with the morality they previously lacked. Only then, when the voice of duty succeeds physical impulsion and right succeeds appetite, does man, who until then had looked only to himself, see himself forced to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations.”

“Let us reduce this entire balance to terms easy to compare. What man loses by the social contract is his natural freedom and unlimited right to everything that tempts him and he can reach; what he gains is civil freedom and property in everything he possesses.” (66)

Real Freedom

“Obedience to the law one has prescribed to himself is freedom.” (66)

Equality (Summary and Conclusion of Book I)

“I shall close this chapter of this book with a comment that should serve as the basis of the entire social system; it is that the fundamental pact, rather than destroying natural equality, on the contrary substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have placed between men, and that while they may be unequal in force or genius, they all become equal by convention and by right*” (68-9)

Good and bad Government

“*Under bad governments the equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to maintain the poor in misery and the rich in usurpation. In fact the laws are always useful to hose who possess something and harmful to those who have nothing: Whence it follows that the social state is advantageous for men only insofar as all have something and none has too much of anything.” (69 Footnote)

The general Will

  • “The general will alone can direct the forces of the State according to the end of its institution, which is the common good” (69)
  • The king can never legitimately against the general will and direct the forces of state according to his will or the will of any particular individuals

Individual vs General Will

They will never agree perfectly because “the particular will tends, by its nature, to partiality, and the general will to equality” (69)

Just for fun

“Truth does not lead to fortune, and the people confers no ambassadorships, professorships or pensions” (71)

General Will vs The Will of All

“From the preceding it follows that the general will is always upright and always tends to the public utility: but it does not follow from it that the people’s deliberations are always equally upright. One always want one’s good, but one does not always see it: one can never corrupt the people, but one can often cause it to be mistaken, and only when it is, doe it appear to want what is bad.”

“There is often considerable difference between the will of all and the general will: the latter looks only to the common interest, the former looks to the private interest, and is nothing but a sum of particular wills; but if, from these same wills, one takes away the pluses and the minuses which cancel each other out, what is left as the sum of the differences is the general will.” (71)

Can we make sense of this idea?

Factions and the General will

  • “Finally, when one of these associations is so large that it prevails over all the rest, the result you have is no longer a sum of small differences, but one single difference; then there is no longer a general will, and the opinion that prevails is nothing but a private opinion.”
  • “It is important, then, that in order to have the general will expressed well, there be no partial society in the State, and every citizen state only his own opinion” (71)

The Common good vs. Individual Rights

“. . . to ask how far the respective rights of the Sovereign  and Citizens extend is to ask how far the Citizens can commit themselves to one another, each to all, and all to each.

From this it is apparent that the Sovereign power, absolute, sacred, and inviolable though it is, doe not and cannot exceed the limits of the general conventions, and that every may fully dispose of such of his goods and freedom as are left him by these conventions: so that it is never right for the Sovereign to burden one subject more than another, because it then turns into a particular affair, and its power is no longer competent”

“These distinctions once admitted, it is so [evidently] false that the social contract involves any renunciation on the part of individuals, that [rather] as a result of the contract their situation really proves to be preferable to what it had been before, and that instead of an alienation they have only made an advantageous exchange of an uncertain and precarious way of being in favor of a more secure and better one, of natural independence in favor of freedom, of the power to harm others in favor of their own security, and of their force which others could overwhelm in favor of right made invincible by the social union.” (74-75)

My summary: you are not sacrificing any rights in the social situation, it is really only through a social contract that you have any enforceable rights. In theory, pre-contract, you have a right to everything, but practically this amount to very little because no one can enforce their right to everything against everyone else’s right to everything.

However there is still the question of why it is that one cannot be made to give up one’s rights for the common good.

Although his answer rests on the claim that “there is no general will about a particular object. . . when I say that the object of the laws is always general, I mean that the law considers the subjects in a body and their actions in the abstract, never any man as an individual or particular action” (77)

So, it seems like Rousseau thinks the general will only determines rules/rights/etc that when followed by everyone lead to the common good for all. He seems to think of it in a similar way to a rule utilitarian.


2 Responses to “Lecture 3 Notes (Contractarianism/Hobbesian Social Contract Theory)”

  1. Khan Says:

    what year is this written? would like to cite in essay.. thank you

  2. gaurarader Says:


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