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Social contract theory refers to the concept of people living together in the society in
accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. Some
people were of the opinion that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally
by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it. Over the centuries, philosophers
like Socrates, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, and John Locke have
attempted to shape the ideal social contract, and further explain the process of evolution of the
Social Contract.1 The theory of social contract, postulates that initially there existed a state of
nature, which was the original condition of the mankind. A social contract was deliberately and
voluntarily made, as the means of escape therefrom. Some political thinkers regarded the state
of nature as pre- social, while others regarded it as pre- political. The state of nature was
essentially, antecedent to the institution of the government. This institution has played a
significant role in the formation of the modern democratic society.

Such contracts can be of two forms, explicit as well as implicit. An explicit contract can be
exampled by the various laws that are followed by the citizens of a state, on the other hand, a
common example of an implicit contract would be raising one’s hand in class to speak. Another
illustration to clearly differentiate between explicit and implicit contracts would be the U.S.
Constitution. It is often cited as an explicit part of America’s social contract. It outlines what
the government can and cannot do. People who choose to live in America agree to be governed
by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution’s social contract. However,
it must be noted that regardless of whether social contracts are explicit or implicit, they provide
a valuable framework for harmony in society.2

The idea of contractarianism, can be said to have been birthed from this theory. It is basically
described as a shared agreement that are free and rational in nature. The contract agreed on by
the people, we trade in certain freedoms in exchange of various benefits that come out of
cooperative living.

The concept of social contract theory essentially suggests that in the beginning man lived in
the state of nature. They had no government and there was no law to regulate them. There were

Social Contract Theory, Ethics Unwrapped,

hardships and oppressions on the sections of the society. To overcome from these hardship,
they entered into 2 agreements:

 Pactum Unionis
 Pactum Subjectionis

The former one sought to protect their lives and property. As a result, a society was formed
which undertook to respect each other and live in peace and harmony. The later one united
people together and pledged to obey an authority and surrendered the whole or part of their
freedom and rights to an authority. In turn this authority would guarantee everyone protection
of life, property and to a certain extent liberty. Thus, the people agreed to establish a society
by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in the State
of Nature and they must imbue some one person or assembly of persons with authority and
power to enforce the initial contract. Thus, the authority or the government or the sovereign or
the state came into being because of the two agreements.

Hobbes and Locke were some of the biggest proponents of the Social Contract Theory.
However, both the political philosophers had slightly different approaches to the Contract
theory. In the upcoming paragraphs we will study John Locke’s approach to the theory, its
significance and how it was influenced by political scenarios during their lifetime.


While Hobbes championed absolute sovereignty of the monarch, John Locke, another English
political thinker, espoused the cause of limited monarch in England. His theory was a
justification of the revolution of 1688, and the disposition of James II. Through his writings,
he defended the ultimate right of the people to depose the monarch from his authority if he
deprived them of their “liberties and properties”. Civil power, according to Locke, is based
upon consent. He referred to his state of nature as the ‘Golden Age’.

For John Locke, 1632-1704, the State of Nature is a very different type of place, and so his
argument concerning the social contract and the nature of men's relationship to authority are
consequently quite different. While Locke uses Hobbes’ methodological device of the State of
Nature, as do virtually all social contract theorists, he uses it to a quite different end. Locke’s
arguments for the social contract, and for the right of citizens to revolt against their king were
enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas
Jefferson, and the founders of the United States.

Locke's most important and influential political writings are contained in his Two Treatises on
Government3 originally published in 1689. The first treatise is concerned almost exclusively
with refuting the argument of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha4, that political authority was derived
from religious authority, also known by the description of the Divine Right of Kings, which
was a very prevailing hypothesis in seventeenth-century England. The second treatise contains
Locke’s own constructive view of the aims and justification for civil government, and is titled
"An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government".

According to Locke, the State of Nature, the natural condition of mankind, is a state of perfect
and complete liberty to conduct one's life as one best sees fit, free from the interference of
others. This does not mean, however, that it is a state of license: one is not free to do anything
at all one wants, or even anything that one judges to be in one’s interest. The State of Nature,
although a state wherein there is no civil authority to punish people for transgression against
laws, is not a state without morality. The State of Nature is pre-political, but it is not pre-moral.
Persons are assumed to be equal to one another in such a state, and therefore equally capable
of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature. The Law of Nature, which is on Locke’s
view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1689.
Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, Yale University Press (2003).

regards to their "life, health, liberty, or possessions".5 Because we all belong equally to God,
and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming
one another. So, the State of Nature is a State of Liberty where persons are free to pursue their
own interests and plans, free from interference, and, because of the Law of Nature and the
restrictions that it imposes upon persons, it is relatively peaceful. The State of Nature therefore,
is not the same as the state of war, as it is according to Hobbes in his book Leviathan.6 It can,
however devolve into a state of war, in particular, a state of war over property disputes.
Whereas the State of Nature is the State of Liberty where persons recognize the Law of Nature
and therefore do not harm one another, the state of war begins between two or more men, once
one man declares war on another, by stealing from him, or by trying to make him his slave.
Since in the State of Nature there is no civil power to whom men can appeal, and since the Law
of Nature allows them to defend their own lives, they may then kill those who would bring
force against them. Since the State of Nature lacks civil authority, once war begins it is likely
to continue. And this is one of the strongest reasons that men have to abandon the State of
Nature by contracting together to form civil government.

Property plays an essential role in Locke's argument for civil government and the contract that
establishes it. According to Locke, private property is created when a person mixes his labor
with the raw materials of nature. So, for example, when one tills a piece of land in nature, and
makes it into a piece of farmland, which produces crops and grains, then one has a claim to
own that piece of land and the food produced upon it. (This led Locke to conclude that America
didn’t really belong to the natives who lived there, because they were, in his opinion, failing to
utilize the basic material of nature. In other words, they didn’t farm it, so they had no legitimate
claim to it, and others could therefore justifiably appropriate it). Given the implications of the
Law of Nature, there are limits as to how much property one can own: one is not allowed to
take more from nature than one can use, thereby leaving others without enough for themselves.
Because nature is given to all of mankind by God for its common subsistence, one cannot take
more than his own fair share. Property is the linchpin of Locke’s argument for the social
contract and civil government because it is the protection of their property, including their
property in their own bodies, that men seek when they decide to abandon the State of Nature.

John Locke, para.6, Chapter II-Of the State of Nature, Essay 2, Two Treatises of Government, 1689.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil,

Hence, he considered property in the State of Nature to be insecure because of three conditions;
they are:

1. Absence of established law

2. Absence of impartial Judge
3. Absence of natural power to execute natural laws

Thus, in such a State of Nature, the need of the hour was to protect their property and for the
purpose of protection of their property, men entered into the Social Contract. Under the
contract, man did not surrender all his rights to one single individual, but they surrendered only
the right to maintain order and enforce the law. The individuals retained other rights like
right to life, liberty and estate because these rights were considered natural and inalienable
rights of men.

According to Locke, the State of Nature is not a condition of individuals, as it is for Hobbes.
Rather, it is populated by mothers and fathers with their children, or families - what he calls
"conjugal society".7 These societies are based on the voluntary agreements to care for children
together, and they are moral but not political. Political society comes into being when
individual men, representing their families, come together in the State of Nature and agree to
each give up the executive power to punish those who transgress the Law of Nature, and hand
over that power to the public power of a government. Having done this, they then become
subject to the will of the majority. In other words, by making a compact to leave the State of
Nature and form society, they make “one body politic under one government”8 and submit
themselves to the will of that body. One joins such a body, either from its beginnings, or after
it has already been established by others, only by explicit consent. Having created a political
society and government through their consent, men then gain three things which they lacked in
the State of Nature: laws, judges to adjudicate laws, and the executive power necessary to
enforce these laws. Each man therefore gives over the power to protect himself and punish
transgressors of the Law of Nature to the government that he has created through the compact.

John Locke, para.78, Chapter VII-Of Political or Civil Society, Essay 2, Two Treatises of Government, 1689.
John Locke, para.97, Chapter VIII Of the Beginning of Political Societies, Essay 2, Two Treatises of
Government, 1689.

Given that the end of "men's uniting into common-wealths"9 is the preservation of their wealth,
and preserving their lives, liberty, and well-being in general, Locke can easily imagine the
conditions under which the compact with government is destroyed, and men are justified in
resisting the authority of a civil government, such as a King. When the executive power of a
government devolves into tyranny, such as by dissolving the legislature and therefore denying
the people the ability to make laws for their own preservation, then the resulting tyrant puts
himself into a State of Nature, and specifically into a state of war with the people, and they
then have the same right to self-defense as they had before making a compact to establish
society in the first place. In other words, the justification of the authority of the executive
component of government is the protection of the people’s property and well-being, so when
such protection is no longer present, or when the king becomes a tyrant and acts against the
interests of the people, they have a right, if not an outright obligation, to resist his authority.
The social compact can be dissolved and the process to create political society begun anew.

Because Locke did not envision the State of Nature as grimly as did Hobbes, he can imagine
conditions under which one would be better off rejecting a particular civil government.

John Locke, para.78, Chapter IX-Of the Ends of Political Society and Government, Essay 2, Two Treatises of
Government, 1689.


1. Hobbes’s theory of Social Contract promotes absolute sovereign without giving any
value to individuals, while Locke supports individual over the state or the government.
2. Hobbes tells that State can do no wrong, i.e., whatever the state does is just. All of
society is a direct creation of the state, and a reflection of the will of the ruler. Whereas,
to Locke, the only important role of the state is to ensure that justice is seen to be done.
3. Hobbes asserts that men are necessarily at war, if they are not subjected to a common
power of their rights and freedoms. On the other hand, Locke believes that the state
exists to preserve and protect the natural rights of its citizens. When governments fail
in that task, citizens have the right and sometimes the duty to withdraw their support
and even to rebel and go on strike thus exercising their fundamental rights of speech
and expression.
4. Hobbes is of the opinion that the sovereign and the government are identical. Locke on
the contrary does not make any such distinction.


On a concluding note, Locke differed from Hobbes insofar as he described the state of nature
as one in which the Right to Life and Property were generally recognized under Natural Law,
the inconveniences of the situation arising from insecurity in the enforcement of those rights.
He therefore argued that the obligation to obey civil government under the social contract was
conditional upon the protection not only of the person but also of private property. If a
sovereign violated these terms, he could be justifiably overthrown.

Hobbes concept of absolutism is totally a vague concept in present scenario. Democracy is the
need and examples may be taken from our own country and other democratic nations.
According to Hobbes, the sovereign should have absolute authority. This is against the concept
of Rule of Law because absolute power in one authority leads to arbitrariness. Rule of Law is
considered to be part of the basic structure and hence cannot be violated. It was clearly laid
down in the dissenting judgment of Jus. H.R.Khanna in the case of ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant

Locke also talks about laissez-faire, the concept where the private parties are free from
government intervention. Hence, Locke’s concept of laissez-faire is not of welfare oriented.
Now in present scenario, every state undertake steps to form a welfare state.

Locke’s concept of State of Nature is vague as any conflict with regard to property always
leads to havoc in any society. Hence, there cannot be a society in peace if they have been
conflict with regard to property. And also the fact that Right to Property was removed from
being a fundamental right and being made merely a constitutional right, adds on to the ppint
made by Locke.

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Books  Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, Pg. 5-7
Cambridge University Press, 1988
 A C Kapur, Principles of Political Science, (S. Chand)
 Dr. S. R. Myneni, Political Science for Law Students (S Chand)
Websites  Social Contract Theory, Ethics Unwrapped,
Research  Frederick C. Gamst, Anthropology of Work Review, Volume 12, Issue
Articles 3, pages 19–25, September 1991
 Hoffmann, Bert. "The International Dimensions of Authoritarian
Legitimation: The Impact of Regime Evolution." GIGA Research
Programme: Legitimacy and Efficiency of Political Systems, December
 Nertil Bërdufi & Desara Dushi, Social Contract and the Governments
Legitimacy, Vol 6 No 6 S1, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences,
392-398 (Nov 2015)
JO12/BSMT/U008, February 2015

Internet  Manzoor Elahi, ‘What is Social Contract Theory?’, Sophia Project

Articles Philosophical Archives,
GLOBAL CONTEXT, 9 OCT 2012, http://www.e-

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