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Social Contract Theory: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau


The Social Contract Theory is an old theory. The theory is of the view that individuals’ moral and political views depend on an agreement or a contract between them to establish a society. It is linked with the morality and politics theories. The theory has been defended by people like Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.

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The theory goes on to say that a society can only exist if there are guarantees that the members will not cause harm to each other and this is only possible if the members are able to rely on each other that they will keep the agreement. The Social Contract Theory urges that for morality to exist there must be rules in a society to govern behavior. For a government to be acceptable to the people it must involve the people. The discussion in this paper will look at Hobbes’s, Locke’s and Rousseau’s Social Contract Theories and finally compare the theories.

Hobbes Theory

Hobbes states that for the society to be peaceful, human beings must be governed because if left to the natural law they would harm each other. This is because they would do what they think is best and harm each other as this would result to anarchy or war (Friend 2006:1). Thus Hobbes states that human beings can only live in peace if they have a subject to a sovereign (Hampton 1986:6). This is because in the absence of a political authority human beings would live in the state of nature and harm each other. Hobbes believed that the only way to make people observe the laws was by having a government that rules without consent. This conception was published in Elements of Law (Hampton 1986:6).

Hobbes justified political obligation because human beings are by nature self-interested and because they are rational they would agree to submit to an absolute sovereign authority so that they can live in a society that is orderly. As a result the human beings had to draw a social contract that would offer them a better life than the one available in a state of nature (Friend 2006:1). There is a relationship between the individual and society and according to Hobbes the government should have an upper hand.

John Locke’s Theory

John Locke had different ideas about the state of nature form the ones held by Hobbes. Locke in his social contract theory says that human beings have a right to revolt if the governments or kings are oppressive or do not serve the purpose fro which they were created (Landry 2007:1).

In his writing Two Treatises on Government he refutes that political authority should be derived from the religious authority which was based on the Divine Right of Kings which Hobbes believed in (Friend 2006:1).

Locke views the need of a government in society as stemming from a need to advance peace in the society in an effective manner. According to Locke the civil government should never extend their power beyond the common good. It should not have absolute power over the people because the power should not be greater than that in the state of nature. This is because nobody should have “an absolute arbitrary power” (Landry 2006:1). It would be dangerous to leave or put absolute power in an individual because this would make the society a prey in the individual’s hands as they would disarm themselves; lose their right to defend themselves (Locke).

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The government has a right to tax the society to be able to offer protection to the people but not overtax the people because this would amount violating “the fundamental law of property” (Landry 2006:1) and should have the consent of the people when it comes to taxation (Locke). The relationship between the government and the individual should be symbiotic because both depend on each other, individuals to pay taxes and the government to offer protection.

Rousseau’s theory

Rousseau came up with two social contract theories: the Second Discourse and Normative social contracts. In the second Discourse he explains how man moved from the state of nature into the civil society. According to him people in the state of nature lived peaceful lives. Their lives were uncomplicated and they led solitary lives (Friend 2006:1). Their needs were met easily by the abundant resources in nature. They had morals and thus did not harm each other (Social Contract theory n.d).

Later the population increased; resources started to become scarce and the people started to live together. Later there was the creation of the concept of private property. This had a major impact in the human history that changed the society from a simple one to a complicated one that was now full of vice e.g. greed (Rousseau 2005:13). This led to the need of a government it was contracted to protect all. Rousseau urges that this social contract led to development of competition and conflict that bedevils the modern society (Rousseau 2005:21-26).

Rousseau’s normative social contract was developed to correct the problems created in the society. It would do so by looking at history and identify the causes of problems and tackle them by how we ought to in the society. The contract has the famous quote “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” (Friend 2006:1). Therefore the human beings should not be forced to work for others due to the economic inequalities in the society. This implies that the collective bodies act for the good of all in society and the individuals in society act for the good of the whole society.

He advocated for democracy in the society. This means that all individuals in the society would agree upon coming together how the society would be governed. For instance they would agree on the laws to guide the society. We would have democratic principles that are good for the individuals as well as the society at large (Friend 2006:1).


The three theories agree that human beings are equal by nature and therefore no one has a right to control others unless there is a collective agreement to give authority to an individual or individuals to govern.

On the other hand the theories have divergent views. Hobbes believes that the government should have absolute authority over the people it governs while Locke and Rousseau urge that the government should govern as long as it does not infringe on the liberty of the people. This means that the laws drawn in society should be agreed by all.

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Hobbes believed the social contracts were created because man wanted to escape the brutal society in the state of nature while Locke says the need was to improve the society in terms of peace and security though it was there in the state of nature due the natural law. Rousseau on the other hand believed the need was to restore freedom to the human beings in fact he says that human beings should be forced to be free. And this is done through the laws that govern people and define their character (Friend 2006:1).

Implications of social contract theories for relations between the government and the individual

Social contract theories have implications. The society has to from governments through contracts that every member of the society agree to become party to. This is very vital for any society to survive. There must be the protection of lives and property hence the need for police forces in countries to enforce the law against murder, theft assault etc. (Social Contract theory n.d). However, the police should not harm or intimidate civilians through orders of those in power. On the other hand the individual should obey the law of the land so that there can be order in the society for them to pursue their needs (Social Contract theory n.d).

The social contract theories have laid the foundations for the political institutions in the society today by providing the notion of morals. This requires the leaders to be responsible and to take political responsibility when they err e.g. resignation.

The theories influence our ideas on our grasp of politics. From the idea of contract in the social contract theories help us to understand the relationship between the rulers and the members of the governed in terms responsibilities, duties and rights of the contracting parties. Further more we are able to understand the notion of political representations that forms the basis of modern democracy (Kovacic 2000:1).

The theorists of the contracts give us ideas about human nature, social activities that bring about conflicts and cooperation. These ideas have been used in tackling challenges that plague the modern public administration e.g. identity and professionalism, building consensus between ideals and shared values and ensuring there is ethical practice with minimum external policing


The social contract theories are very important in the way we look at society. They can be seen in the various societies around the world. The social contract theories should be used for the good of all in the society. The governments put in place should treat all human beings fairly and equally for example; fair trials and protection when they are taken to courts. The governments should practice democracy to ensure that the human rights and freedoms are given to the people. When this is done cases of human torture, illegal arrests, assassinations of crusaders of human rights by governments will reduce or be prevented altogether.

On the other hand the Hobbes argument that the governments should have absolute power is dangerous. This would lead to a situation whereby the individuals in a society cannot speak against governments that are not serving their interests. This is because the government would use its resources and machinery to silence or intimidate such individuals with fear. Hence the society would be filled with fear and the people would not be able to enjoy freedom.


Friend, C 2006 Social Contract Theory. Web.

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Hampton, J. 1986 Hobbes and the social contract tradition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kovacic, G. 2001 Philosophical, Political and Moral implications of Social Contract theories. Web.

Landry, P 2006 John Locke (1632-1704): “The Philosopher of Freedom.” Web.

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

Narveson. 1988, The Libertarian Idea, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rousseau, JJ 2005. A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind LLC: NuVisions Publications.

Silvers, Anita, and Francis, Leslie Pickering. 2005, “Justice Through Trust: Disability and the ‘Outlier Problem’ in Social Contract Theory”, Ethics, 116/1: 40–76.

Social Contract theory. Web.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Social Contract Theory: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau." October 27, 2021.


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