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Professor Ralf Jenne

Social Contract Theories


In general, social contract
theories insist that the legitimacy
of government depends on the
consent of the people.
Social contract theories also
provide arguments for the origin
and nature of morality.
Influential social contract
theories were developed by
Thomas Hobbes and John
Locke.

Social Contract Theories


and Moral Perspectives
The social contract theory
developed by Thomas Hobbes
drives the (modern) moral theory
of Contractarianism.
The social contract theory
developed by John Locke drives
the (modern) moral theory of
Natural Rights Ethics.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1678)
developed a social contract
theory that legitimized
absolutism, but also features
some fundamental ideas of
liberalism: individual rights,
equality, and the legitimization of
government through consent of
the people.

In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes


understands humans as
fundamentally equal equally
self-interested and equally
capable.
In the so-called state of nature, in
the absence of government,
humans would be in a constant
state of war, competing for limited
resources.

The State of Nature


In such condition, there is no
place for Industry, ... no Culture
of the Earth; no Navigation, ...
no Knowledge of the face of the
Earth; no account of Time; no
Arts; no Letters; no Society; and
which is worst of all, continuall
feare, and danger of violent
death; And the life of man,
solitary, poore, nasty, brutish,
and short.

The State of Nature


While there are no laws per se in
the state of nature, there are
natural laws principles of
rational self-interest.
For long term survival, rationality
urges people to seek peace and
give up unrestricted liberty, if all
others do the same.

The Social Contract


Hobbes notion of the social
contract established both the
legitimacy of government and
the origin and justification of
morality.
The natural right is transferred to
a central power (the sovereign)
with the resources to enforce the
principles of rational selfinterest.
This contract of everyone with
everyone is the origin and
justification of government.

The Sovereign
According to Hobbes, the
sovereign can be an individual
or an assembly and is the
source of law and property right.
The most important feature of
the sovereign is the power to
enforce the law.

The Sovereign
Because the sovereign itself is
not part of the social contract,
rebellion against government
seems to amount to a return to
the state of nature.
Therefore, Hobbes social
contract theory seems to justify
absolutism.

Contractarianism
In contemporary moral philosophy,
neo-Hobbesian moral philosopher
David Gauthier (born 1932) sees
morality as emerging from rational
principles that promote long-term
self-interest.
Actions are morally wrong, if they
violate such principles.
In Gauthiers contractarianism,
moral standards result from
agreement among rational
individuals.

In his Second Treatise of Government


(1689), John Locke develops his own
social contract theory to explain the
purpose and legitimacy of
government and the origin and nature
of morality.

In Lockes theory, the state of nature


seems less a state of scarcity (as for
Hobbes), but more a state of
abundance.
In the state of nature, humans
possess God-given natural rights
the rights to life, self-defense,
freedom, and property.
The purpose of government is to
protect these natural rights.

Property
For Locke, Gods plan for the
world included a system of
private property.
In the state of nature,
accumulation of property,
however, is limited.
The property accumulated
cannot spoil, there must be
enough for others, and
accumulation of property cannot
be harmful to others.

Property
The great and chief end of men
uniting into commonwealths, and
putting themselves under
governments, is the preservation
of their property.

The Social Contract


According to Locke, the state is
created by means of the social
contract:
1. The right to make laws for
the common good is
transferred to a legislature.
2. The right to enforce these
laws is transferred to an
executive power.
3. The particular form of
legislature and executive
power is to be made by the
majority of citizens.

Government
Locke does not specify a
particular form of government. A
legitimate social contract could
exists in form of a republic, but
also between citizens and a
monarchy.
whatever form the Commonwealth is under, the Ruling
Power ought to govern by
declared and received laws, and
not by extemporary dictates and
undetermined resolutions."

Government
Lockes branches of government
are themselves part of the social
contract.
The government is entrusted
with protecting the natural rights
of citizens.
If the government (or any branch
of government) defaults on its
obligation to do so, then it can
be dissolved.
In Lockes theory contrary to
Hobbes rebellion is justified.

Lockes insistence that the


purpose of government is to
protect the natural rights of to life,
liberty, and property, informed,
among others, Founding Father
and President Thomas Jefferson
(1743-1826).
Jefferson, of course, is the
principal author of the Declaration
of Independence, outlining the
unalienable rights of life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness.

Basic Assumptions of Natural Rights Ethics


1.

There are certain rights that all people have by nature, regardless of
background, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, etc.

2.

These rights are inseparable from what it is to be a person.

3.

These natural rights (or human rights) form the basis for morality.
Actions that violate natural rights (human rights) are always morally
wrong, regardless of the circumstances.

Examples of Natural
Rights Thinking
Article 1 of the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human
Rights states that [a]ll human
beings are born free and equal
in dignity and rights.

Examples of Natural
Rights Thinking
The Geneva Conventions
encompass a number of treaties
that establish international law
for the humanitarian treatment of
the victims of war.

Evaluating Natural Rights Ethics


One possible issue with Natural Rights Ethics is how to identify the
natural rights (human rights).
What rights can be claimed as natural rights (human rights)?
How do we distinguish natural rights (human rights) from other kinds of
rights?
In order to help decide what kind of rights qualify as natural rights, we
can distinguish two kinds of rights: so-called welfare rights, and socalled liberty rights.

Welfare Rights
So-called welfare rights are
rights to goods or services,
for example, the right to
financial aid for qualified
students.
Because welfare rights are
rights given by society, they
do NOT qualify as natural
rights.

Liberty Rights
So-called liberty rights (also
called privacy rights) are rights
to non-interference, rights not to
be messed with in pursuit of
your interests.

Liberty Rights
For instance, the right to
education is the right not to be
excluded from the pursuit of
education, due to race, gender,
age, etc.
ONLY LIBERTY RIGHTS can
qualify as natural rights.

Evaluating Natural Rights Ethics


Another possible issues with Natural Rights Ethics is the idea that
natural rights (human rights) apply only to humans (persons).
Natural Rights Ethics, therefore, does not help with making moral
decision about non-human matters.
Thus Natural Rights Ethics is limited in scope.

Evaluating Natural
Rights Ethics
Natural Rights Ethics cannot
help with moral decisions
regarding the ethical treatment
of animals.

Evaluating Natural
Rights Ethics
Natural Rights Ethics cannot
help with moral decisions
regarding the protection of the
environment (environmental
ethics).