Social Contract Theory


According to social contract theory (SCT),


morality consists in the set of rules governing behavior, that rational people would accept, on the condition that others accept them as well.”


(Rachels, p. 145)


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)


“A State of Nature” = anarchy


Makes life “poor, nasty, brutish and short”


This is because of 4 features of the human condition:


·  equality of need

·  scarcity

·  the essential equality of human power

·  limited altruism


In a “state of nature”, there are no social goods…  No








 ….because the social cooperation needed to produce these things doesn’t exist.


              In order to avoid this fate,


(1) there must be guarantees that people will not harm one another, and

(2) people must be able to rely on one another to keep their agreements. 


Only a government can provide for (1) and (2).  Therefore, we need a government.  In establishing a government, people give up some of their personal freedom (the freedom of anarchy, such as it is) and give the government the authority to enforce laws and agreements.


  Those living under a government are parties to a social contract.  Each person agrees to follow the laws of the state on the condition that everyone else does the same.  That way, we are all relatively safe from each other and we all benefit from the other social goods that will result.


According to SCT, “the state exists to enforce the rules necessary for social living, while morality consists in the whole set of rules that facilitate social living”.  (Rachels, p. 144)  Thus, government is needed to enforce the basic rules of social living (e.g. don’t rob people, don’t break agreements), while morality may encompass some rules that are important for social living but are outside the scope of the state (this might include, for example, “Don’t insult people for no reason”.)



The Prisoner’s Dilemma and SCT




You are accused of conspiring with Smith to commit treason.  (see p. 145)





By the argument on pp. 146-7, it is in your self-interest to confess, even though this isn’t the best possible outcome (you will each do 5 years). 


You and Smith would do much better (one year in jail) if you each do what is not in your own self-interest.  Notice that if you could make an agreement with Smith and knew that it would be enforced, then it would be rational not to confess, and you will both be better off.  Essentially, this is what the enforcement of a moral code makes possible.  It makes cooperative behavior rational.


The conditions under which Prisoner-Dilemma type situations arise:


1.  It must be a situation in which people’s interests are affected not only by what they do but by what other people do as well;


2.  It must be a situation in which, paradoxically, everyone will end up worse off if they individually pursue their own interests than if they simultaneously do what is not in their own individual interests.




Example:  Suppose you live in a society that has highly polluting cars.  You can install a device that will stop the pollution from your car, but it will cost some money.  If others use the device, then the air will be clean (your car isn’t going to make the air very dirty by itself).  Therefore, if others use the device, then it is in your interests not to, in order to save money.  On the other hand, if others aren’t using the device, then the air will be dirty even if you use it.  Therefore, you had might as well not use it, since you only put yourself at a disadvantage if you do.  This argument follows the same pattern as the Prisoner’s Dilemma argument.  Since everyone can follow the same reasoning, no one will use the device and everyone will be worse off due to pollution.  Unless, of course, we are all parties to a binding contract which requires us to use the device so that we all benefit.

              According to SCT, morality is just such a contract.




Implications of SCT


Imagine that people were living in a “state of nature” as Hobbes describes.  Everyone has an interest in getting out of this state, for the reasons discussed earlier.  Now, suppose that everyone could sign a contract with each other governing how people are to treat each other.  The aim of the contract is to create social order, ending the state of nature and making it possible for people to cooperate and produce social goods.  In order for the contract to best achieve its aims, it is important that everyone, or nearly everyone, to be party to the contract (otherwise we have anarchy or civil war).  So, what things should everyone (or just about everyone) agree to as part of the contract?


The Basics  --  These are things that are necessary for the survival of any society.


·  Protection of life and property.  This means there will be prohibitions against murder, assault, theft and vandalism.  A police force will be needed.


·  Other rules needed to secure the benefits of social living.  This means there will be prohibitions on breaking contracts (e.g. promises) and a general requirement of truth-telling.


·  Protection of society against outside threats.  An army might be needed.


Other important stuff – These are things that, arguably, should be part of the social contract (i.e. it would in everyone’s interest to have them included).  However, a society might be able to survive (if not thrive) without them.


Civil Rights:


·  It is in everyone’s interest that the police and army not take advantage of their power and abuse us.  This means that they must follow rules that protect us.  For example, it is in everyone’s interest to have a criminal justice system that is effective at prosecuting lawbreakers while at the same time protecting rights of the accused and providing for fair trials and reasonable punishments. 


·  Freedom of speech


·  Freedom of religion


·  Freedom from arbitrary discrimination (e.g. based on race, gender, etc.)


·  Protection of the environment.  Obviously, it is in everyone’s interest to have breathable air and a clean, healthy environment in which to live.  Prohibitions against damaging the environment or claiming it as private property seem to be in order.  How extensive this is, though, is unclear.  Also, the self-interested justification for environmentalism does necessarily cover protecting endangered species or anything that is only of interest to some people.


Does social contract theory justify the creation of a social “safety net”?


Those who are well off have no need of welfare, public education, and government assistance in general.  So, on the face of it, it is not in the interests of these people to pay taxes in order to support government assistance.  But the social contract is supposed to be in everyone’s interest.  For this reason, conservative social contract theorists sometimes argue that a social safety is not part of the contract.


There are two kinds of replies to this argument.  (1)  Some forms of government assistance are in everyone’s interest.  Even the wealthy are advantaged by the existence of public education; they may not go to public schools, but they benefit from living in a society with a high level of education.  (2)  The wealth that people have now depends on the existence of society.  When we ask, “What kind of contract would self-interest people agree to?”, we do not mean to ask what they would agree to right now, given that society already exists.  Rather, we are asking what people who are on an equal footing would agree to.  People in such a position might well agree that there should be a social safety net just in case they end up in need of it.  (This line of argument is central to the liberal social contract theory of John Rawls)



What is, arguably, not included in the social contract*


·  Prohibitions on abortion (because fetuses can’t be parties to a contract)


·  Prohibitions on harming animals (for the same reason)


·  Establishment of any particular religion (it would not be in everyone’s interest to have any one religion enforced).  A possible exception may exist if there were a society where everyone subcribed to the same religion.


·  Paternalistic laws.  Paternalism:  forcing another party to act (or refrain from acting) because it is believed to be in the best interest of the other party to do so.  Remember, self-interest is what drives the need for a social contract.  If other people don’t harm you by engaging in a certain type of behavior, then you don’t have a self-interested reason for banning that behavior as part of the contract.  If you want to hurt yourself, that’s your business.  For this reason, seatbelt laws, laws against taking certain drugs, gambling, prostitution etc. are all suspect.  (That is not to say that they couldn’t be justified, just that they would not be justified on paternalistic grounds).


·  Anti-sodomy laws.  In general, SCT suggests that personal choices that don’t directly harm others are not subject to legal constraint.  Just about any consensual sexual practice, for example.


*This list is not complete and may not be entirely accurate.  It can be argued that certain activities (e.g. drug abuse, animal torture) have negative side-effects that are harmful to society in general, and so it would be in everyone’s interest to prohibit them.



Other Features of SCT


·  Explanation of Moral Motivation:  We can reasonably be expected to follow the rules because, on the whole, they are to our own advantage.  Breaking the rules tends to undermine them and thereby endangers our own well-being (this much is true even if the rules aren’t enforced).


·  Unlike utilitarianism (or any form of consequentialism for that matter) SCT does not assume that there is one correct conception of the good.  People can agree to a social contract because it is rational to do so given that the contract will help them to pursue the good as they see it, whatever that happens to be.


·  It is rational to obey only on the condition that others are as well (otherwise we are a “sucker”).  This can explain why we treat those who break the rules—criminals—differently.  “Thus, when someone violates the condition of reciprocity, he releases us, at least to some extent, from our obligation toward him.”  In other words, if you break the contract then others aren’t bound by it (with respect to your part in it).


·  SCT explains why some actions, while laudable, are considered supererogatory and not morally required (point on p. 151)


· Civil disobedience.  SCT provides a plausible account of when civil disobedience is justified.


Objections to SCT


·  It is based on a fiction:  there is no actual contract.


              Reply:  There may not be a physical, signed contract, but there is still an implicit contract that we enter into when we willingly participate in society and enjoy its benefits.  Also, even if a state of anarchy existed, it would still be true that it would be in our interests to form a social contract.  Thus, the justification for the state, and for morally generally, would still exist.


·  The social contract is an implicit agreement among self-interested, rational agents.  This seems to imply we have no duties to beings who are not able to participate (even implicitly) in the contract.  Examples:  nonhuman animals, those with mental disabilities.


Those simply outside of one’s society may pose a similar kind of problem.  If a social contract is for a given society, then it applies only to its members.  Those in other societies would be outside of its bounds.  This raises a deep question for Rawls:  who enters into the original position in order to decide on the principles of justice?  Since the parties are doing so out of self-interest, it does not make sense for the negotiations to include everyone in the world (why would it be in our self-interest to enter a binding social contract with the people of Timbuktu?)  People who are likely to affect our lives (by helping us are harming us) are the people we have an interest in contracting with.  In some ways this feature of SCT might be viewed as a good thing (it would explain, for example, why many of us do not feel morally obligated to engage in costly nation building).  On the other hand, it seems monstrous to suppose that we have no obligations to those outside of our society at all --for example, we agree that we have an obligation not to engage in wanton destruction of other societies.