Kassandra Learn: What is the Social Contract? (Part 1)

Kassandra Learn: Detail of the cover to Hobbes’ Leviathan comprised of a woodcut depicting a monarch or supreme ruler, crowned and wielding a sword and crozier, whose body looms over the landscape and is composed of thousands of individual citizens or subjects.

In essence, the concept of a “social contract” might seem self explanatory. The generally agreed modern concept is an “agreement among citizens to behave in a way that benefits everybody that forms the basis of society”. However, getting to this simple idea took hundreds of years of theory, revolution, and effort, and modern innovations in thinking and technology mean that our understanding is still changing even today.

This brief look back over the various theories of the social contract, between individual people and society as a whole, will help us to understand our needs and obligations to each other. We will look at the comparisons between a world before such contracts to show the differences (good and bad) in the development of new social obligations.

These needs and obligations can be expressed in different ways, whether as informal as feeling an emotional or social need to reciprocate good or bad deeds done to us, or as formal as documents like a marriage certificate, a work contract, or (as we will investigate) through the currencies we use.

No matter how we approach the Social Contract, we need to be aware of what the world would look like without social agreements, big or small, formal or informal.

Consider a world where people cannot reason and cannot make agreements among each other. The comparison here was the considered difference between humans and other animals*.

In essence, in order to develop security for people’s individual lives and property (pactum unionis), people must agree to an arrangement where they sacrifice individual liberties and freedoms to each other and a larger state (pactum subjectionis).

The interplay and balance between these two agreements, these two needs, defines how societies function, from the individual all the way up to federal governments or the most powerful dictator.

Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau

We’re going to explore the ideas produced by three people whose ideas shaped the modern world and the political systems that underpin modern democracies: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

Between individual people, you may have heard the saying that “Your right to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.” But then, if someone smacks you in the nose, who can you appeal to? Who has the authority to decide matters of security, law, and finance?

For Hobbes, as we’re about to see, that authority was solely invested in one person: the “King”. Locke and Rousseau’s idea return the power to the people and the individual, distributing liberty as an natural right of all people to participate in shaping their society.

For the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who originated the term “the Social Contract” in his 1651 book Leviathan, the answer was simple. To avoid a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short” where human self-interest would be the cause of violence and pain, Hobbes considered the need for an ultimate authority, a “monarch” or king to whom people surrendered their personal rights and freedoms in order to guarantee security of life and property. In other words, “Might makes right.”

Robert Locke’s idea of both the State of Nature and the ultimate authority were less dismal. In his 1689 work Two Treatises of Governments, Locke saw the age before rules as one of individual liberty rather than individual self-interest and that our rights arose out of the need to govern property and establish contracts.

A person’s private property or goods are their reward for labour and raw materials, and the Social Contract develops out of a need to protect what you are entitled to from those who would want to take it from you.

In that case, people had to develop laws and compromise on personal rights so that these laws could be enforced for the benefit of all. Order is maintained, not be a monarch or single authority, but through the common consent of all people in a society or a group.

This compromise means you wouldn’t necessarily sacrifice all rights but enter into an agreement with the government to allow for the establishment of the rule of law. Locke’s three fundamental rights of all people will sound quite familiar to us: “life, liberty, and property”.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau builds on Locke’s rosier picture of the state of nature but has a more pessimistic one about property. In his 1762 book aptly titled The Social Contract, Rousseau saw the state of nature as one of happiness and equality, and the development of personal property as a “fall from grace”.

However, he also saw the practicalities in our real world and perceived the state of nature as more hypothetical. We live in a world of law and property, so we need to understand the compromises we make when we interact in the real world.

We compromise on our rights to the “general will” and that collective will gives the state the ability to enforce the generally agreed rules and principles to best guarantee rights, liberties, freedom, and equality in the world we inhabit.

An important idea here is that a government that does not govern according to the general will of the people is one that would eventually be discarded in favor of new systems that do govern in the best interests of the people. Sovereignty was returned to the people in as democratic a manner possible.

The tension for Rousseau then is not between individuals who act rightly in their best self and collective interest but between individual liberty and the negotiated power ceded to the State to look after those interests. Financial, security, liberty, safety, property, all of these were areas where the State should govern to encourage the will of the collective people.

You can see how systems could then develop where a State that is not acting in the best interest of the citizens would do everything possible to bargain, withhold, negotiate, and even coerce citizens to prevent being discarded.

What next?

Now that we have our primer, we’re ready to think about how we can apply the theory of the Social Contract to other areas of our lives. We can consider how to enhance or compromise on our personal liberties, and make individual choices about how we do so. We can consider our own personal freedoms and how we interact with other people’s personal freedoms on a day-to-day basis and we can consider some systems or tools available to us to help us take more or less control over our own lives and property.

In What is the Social Contract? (Part 2), we will begin to explore how our modern society conforms to the contracts we make and how new developments and innovations may be able to help update and improve how we interact and relate to each other via our formal and informal social contracts.

*Despite mounting evidence of informal agreements among certain species (like non-human primates, dolphins, and even ravens and rats) for the purposes of the concept of the Social Contract, we consider the ability to make rational agreements a hallmark of humanity.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Crypto trading reimagined. One account. One address. One interface. All trades