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Social Contract Theory: Individual-State Relations


Social Contract theory is based on the principles of political philosophy described in a number of theories of well known thinkers, such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Political philosophers managed to present the key assumption through the freedom and priority of individuals underlining the motivations of human behavior. Theoretical studies are based on the idea of human equality; the thinkers used to reject the nature of privileges and power of aristocrats and monarchs.

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It is necessary to underline the fact that the paper will investigate the influential ideas of equality and freedom as well as expecting the government to serve the community interests being reflected in the theories of social contract by Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke.

Thomas Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory

According to the great thinker, Thomas Hobbes, all the people who live in the state of nature, have no power over them, and as a result are in the condition of interpersonal war; Hobbes defined the war as the desire to fight rather than actual fighting itself. According to the argument expressed by Hobbes, the state of war experienced by humanity is the result of three basic principles: fear, competition and glory.

He stated that such war brought constant losses to individuals explaining it through the loss of culture, time, morality and society because of the constant state of willingness to fight. According to his theory, social contracts are aimed at lives improvement and laws and morals setting. His ‘state of nature’ is disturbed by social contract which is full of laws and regulations; Hobbes underlined the concept of ‘rulebase’ absence and presence in the human mind identifying it as a set of values.

Thomas Hobbes stressed that human life can be brutish, nasty and short in case of political authority absence. Living in the state of nature would result in the ‘war of all against all’ providing threat to people’s self-preservation. It should be stressed that the thinker was focused on the political community establishment, identifying it as civil society, gaining civil rights as a result of human subjecting to political authority or civil law. The philosopher highlighted the significance of social contract having absolute government which never rules by consent; this idea was considered to be the unique way of binding rules creation for people competing with each other as to the justice conception. (Morris, 67)

Hobbes stated that people are to grant authority to the state for the purpose of state of nature avoid. Hobbes’ conception of ideal state lies in human attempts to achieve their desires through the most effective means. His notion of ‘absolutism’ was disclosed through the state with total authority; the total ruler gets the power from people rather than from God. There can be only one sovereign in Hobbes’ state who is to hold the power. (Heywood, 2004)

John Locke’s Theory of Social Contract

The Social Contract theory described by John Locke preserved the idea that the state of nature reached by the humanity would lead to the state creation. The thinker expressed his belief in the strong moral limits due to the state of nature, though in accordance with his conception people will live in constant fear of each other. He noted that individuals would come to an agreement as to created state providing a ’neutral judge’ and protecting their liberty, lives and material possessions of people living within it. Locke stressed the idea that the group of people acting together would always act in the right way.

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Locke identified the moral law as a part of state of nature which can be never broken by people. The government has to protect human property rights as the moral law sustaining would compulsory result in social instability. The thinker’s social government proposal is considered to make a realistic doctrine; his relationships between state and the people are consistent with the theory of social contract. It is necessary to underline the fact that Locke illustrated individuals living in the isolated existence. Labor, property and production are prior to the time entered by the individuals in the relationships with any noble savage.

The person’s identity is always assured in accordance with the social membership; the philosopher expressed contracts as well as relationships in the society are considered to be accidental to any individual. He noted that people could theoretically structure their relationships between each other and different objects. (Kline, 66)

John Locke introduced the concept of ‘natural rights’ consisting of property, liberty and life; individuals strive not to infringe over others’ rights through giving up their own liberties. Locke’s ideal government is the one providing people with a great amount of freedom; in accordance with his social contract theory, the government being unable to uphold the citizens’ natural right, is to be overthrown for the purpose of a new government establishment. (Morris, 99)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Social Contract Theory

Rousseau strived to identify the level of human corruption caused by the society; he noted, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’. (Rousseau, 105). He stressed that people must recognize the concept of ‘general will’, which is aimed at public interest or common good representation. According to his theoretical study all the people of the society are to take part in the general good, even being in the state of personal interests’ rejection. So, people should support a definite political party proposing a heavy taxation in case this method can be beneficial to everyone. His illustration of the perfect individual is disclosed through the common good, rather than personal interests to come first.

It is necessary to underline the fact that Rousseau expressed his firm belief in equality, liberty and fraternity under the influence of French Revolution (1789-1799). Being in the state of nature means the absence of any property and people are considered to be equal and free. According to his considerations, the only inequality is a physical one being the result of human natural distinctions. The struggle between social classes is based on private property.

The thinker sticks to the point that there is only one key law demanding unanimous consent. It is necessary to stress that Rousseau criticized the existence of surpluses and luxury in the society. His general will is concentrated on the public contract will; it is the general will that forms the laws in the state; in accordance with his theory, the will is disclosed by means of current norms and principles. The principle base is considered to be liberalism, though the system can not be regarded as the perfect one, as the freedom perception is mistakable. Rousseau stated that people could be free only in the process of Parliament election, after its election – people are true slaves. (Lessnoff, 1990)

Critical Analysis of the Thinkers’ Theoretical Studies

The theory of the social contract described by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau appeared to have a quite different presentation of human position as to the state and law. The philosophers managed to disclose individual vision of the people’s position in the society under the influence of time and national factors. Their theories managed to demonstrate the social contract theory as the agreement between the state and its people in the atmosphere of human liberties rejection for the purpose of rights protection and security. Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau managed to represent their vision of government system, natural state and humankind’s development issues.

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In accordance with Locke’s theory of social contract, people can retain the right to liberty and freedom as well as just and property protection through the social contract. He stressed that the power should be compulsory controlled and people can easily overcome the government. Comparing to Hobbes, the power is not perceived as an obligatory element, while Hobbes disclosed it through its positive influence, as good and evil and lawful and unlawful are considered to be both commands and will of the government.

Hobbes’ theory stressed the unavailability of liberal movements. It is necessary to underline the fact that Hobbes’ theory have very much in common with fascism, rather than with the theory of Locke; it can be explained by the fact that Hobbes demonstrated that people live in the state of constant war through their equality; individuals can kill each other having equal mental capacities, though their equal vain did not allow them seeing mental equality. (Hobbes, 2007)

Locke’s moral law disclosed through reasoning is illustrated as the principle component of the state of nature. Hobbes’ theory was the antithesis of the Locke’s considerations; he believed in human evil inherited by nature; the condition of nature is presented by Locke and Hobbes in different ways. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau stressed that people were good inherited by nature, though they were corrupted by the society they live in. Rousseau disclosed the idea of an ideal state where people give up their property, forces and freedom for the benefits of the society, receiving in exchange equality, civil freedom and authority and protection. He stressed that the ideal society and state are almost unattainable.

Comparative analysis of the three theories managed to underline one common aspect in their representation: all the thinkers express no belief in the church power and its role in the successful government organization. The thinkers stressed that the power of the king did not come from the God; the king was never perceived as the element of divine power.

The thinkers also expressed the state as a derivable from contraption presenting this derivation in different forms; Hobbes stated government as a Leviathan dictator, while Locke reflected the state through democratic principles surpassing the contractarianism legalism, as to Rousseau, he described the state as the one indicating minor forcing incongruities which dissent the members to be completely free.

Theoretical analysis has demonstrated similarities and differences in the way of social contract presentation by three great thinkers. The theories reflected by Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau appeared to show various visions of the human-government relationships through the basic thinkers’ values significance. (Heywood, 2004)


The Social Contract Theory was reflected by a number of great thinkers contributing to the sphere of philosophy and sociology; the analysis of the theoretical studies by Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes helped to compare their vision and manner of state and society presentation. It is important to underline the fact that the study of the social contract provided with a certain level of philosophical experience involving into the world of well known thinkers’ theories.

Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau disclosed the vision of the state of nature, its interrelation with the social life and governmental attitude. The analysis of the social contract theory helped to evaluate the thinker’s worldview and contribution to modern theoretical study.

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Cohen, J. and Arato, A. Civil Society and Political Theory. MIT Press, 1994.

Heywood, A. Political Theory: An Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan; 3rd Edition, 2004.

Hobbes, Th. Leviathan. Wilder Publications, 2007.

Kline, D. Dominion and Wealth: A critical Analysis of Karl Marx’ Theory of Commercial Law. Springer, 2001.

Lessnoff, M. Social Contract Theory. New York University Press, 1990.

Morris, Ch. The Social Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Rousseau, J. J. The Scoail Contract. Penguin Classics, 1968.

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