social contract(redirected from Contractarian ethics)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical.
social contract,agreement or covenant by which men are said to have abandoned the "state of nature" to form the society in which they now live. The theory of such a contract, first formulated by the English philosophers Thomas HobbesHobbes, Thomas
, 1588–1679, English philosopher, grad. Magdalen College, Oxford, 1608. For many years a tutor in the Cavendish family, Hobbes took great interest in mathematics, physics, and the contemporary rationalism.
..... Click the link for more information. (in the Leviathan, 1651) and John LockeLocke, John
, 1632–1704, English philosopher, founder of British empiricism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to freedom of conscience and right to property, in his faith in science, and in his confidence in the goodness of
..... Click the link for more information. , assumes that men at first lived in a state of anarchy in which there was no society, no government, and no organized coercion of the individual by the group. Hobbes maintained that by the social contract men had surrendered their natural liberties in order to enjoy the order and safety of the organized state. Locke made the social contract the basis of his advocacy of popular sovereignty, the idea that the monarch or government must reflect the will of the people. Like Locke, the French philosopher Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works
Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
..... Click the link for more information. , in Le Contrat social (1762), found the general will a means of establishing reciprocal rights and duties, privileges, and responsibilities as a basis of the state. Similar ideas were used as a justification for both the American and the French revolutions in the 18th cent. Thomas JeffersonJefferson, Thomas,
1743–1826, 3d President of the United States (1801–9), author of the Declaration of Independence, and apostle of agrarian democracy. Early Life
Jefferson was born on Apr. 13, 1743, at "Shadwell," in Goochland (now in Albemarle) co.
..... Click the link for more information. held that the preservation of certain natural rights was an essential part of the social contract, and that "consent of the governed" was fundamental to any exercise of governmental power. Although historically important, the theory as a basis of society and the state has generally been discarded by modern social and political scientists.
See E. Barker, Social Contract (1948, repr. 1962); J. W. Gough, The Social Contract (2d ed. 1957); A. Cobban, Rousseau and the Modern State (2d ed. 1964); L. G. Crocker, Rousseau's Social Contract (1968); P. J. Mccormick, Social Contract and Political Obligation (1987).
a philosophical and juridical doctrine that explains the origin of state power as an agreement among people compelled to move from the insecurity of the “state of nature” to a civil state. The first formulation of the social contract was made by Epicurus and his follower Lucretius Carus.
A new era in the history of the theory of the social contract (the contract theory of the origin of the state) was linked to the development of bourgeois relations in Western Europe. The theory served as the ideological foundation of the struggle against the absolutist feudal monarchy, providing a critique of feudal institutions and ideology. In contrast to those who supported the doctrine of the divine origin of power, without limitation or responsibility, the adherents of the social contract theory asserted on the basis of natural law that the state, formed by the will of free and independent individuals, was obligated to ensure the observance of those individuals’ inalienable rights. The father of the new doctrine of the social contract is considered to be H. Grotius.
As the theory developed, it was given various interpretations —from the conservative interpretation of T. Hobbes to the revolutionary-democratic interpretation of J.-J. Rousseau. B. Spinoza and J. Locke provided other elaborations of the social contract. Locke, for example, rejected the idea of the “state of nature” of Hobbes, believing that society prior to the state is one of freedom and equality of individuals, and that the compact which individuals subsequently conclude with the state has the purpose of securing, not alienating, their “natural rights.” Locke’s interpretation made the theory of the social contract the legal foundation of constitutional monarchy.
The most radical conception of the social contract was developed by Rousseau in The Social Contract. Rousseau not only criticized the institutions of the feudal state and law, he rejected the system of feudalism as a whole and called for the entire existing system to change. He believed that inasmuch as the state arises on the basis of the social contract, the citizens have a right to dissolve this contract in the event of abuses by the regime. Rousseau’s doctrine served as the basis of the political and practical activity of the Jacobins.
Although the theory of the social contract had progressive import, on the whole it reflected the needs of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois society, which were establishing themselves. F. Engels wrote that a state based on Rousseau’s social contract could not become anything other than “the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie”; that type of state “came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 17). V. I. Lenin regarded the idea of the social contract as the fullest expression of the mistaken notions of pre-Marxist political thought on the state. A genuinely scientific doctrine of the origin and nature of the state was created by K. Marx, F. Engels, and V. I. Lenin, who pointed out that the state arises at a certain historical stage of development of society in connection with the formation of classes. They emphasized that in the final analysis, the state is conditioned by the nature of production relations.
In varying versions, the idea of the social contract was developed by J. Lilburne and J. Milton in Great Britain, I. Kant and J. Fichte in Germany, and T. Paine in America. The idea of the social contract underlies the political view of A. N. Radishchev. It influenced the political world view of the Decembrists (the document Russkaia Pravda, drawn up by P. Pestel’, contains a democratic treatment of the ideas of the social contract).