Social Contract (The)

Social contract theory set foundation concepts that became the underpinnings of democratic government. The theory influenced the implementation of democratic government in many countries and had particular influence on the framers of the U.S. Constitution.


A social contract is a voluntary agreement in which mutual benefit occurs between and for individuals, groups, government or a community as a whole.  According to any of various theories, as of Hobbes Locke or Rousseau, organized society is brought into being and invested with the right to secure mutual protection and welfare or to regulate the relations among its member (Webster’s 2003). 

Social contract theory is almost as old as philosophy itself (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), having sited as the fundamental basis for the development of government and law, especially democratic theory and application.  Central to social contract theory is the idea that moral and political obligations are dependent on an agreement or covenant between people to form a society.  In this agreement people surrender some of their natural freedoms (State of Nature) for the good of an ordered and safe society (State of Society).  A sole ruler or political body enforces the restrictions of freedom.   The contract involves parties keeping some natural rights, while accepting restrictions of some liberties, as well as assuming some obligations (Roland 2004)

Although social contract theory has evolved over centuries, it became a dominant moral and political theory in the 17th century.  It was very influential throughout the political history of Europe and the New World.  In recent times, philosophers, particularly those who are feminists and race-conscious, have criticized social contract theory as being a simplistic picture of society.  They argue that it may even lead to the subjugation of people by class (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  The theory has also been criticized by present day psychologists as based on a faulty understanding of human nature.

Historic Roots

Some of the earliest evidence of social contract theory can be found in Hebrew scripture.  The Old Testament, particularly Deuteronomy 28, talks about a covenant between humankind and God, establishing a theocratic state in which humankind has freedom within limits set by God, in order to establish harmony in creation ( 

In his book Crito, Athenian philosopher Socrates (469–399 B.C.E), argues that adult citizens have a choice to stay under the law of the city or pack their belongings and leave. 

Those who remain have in effect “contracted” to abide by the laws and must accept punishment for breaking those laws.  This is an implicit contract evidenced by a person staying under the law, although free to leave.  His contemporary Plato, in The Republic, takes a slightly more negative view of human nature arguing that since persons cannot
practice injustice with impunity, they realize that just behavior is in their own best self-interest.

English philosopher and author, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who lived during the tumultuous English Civil War, took up this theme of self-interest.  He described human nature in his work Leviathan, published in 1651, as completely based on what is most beneficial for the individual (State of Nature).  Therefore as rational beings, humans choose to comply with the rule of a sovereign or political body in order to be able to live in a civil society.  Mankind is able to overcome the State of Nature (completely self-centered) and establish society.  In this society, it is possible to live together in harmony by creating common laws and a way to enforce them (European Enlightenment Glossary).

John Locke (1632-1704) tempered Hobbes’ harsh view of the State of Nature by believing that although the State of Nature is one in which one has complete liberty to act free from interference from others, it is not a state free from morality.  Locke believed there also exists a Law of Nature, the basis of all morality and given by God, that compels us to not harm others life, health, liberty or possessions.  For Locke, the social contract exists when mankind in the State of Nature recognizes and heeds the Law of Nature thus forming a civil society.  Protection of property, both geographic and one’s own body, were key to Locke’s argument.  He said that political society and government are established by mutual consent forming “one body politic under one government” united into common-wealths to protect property from those who would violate the Law of Nature (Locke 2003).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) lived in France during the period known as the Enlightenment.  Rousseau tempered Hobbes belief about the State of Nature by making a distinction between self-love, amour de soi, which is the need to care for oneself for self preservation; and amour-propre, a self-centered vanity that puts one’s own needs and demands above those of others.  He argued that all mankind is by nature equal and free, and that the only way authority can be justified is when the authority is generated out of covenants or contracts to submit individual free will to the collective will.  As self-interest is the focus of individual freedom so, general will, once established, is focused on the common good, understood and agreed upon collectively.  Rousseau believed that young children could be taught benevolence by caring, empathetic parents, thereby altering the State of Nature (Kohn 1990).  In Rousseau’s social contract theory, there exists a reciprocal relationship between the sovereign, responsible for the good of the individuals, and individuals committed to the common good.  Rousseau’s pure vision of the social contract could only exist in a strong direct democracy, not a representative democracy (Modern History Source Book).

Harvard professor, John Rawls, was a catalyst for the rebirth of social contract philosophy in modern times when he wrote A Theory of Justice in 1972.   He outlines his theory of justice in two parts, the liberty principal and the difference principal.  Although many philosophers discredit Rawls’ principles, his writing has begun a renewed, lively dialogue about civil society and the common good (Wikipedia).

Published in 1986, David Gauthier, in Morals by Agreement, returns to Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy, but unlike Hobbes’ insistence on humankind’s purely selfish motivation entering the contract, Gauthier believes that rationality alone convicts people to agree to cooperate, and to then do it (ibid.).

Psychologist Alfie Kohn, author of The Brighter Side of Human Nature, argues that humankind is more caring than Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s understanding of human’s State of Nature.  He believes that generous human nature is more than just enlightened self-interest, believing instead that empathy and altruism are part of the nature of humankind (Kohn 1990).

Others argue against the validity of the social contract from the point of view of women’s and minority rights advocacy.  Harvard professor Carole Pateman, in her book The Sexual Contract, argues that instead of a society that guarantees freedom within agreed upon limits for all, the original idea of the social contract is one way that patriarchy is furthered.  Many modern-day philosophers have also raised the question of the validity of the original concept of the State of Nature in which self-interest is central, since by their very nature women give and nurture life unselfishly (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 


Social contract theory set foundation concepts that became the underpinnings of democratic government.  The social contract philosophy influenced the implementation of democratic government in many countries and had particular influence on the framers of the U.S. Constitution. 

An early example of this is the Mayflower Compact which bound the signers into a "Civil Body Politic" for the purpose of passing "just and equal Laws . . . for the general good of the Colony."  Those words expressed the idea of self-government for the first time in the New World (Constitutional Rights Foundation).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Philanthropy is a product, student and promoter of the social contract (Northern California Grantmakers).  It is a product of social contract as the origin of the concept of “common good,” which is central to an understanding of philanthropy. Robert Payton’s widely accepted definition of philanthropy is the giving of one’s time, talent or treasure for the sake of another- or for the common good (Learning to Give).

Philanthropy is a student of the social contract as philanthropic motivations and actions become defined by the philosophical arguments of associating and contributing for the benefit of the common good.  Thomas Hobbes could only imagine humans acting philanthropically to promote their own place in the community, and therefore, enhance their own security and influence (Bremner 1996).  Since then, modern day philosophers have established that altruism, selfless concern for the welfare of others, is a human characteristic (Steenbergen 2005).  Locke’s philosophy of the social contract and the right of citizens to revolt against their sovereign when property was no longer being protected had a profound influence on the founders of the United States, especially Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson believed that the preservation of natural rights and consent of the governed was a crucial part of the social contract.  Philanthropy promotes the social contract as the non-governmental part of the contract.

Key Related Ideas

Altruism:  caring for the welfare of others without benefit to oneself (Learning to Give).

Civic Engagement:  being connection to the community (ibid.).

Civil Society: a set of intermediate associations including voluntary associations, firms and other corporate bodies that are neither the state, nor the extended family (ibid.).

Common Good: working together with others for the greater benefit of all, individual citizens bring commitment and motivation to promote the welfare of the community, often giving of their own time and money (ibid.).

Ethical Egoism:  the thought that morality is closely associated with the thought of doing for oneself (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Enlightened Self-Interest:  Alexis de Tocqueville discussed this concept in his work Democracy in America, believing that Americans serve their own interests by joining together voluntarily in associations to benefit the group (Learning to Give).

Voluntary Association: a group of individuals who form an organization to give of their time voluntarily (ibid.).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826): Jefferson was the third president of the United Sates (1801-1809) as well as a diplomat, author and architect.  Jefferson’s writings reflect social contract theory, especially emphasizing inalienable rights of individuals and a minimal central government.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804):  Kant was a German Philosopher who was influential in developing social contract theory.
  • James Madison (1751-1836):  Madison was the fourth president of the United States and author of Federalist Paper # 10, one of a series of 65 papers written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to gain support of the proposed U. S. Constitution.  In the paper, Madison defends the right of citizens to form voluntary associations for the common.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Altruists International is an organized movement for social change promoting altruism and facilitating cooperative volunteerism (
  • Constitution Society conducts research and provides public education on the principles of constitutional republican government (
  • Philanthropy Roundtable is an association founded on the principle of voluntary private action as the best means of addressing society’s needs, that a vibrant private sector is crucial to generating the wealth that makes philanthropy possible, and that philanthropy is most likely to succeed when it seeks to expand rather than restrict human liberty and opportunity (

Related Web Sites

Modern History Sourcebook Web site, at, contains many primary source documents including the complete works of Rousseau, information on the Enlightenment, and much more.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Web site, at contains information about Contemporary approaches to the social contract.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

Bremner, Robert H. Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 1-56000-884-9.

Constitutional Rights Foundation. Foundations of Our Constitution: Mayflower Compact.

Roland, John.  Constitution Society. The Social Contract and Constitutional Republics. 2004.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Social Contract Theory.

Kohn, Alfie. The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1990. ISBN: 0-465-00757-0.

Learning to Give. Vocabulary/materials/vocabulary.asp

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0-30010-018-3.

Modern History Sourcebook.  Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract, 1763.

Steenbergen, James B. Enlightened Self Interest. Learning to Give. 2005. /papers/concepts/enlightenself-interest.html.

Wikipedia. John Rawls.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus. It is offered by Learning To Give and Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus.