After reading this article you will learn about Social Contract Theory:- 1. Definition and Meaning of Social Contract Theory 2. Origin and Development of Social Contract Theory 3. Contributors 4. Modern Version.
Definition and Meaning of Social Contract Theory:
In social science and particularly in political science the concept of social contract is very well known and popular though many question (and quite reasonably) its historicity. Still today many renowned political scientists want to base social contract theory as the starting point of their theories.
For example John Rawls believes that social contract can be taken as the major focus of his theory of justice. This is the social contract theory.
An authentic definition of social contract has been given by Michael Lessnoff in his introductory part of Social Contract.
“A social contract theory can be defined as one which grounds the legitimacy of political authority and the obligations of rulers and subjects on a premised contract or contracts relating to these matters”.
There is another definition— “A contract between persons in a pre-political or pre- social condition specifying the terms upon which they are prepared to enter society or submit to political authority.”
Social contract can be defined as an instrument or mechanism with the help of which people enter into a new society. Or, it is a medium of transition from one stage to another and more specifically from the state of nature to civil society or political society. This transition is guided by certain conditions or terms and the social contract embodies those terms and conditions.
We have already noted that social contract is an instrument—which provides certain terms and conditions. Some people claim that they are not legally bound to carry out the directions of higher authority or the authority may say that it not legally bound to do such and such duties. In that situation social contract theory may be used as a weapon.
The authority has already promised to perform such and such duties or, again, the contracting individuals are bound to obey certain rules as laid down in the contract. We can thus say that it is a document which contains certain conditions that bound both the rulers and the ruled.
We, therefore, find that social contract contains some terms and conditions which bind both the ruler and the ruled. But this is not all. These conditions are legitimate. This is because at the time of finalization of the contract both the parties promised to obey the terms and conditions and they did it assembling in an open place.
In other words, pure democratic methods were used to finalize the contract. Naturally nobody can violate the terms and conditions of the contract. Social contract theory is also defined as a foundation of political authority.
What does it mean? The authority or the ruler or the government performs certain functions and the general public may raise the legitimacy or the utility of those functions. As again the ruled may refuse to cooperate with the authority or the government in respect of cooperating with the ruler.
All these questions are easily solved by invoking the terms and conditions of the social contract. Naturally the social contract may be regarded as a source of political authority. Government will claim that it has been authorized by the contract to do this. Or the general public may claim that their functions are supported by the terms laid down in the contract.
Contract is the vital or most important source of consent. In the Middle Ages or even before that it was generally believed that all men are equal and naturally one cannot impose his will or decision upon other. If one wishes to perform certain duties with others then he must seek their consent or opinion.
Since it is not possible to seek opinion on every issue there shall exist a general agreement or contract which will provide the guidelines. This general contract rules out the scope of repeated agreement.
One general agreement will be the guiding star for all future actions. Therefore social contract can be defined as the holder of a general consent. A social contract is a legal document. It has been signed and finalized by both or all the parties.
Since everybody gave consent it was not possible to deny or refuse to give consent. But the question of consent is never unilateral; it is always bilateral or multilateral.
That all the parties to the contract are legally bound to act in accordance with the terms of the contract. Naturally the two most important aspects of the contract are consent and legality or, in other words, legitimacy.
Hence we can say that the social contract is a legal document based on the consent of all parties who were present at the time of finalization of the terms and conditions of the contract and a society or political organization that was created by this legal contract is also a legal political organization.
Thus one legal document comes to be the potential source of many other legal aspects. Some may raise the question on the importance or authenticity of contract as the source of the foundation of political society. This question or objection is very old.
Still many ‘believe that behind its foundation there is some sort of contract. Today almost all the states have written constitutions and these may be treated as contracts. Hence a social contract is a legal document which is based on consent and it is legal.
Origin and Development of Social Contract Theory:
From the study of history we come to know that the social contract is quite old. In the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva) there is a clear reference to social contract and this Mahabharata was written several thousand years from today.
In the days of the Mahabharata in some places there was anarchy which in those days meant rule of the jungle or idiomatically it was used that the small fishes were indiscriminately attacked and devoured by big ones.
To bring an end to this anarchy an agreement was reached and all were parties to this agreement. This is a form of social contract.
Several scholars have asserted that the origin of the social contract can be traced to the eleventh century. Manegold of Lautenbach, after studying many things, arrived at the conclusion that there was a contract between the ruler and the people or ruled. That is, the contract was entered into between only two parties.
The historians have cited several instances of earliest forms of social contract and one such form is in the writing of an Alsatian monk. In the contract it was said that in a society there shall be a ruler who may be called king.
The king or kingship is just a title of office. Anyone who holds that office may be called a king. A contract was reached between the ruler and the people and simultaneously the terms of the contract were decided.
The ruler or who might be called the king will administer in accordance with the terms laid down in the contract. He cannot be a tyrant by violating the terms agreed upon by both parties.
It was also stated in the contract “he govern and rule according to right reason, give to each one his own, protect the good, destroy the wicked, and administer justice to everyman.” Hence it is quite clear that it is the primary duty of the ruler to protect his subjects from all sorts of odd situations and any type of attack.
For this purpose the contract was made and the post of ruler or king was created. “But if he violates the contract under which he was elected, disturbing and confounding that which he was established to set in order, then people is justly and reasonably released from its obligations to obey him”.
This is the most realistic version of social contract theory so far as origin is concerned. There is no trace of God, religion and divinity. The ruler will rule following right and any sort of aberration will be associated with the obligations of the people to the ruler.
If we go through the numerous political, social and other aspects of Middle Ages, especially fourteenth century, we shall come across the existence of embryonic form of social contract.
Manegold in his idea of contract talked about a ruler, obligations of the subject to the ruler and prevalence of right reason. But in the fourteenth century Engelbert thought that there was some type of contract and the society was ruled in accordance with the terms of the contract. But the concept propagated (or elaborated) by Engelbert we find a new idea which is political authority.
In other words, the contract was made by different parties (Engelbert thought so) to establish a Political authority. Not only this; in Engelbert’s version the state or political authority originated from this contract.
In Lessnoff’s version:
“All kingdoms and participates originated when men following nature and reason chose a ruler and bound themselves to obedience in a “contract of subjection” (pact ism subjecsonis), made in order to be ruled, protected and preserved” If we carefully study Engelbert’s version of social contract we shall find that he imagined of two stages of society—one is pre-political or pre-social and the other is political which came into existence after the social contract.
An interesting aspect of Engelbert’s contract theory is he was the “first to enunciate an idea destined for a long career— what would later be called the original contract”. This implies that subsequently people formed another contract. But the original contract was the source of political organisation and political authority.
The concept of social contract received further encouragement in the sixteenth century. Mario Salamonio, a Roman jurist, focused his attention on social contract. But he viewed the entire idea from religious point of view.
Originally there was no political organisation as it is today. Perhaps Salamonio was thinking about state of nature. But he stressed that God had created all men and women equal and His intention was that all would enjoy equal privileges. But subsequently people strongly felt the necessity of establishing a kingdom or political organisation for the general betterment of people. Salamonio thought that this could be done by means of contract. Salamonio was a Roman Jurist and naturally he viewed everything in the background of Roman law.
In Roman law political organisation was generally called civilis societas which means a society of partnership. “Thus for Salamonio political or civil society is a partnership among individual citizens created by contract among them… The terms of the contract are the laws of the state, without which no state can exist and which are binding on all its members including the prince or the ruler”.
In the hands of Salamonio the idea of contract received a better treatment and it assumed an incomplete modern form.
Contributors of Social Contract Theory:
Reformation, Vindiciae, Huguenot:
From history we come to know that Reformation movement was chiefly a movement against maladministration and irreligious functions of church. But during the long course of movement it released certain basic concepts of politics and social contract theory is one of them.
The Calvinists (of Reformation) in the 1550s believed that there existed an unwritten covenant or contract in all societies and it was the duty of both ruler and the ruled to obey the terms and conditions of these covenants.
“Luther and Calvin both stressed the idea of a covenant between God and the people”. But the king and higher officials were entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out the order of God and act in accordance with the terms of the covenant. But if there was any large scale disorder and transgression and also the violation of the basic rules of the covenant, people must have the right to protest the violation or transgression.
Calvin’s idea of covenant related to the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. Skinner says; “Since Calvin believed that in each case the essence of the covenant consisted of an agreement to obey the Ten Commandments, he went on to teach that it must be possible at any time for a group of godly men formally to reaffirm their contractual relationship with God” From this it appears that the contract or covenant theory played a very important part in the Reformation movement”.
The vindiciae contra tyrannos was published in 1579. It was a small but very powerful pamphlet which propagated the antimonarchism in the second half of the sixteenth century.
The English translation of the pamphlet is a Defence of liberty against Tyrants. This small book contains many explosive ideas whose central idea is that the king had no absolute power. But its most remarkable contribution (for the present purpose) is it contains the central idea of social contract theory.
We can remember the opinion of Sabine:
“In its main outline the theory of vindiciae took the form of twofold covenant or contract. There is first a contract to which God is one party and king and people jointly the other party…. Secondly there is a contract in which people appear as one party and the king as the other. This is specifically the political contract by which a people becomes a state, the king is bound by this agreement to rule well and justly”. The vindiciae is an explicit assertion of the famous social contract theory.
Lessnoff makes the following observation about the contribution of vindiciae to the social contract theory. He says: “The vindiciae is interesting both for what is old in it and for what is new. Junius Brutus reiterated the existence of a contract mutually obligatory between the king and his subjects who require the people to obey faithfully and the king to govern lawfully”. The vindiciae wants to assert that the king had no scope to act or govern the state whimsically, he is bound by the conditions of the contract.
If the prince violates the faith or any part of the contract people will have right to withdraw obligations. In the sixteenth century the vindicial made a remarkable contribution to the antimonarchical movement and in order to strengthen the agitation the covenant theory was strongly emphasized. From vindiciae we obtain a few important threads of modern political theory and social contract theory is by far the most important of them.
The St. Bartholomew Massacre of 1572 opened the floodgate of several political and non-political issues. In this inhuman massacre more than two thousand Huguenots of Paris were brutally murdered.
The Huguenots belonged to different religious faith and that was their “Unpardonable sin.” The Huguenots and their spokespersons tirelessly propagated that every religious faith had the right to hold and propagate that faith peacefully.
They further said that it was the duty of the king (or queen as might be) to protect every religious faith from the wrath and displeasure of an opposite faith. It is the constitutional duty of the authority. It is a type of contract. The authority will protect every religious sect and, in exchange of that, the sect will release obligation to the authority.
The Huguenot writers particularly Hotman said that the ruler even the hereditary ruler, had no right to deny its responsibility towards people. Its right to rule depends upon the tacit consent of the general public. Political authority is derived from “immemorial practices inherent in the community….the consent of the people, expressed in such practices, is the rightful basis of political power, and the Crown itself derives its authority from its legal position as an agent of the community”.
The Huguenot writers wanted to emphasis that the king had no arbitrary authority, he must share his powers with the people of the society and, if he does this, people will show their obligation. This is the basic principle of contract theory and it is unfortunate that the French Government did not follow this basic principle.
The Huguenot writers were at pain to note that the French government showed no respect to the immemorial practices and its responsibility to protect citizens.
Althusius was the important contributor to the social contract theory. The contract theory, according to Sabine, figured in his analysis in two ways. He believed that there was a relationship between the ruler and the ruled or subject people.
He calls it the political role of the ruler. Again, in the view of Althusius, there exists a sociological role of the ruler. Sabine calls the first role as the political one and it is related to the contract of the government.
The sociological role implies there is a tacit agreement between the government and the people as well as among the people themselves. A large number of people reside in a society and, according to Althusius, they are bound by contract and by virtue of it they form a community. Long ago Aristotle spoke of this type of community.
Sabine says that Althusius thought of several contracts that existed in society and all the people were bound by the terms of the contract.
“The most important aspect of Althusius’s theory was that he made sovereignty reside necessarily in the people as a corporate body.” People as a body create law and the authority rules according to that law. Naturally the authority had hardly any opportunity to go against the law of the people.
It is a type of popular sovereignty and the foundation is the contract. We think that Althusius’s political theory is based on social contract and Sabine is right when he says that Althusius’s political ideas are based on one idea or concept which is political and social relationships are guided by a single view and it is principle of consent or contract. The contract binds both the rulers and the ruled.
Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) was a seventeenth century jurist who supported the social contract as the basis of state or political society. From his writings we come to know that he thought of a double contract.
There was a first contract which founded a state or political community. But to him a mere foundation of a political community was not all. It must be well-administered and serve the purposes of the members and, for that purpose, a second contract was necessary which would make provision for a ruler.
“On the whole, to join a multitude, or many men, into one compound person, to which one general act may be ascribed.” In ancient Indian literature there are traces of contract as the basis of state.
Ram Sharan Sharma in his noted work Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India makes the following observation:
“The first faint traces of the contract theory of the origin of the state are to be found in two Brahmanas, which refer to the origin of kingship through election among the gods on account of the compelling necessity of carrying on successful war against the asuras. Although the contract theory of the origin of the state is anticipated by early brahmanical literature, the first clear and developed exposition of this theory is found in the Buddhist canonical text Digha Nikaya, where the story of creation reminds us of the ideal state of Rousseau followed by the state of nature as depicted by Hobbes”.
We thus see that in both West and East social contract was thought as a basis of state creation. But the difference is in the West the theory was very popular and widely conceived. In the East it was sporadically used.
Modern Version of the Social Contract Theory:
The revival of social contract theory in recent decades—specifically from the seventies of the last century—is astounding. Some people began to interpret it as the origin of utilitarianism because in their opinion people began to feel that well-organized and well-ordered state is far better than anarchical state that is the state of nature.
Many critics challenge the very historicity of social contract as the source or origin of state. But still they regard that in the process of evolution of state its importance is undeniable. It is believed that there existed at certain period of time anarchical situation and, in order to get rid of it, people laid the foundation of modern political organisation.
The most remarkable version of social contract theory has been provided by John Rawls in his “A Theory of Justice”.
“More recently, social contract theory has been explicitly and self-consciously revived by the leading political philosopher of our day, John Rawls. Largely thanks to Rawls, social contract theory is now again a major focus of systematic and original political thought”.
Lessnoff says that the social contract is even more current. He cites an example. The British Labour Party in an election manifesto talked of social contract in different form. The manifesto said that in order to save the nation from the crisis a type of social contract was needed.
It meant contract or agreement among different groups or parties. The purpose of the contract was to reach agreement which would save the nation from a number of economic crises. In every aspect of our social, political and economic life there is immense importance of social contract.
Agreement is to be reached to find out ways of how to come out of various crises. The contract may not be in Hobbesian or Lockean way or formula, but contract is found.
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice was first published in 1971 and its revised edition in 1999. He says – “My aim is to present a conception of Justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of social contract as found, say in Locke, Rousseau and Kant”.
Rawls has not used the social contract in its original form or the entire concept. But he adopts only some relevant portions for the analysis of justice as fairness. John Rawls is the pro-pounder of the Justice Theory and he has said that certain aspects of social contract may serve his purpose.
“The guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the objects of the original agreement”. Rawls has assumed that the architects of the contract were “free and rational” persons.
They started their activities from an original position and in that position all were equal. That is the starting point. After that they began to decide principles and formulate policies for further steps and actions.
The main purpose is that all the future actions must be taken in a manner so that none will be in a disadvantageous position. That is, no one will suffer injustice. Rawls wants to say that at the initial position people will decide certain principles which may be called fundamental principles and these will “regulate all further agreements.”
Rawls is sure that in this way justice can be established in society. To use his language; “This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness”. Even Dr. Amartya Sen supports the approach (justice through social contract).
He says in his The Idea of Justice; “Even though the social contract approach to justice initiated by Hobbes combines transcendentalism with institutionalism, it is worth noting that the two features need not necessarily be combined”.
Rawls further observes; In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not thought as an actual historical state of affairs. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to certain conception of justice”.
Rawls also refers to state of nature on another ground and it is “veil of ignorance.”
He says that the state of nature can be regarded as embodiment of “veil of ignorance” because the residents of state of nature had no clear idea of contract, civil society, government administration etc.
Naturally, it was quite easy for the architects of contract to start from a position. One very powerful plus point is when the builders of the contract started from state of nature there did not arise any question of advantage or disadvantage.
“The Rawlsian contract is a hypothetical contract, but with a difference…. Rawls’s innovation has been to adapt contract theory to the problem of conflicting interests. To resolve conflicting interests in a way that adequately protects the interests of all is to ensure justice. Hence Rawls’s contract theory is a theory of justice”.
Robert Nozick in his Anarchy State and Utopia has wholeheartedly supported Rawls idea of justice based on contract. But he has advanced a step. Nozick feels that for the proper realization of justice at first what is required is institutionalization of society and, to achieve this end, a scheme like contract is essential.
All these clearly reveal that a theory which was first imagined several centuries ago has found its revival and this revival is quite interesting.