Social Contract

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Social Contract theory can be divided in two ways: early (around 17-19th centuries) and more modern (think Rawls).

Contents

Early Contract Theory

Theorists:

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

John Locke (1632-1704)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Early social contract theory is noted for its attachment to natural law, legal theory premised on the belief that, whether divine or secular, there is a law that everyone ought to aspire to, including governments. The non-rational myth used to support natural law, as opposed to positive law, is that natural law somehow exists prior to its enactment as formal law. Positive law recognizes that law is nothing more nor less than a human institution.

Natural law contradicted the amoral politics of Nicolo Machiavelli, who basically argued that ordinary moral considerations were irrelvant in the rational calculated decision-making of princes (political elites).

It also meant that, under the natural law, governments had to be legitimate. Legitimacy was conferred on a government by a number of different means, depending on which theorist is theorizing, but it was seperate from considerations of blood or inheiritance. The social contract was what gave a government its legitimacy, and a broken contract, its illegitimacy. The terms of the contract varied from theorist to theorist.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes's formative political experience was the English Civil War and Cromwell. This led him to believe that humans are, in reality, brutes at heart, ready to kill and maim and destroy. War, although not apparently in anyone's self-interest, was a norm of life.

Especially the state of nature. The state of nature is another common thread amongst social contract theorists. The state of nature is society without government, essentially. Depending on the theorist, it is either actually believed to have existed, or just a thought experiment.

For Hobbes, the state of nature existed at one point, and his belief was that it caused people's lives to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as he remarked in his most significant book, The Leviathan. People would always be fighting, killing, and only the strongest survived and thrived.

Because this was obviously a bad situation, the less strong people banded together, and gave authority to one man, who became king. He was the Leviathan. The people gave up their rights to the Leviathan- their rights to kill each other, etc. In return, the Leviathan would grant the people some rights, but these rights were fungible. They could be taken away at a whim. The prime directive of the Leviathan was security. Other than that, he could pretty much act as he wanted, and this was fine for Hobbes, because anything is better than war. The quotation, "It is not wisdom, but authority, which makes a law," sums it up pretty nicely.

John Locke

While the formative political experience of Hobbes was the English Civil War, Locke's was the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke had been exiled by Charles II, and had returned with William and Mary. As his return was due to the Glorious Revolution, he felt himself obligated to justify the Glorious Revolution. He wrote the book Two Treatises on Civil Government. The first treatise is essentially an anti-absolutism attack, yet the second contains his theories of government.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke's state of nature is far more benign. Everyone is essentially good. Each household essentially acts as it wants, and its most important right was the right to dispense vigilante justice. Vigilante justice is not a sensible way to go about things, so everybody got together to form a government to deal with it. The government then therefore became the entity that dealt with justice, and the protection of rights.

Each person's rights were "life, liberty, and property." It is essential to note that life is a positve right- that is, if I'm starving, you are morally obligated to feed me. Liberty must be differentiated from freedom. While freedom is the state of doing whatever the hell I feel like doing, liberty is the freedom to do whatever doesn't violate the rights of others. Since a rational person is a good person, and since a good person doesn't violate the rights of others, liberty is the freedom of a rational person. Since rationality is usually instilled by education, the government has to protect education. Last, property. This right only applies to property obtained morally. I can obtain property morally, without violating other's rights, if I acquire it from another person who acquired it morally, or if I 'mix my labor with the land.' i.e. If I'm the first one to work a corn field ever, I own it.

If the government violates my rights, I get to petition the government, and, as a last measure, get to revolt.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

His major work is The Social Contract. Unlike the other two theorists, where forming a goverment is a good thing, in Rousseau's world, it is bad. A government is formed, according to Rousseau, because the strong interests want to retain their power. The strong interests will then make technologies and factories in order to tighten its grip on power.

The ideal government, for Rousseau, was the tiny Swiss village, where everyone participated in direct democracy. Such a government would be governed by the 'General Will.' The 'General Will' is the will of the people, but not necessarily the will of the majority of the people. No, it is the will of the people within their collective best interests. I'm not overly familiar with the 'General Will,' and most philosophers I've read do not treat him seriously.

Modern Social Contract Theory

Theorists

John Rawls (1921-2002)

John Rawls

Rawls is of particular interest to liberals, given that his two books are entitled A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. His contractual theory is based on a thought experiment, called the Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance.

The Original Position is pre-government, and in it, everybody who will live in the society in question is dropped under the Veil of Ignorance. Under the veil, they will not know their gender, age, abilities, sexual orientiation, race, preferences, incomes, etc. They will then be given the responsibility of designing society and government. If all of those things are unknown, one would not take the risk of designing policies discriminatory to, say, blacks or gays, because the possibility exists that the designer could be black or gay.

Under the veil, the designers would work to create a society where, first in priority, each person has rights to the same liberties as everyone else, and then, second in priority, any inequalities between people will be attached to positions that anyone can attain, and that benefit everyone. The second part, that it has to benefit everyone, is called the difference principle. Again, the first provision is higher in priority than the second. For example, the reason we allow the police to have impressive weaponry and the citizenry not to have impressive weaponry is so that the police can enforce the laws, making it beneficial to everyone.

Rawls's work in the Theory of Justice is controversial, and has been revised by Rawls himself in Political Liberalism.

Objections to Social Contract Theory

Theorists

David Hume

David Hume

Hume's objection to social contract theory is very simple: he doubts the contract itself. Why is it right and moral to follow a social contract, besides mutual advantage? No contract, in his mind, can justify the reason to follow a contract.

Furthermore, for Hume, there is no alternative for people not to follow the social contract. If a contract is created that does not include me satisfactorally, I can't do anything about it. I could choose not to follow the contract, but, to paraphrase Hume, it is the alternative of being locked in a ship, or swimming in the middle of the ocean — it is a false choice.

External Links

The Leviathan

Of Civil Government

The Social Contract

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find online versions of either A Theory of Justice or Political Liberalism. If anyone's able to find either online, that would be great.

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