Social Contract Theory

Author: David Antonini
Category: Social and Political Philosophy, Historical Philosophy, Ethics
Word Count: 997

When you make an agreement of some significance (e.g., to rent an apartment, or join a gym, or divorce), you typically agree to certain terms: you sign a contract. This is for your benefit, and for the other party’s benefit: everyone’s expectations are clear, as are the consequences of failing to meet those expectations.

Contracts are common, and some influential thinkers in the “modern” period of philosophy argued that the whole of society is created and regulated by a contract.[1] Two of the most prominent “social contract theorists” are Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704).[2] This essay explains the origins of this tradition and why the concept of a contract is illuminating for thinking about the structure of society and government.


1. The State of Nature and the First Contract

To see why we might seek a contract, imagine if there was no contract, no agreement, on what society should be like: no rules, no laws, no authorities. This is called “the state of nature.”

What would life in the state of nature be like? Most think it would be very bad: after all, there would be no officials to punish anyone who did anything bad to us, resulting in no deterrent for bad behavior: it’d be every man, woman and child for him or herself, it seems.

Hobbes has famously described life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor nasty, brutish, and short.”[3] Locke describes it as where everyone can be judge and jury in their own disputes, meaning they can personally decide when they have been wronged and how to punish the offender; clearly, this could get out of hand.[4]

Historically, we may not have ever been in a state of nature, but contract theorists use this idea to explain why rules for society, a contract, are desirable. It allows us to peacefully live together with the assurance that no one can simply harm us or take our property without consequence. Contract theorists argue that most people would freely enter into a contract to secure these benefits.

A contract has some costs though: to receive the advantages of an ordered society, everyone agrees to give up some benefits they had in the state of nature. Hobbes says we must give up “the right of nature” or the ability to judge for ourselves what counts as our “preservation.” This means that we could kill someone and claim it contributed to our “preservation,”[5] truthfully or not. Locke argues we must give up the right to be judge and jury of our own disputes.

Suppose, for mutual benefit, people contract to form some society. What are the details of that contract?

2. The Agreement to Form Government


A newly-formed society needs a mechanism for making decisions: who will make and enforce the rules? This authority needs to be established if the new community is to function together peacefully.

Hobbes argues that the sole decision-making authority should be an almighty ruler, who he calls the “Leviathan,” who rules by force so that citizens are afraid of whatever the ruler says. As Hobbes forebodingly reminds his readers: “And covenants [or contracts], without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”[6] The contract means that you obey the ruler and his laws or suffer severe consequences, such as imprisonment or even death.

Locke’s proposal for the creation of government reflects a more democratic approach in the sense of majority rule: “. . every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation . . . to submit to the determination of the majority.”[7] According to Locke, the primary function of government is to pass laws through a majority vote regarding the protection of rights, especially one’s right to property: “The great and chief end . . . of men putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.[8]

Government requires our submitting to someone else’s authority. Submitting yourself to be ruled by someone else requires sacrifice: we give up the right to make laws, enforce those laws, and punish transgressions of them. We transfer these rights to some individual or group who does them on our behalf. These three basic activities—making, enforcing and punishing—form the basis for the three branches of government common in many countries.

3. Conclusion

Living under a contract is likely better than living in the state of nature. Questions remain, however.

First, we usually explicitly agree to contracts, but we’ve done no such thing for society. If it’s said we tacitly agree, meaning that we’ve implicitly agreed, Locke responds: “The difficulty is what ought to be looked at as tacit consent, and . . . how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expression of it at all.”[9]

We haven’t explicitly agreed to any social contract. Do citizens agree simply by enjoying the benefits of things only made possible by living in society? For example, being able to drive on public roads is a benefit. But this is possible only through the existence of government-funded roads. Unless someone refuses to drive on public roads, by accepting such a benefit, is one tacitly “consenting”? 

Locke’s notion of tacit consent is problematic because it assumes agreement based on our receiving benefits. However, explicit consent is important because this kind of consent is the mark of voluntarily entering into a contract. Explicit consent is often extremely important –  consider consent in sexual relationships – but it is never obtained, or even sought, to participate in and receive benefits from being part of society.

A second, deeper problem with the notion of a social contract is who was and is left out of it. Who was not allowed to sign the contract or help create its terms? In many societies, women and non-Europeans were intentionally excluded, and certainly many individuals and groups of people would not consent to much of many governments’ policies and practices, past or present.[10]


[1] “Modern,” for the purposes of the history of philosophy, refers roughly to the time period from the mid-17th century to the late-18th century. However, “modern” does not only designate a time period but refers to the beginning of the Enlightenment, the rise of modern scientific thinking (Galileo, Newton), and to a turning away from the established order of the Church.

[2] Generally included with Hobbes and Locke is a third theorist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau is not discussed here because his views are quite different from Hobbes’ and Locke’s. Rousseau is critical of both Hobbes’s and Locke’s views on the social contract because he is not convinced that society and government are an improvement over the state of nature. He outlines such an argument in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754). His own version of the social contract is found in On the Social Contract (1762). See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contact (Penguin Books, 1968) and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett, 1992)

[3] Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (1651), ed. Michael Oakeshott (Simon and Schuster, 1962), 100.

[4] Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), ed. C.B. Macpherson (Hackett, 1980), 10-11. Locke proposes that we give up the right to be judge and jury of our own disputes in order “to avoid, and remedy those inconveniences of the state of nature, which necessarily follow from every man’s being judge in his own case,” p. 48.

[5] Hobbes, Leviathan, 104.

[6] Hobbes, Leviathan, 129

[7] Locke, Second Treatise, 52.

[8] In Chapter 5 of Locke’s Second Treatise, he famously argues we have a natural right to private property by mixing our labor with land. For example, if I pick an apple from the tree, because I own the labor I used (picking the apple), the apple becomes “mine.” Government is created to protect the property I have acquired.

[9] Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 64.

[10] For an account of how race factored into the terms of the contract, see Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997).

For an account of how gender factored into the contract, see Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford University Press, 1988)


Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (1651), ed. Michael Oakeshott (Simon and Schuster, 1962)

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), ed. C.B. Macpherson (Hackett, 1980)

Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford University Press, 1988)

Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762) (Penguin Books, 1968)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992)

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About the Author

David Antonini received his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2018. He is author of Public Space and Political Experience: An Arendtian Interpretation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). He is currently

Author: David Antonini
Category: Social and Political Philosophy, Phenomenology and Existentialism
Word Count: 1000

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), born in Hanover, Germany, was a public intellectual, refugee, and observer of European and American politics. She is especially known for her interpretation of the events that led to the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century.

Arendt studied under German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers and set out to pursue a path as an academic, writing a dissertation on St. Augustine. However, Hitler, the Nazi regime’s rise to power, and the bloody Holocaust forever changed her life. Being Jewish, Arendt was forced to flee the country, seeking refuge in France and eventually the United States. After living through the outbreak of WWII, Arendt devoted the rest of her life to writing about politics, although less in a traditional philosophical sense and more in the vein of a political observer, interpreting events of the twentieth century.

This essay explains some central insights of her political thought and how she developed these concepts to overcome the loss of politics as public debate in Nazi Germany.Arendt

1. Totalitarianism and the Loss of Public Debate

 Arendt understands “politics” as public debate by a community about meaningful aspects of their shared life together. She witnessed the collapse of politics, in this sense, under Nazi totalitarianism. This form of rule seeks to diminish public debate by making it a criminal act to criticize the regime. Arendt sought to understand the rise of this unprecedented form of government, and to defend public debate against threats to its existence.

Throughout her writings Arendt defended the importance of public debate. She had witnessed with German citizens in the 1930’s and 40’s what could happen in its absence: the substitution of a fabricated reality based on a leader’s vision, accepted by seemingly well-intentioned citizens. Without public debate, the ruling regime is free to construct a false narrative about “reality,” perpetuate that narrative, and maintain power because there is nothing to compete with it.

2. “The Human Condition” and Plurality

Arendt’s well-known 1958 text The Human Condition contains some of her central insights about politics, especially her concept of human plurality. For Arendt, plurality is an existential condition of human life: we are equal insofar as we are human beings but distinct because no human being is like any other. Our distinctness provides us with a perspective that cannot be fully understood by anyone else, yet our equality means that, as a presupposition of communication, we assume the capacity for speech and reason in each other.

Based on plurality, politics then is the place and activity of shared communication based on the distinct perspectives of equal human beings. When we engage in political life, we seek to communicate how things look from our distinct perspectives, while others do the same. For Arendt, the activity of publicly addressing one another about how things appear from our distinct perspectives is the lifeblood of politics. Sharing our perspectives with to others is done in the public space, which must be preserved if democratic politics is to remain a viable possibility. This public space was destroyed under totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.

3. Power through Civil Disobedience

How does Arendt argue we preserve the public space?

The answer lies in how Arendt rethinks the concept of power. As a political concept, we often associate power with rulers, governments, and politicians. Rulers or politicians have or hold power, as if power is something to be possessed. We often hear the phrase that politicians are not concerned about their constituents but about “staying in power.”

Arendt, however, considers legitimate power as something that exists between citizens as they engage in political action together, whereas power wielded by rulers through the use of terror and violence is illegitimate. She argues that  “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”[1] So, when a group of human beings decides to act for a specific political purpose, power exists between them as they collaborate together to achieve a political aim: we might say that it is power that “holds them together” as a group and not just a collection of disparate individuals.[2]

For Arendt, an exemplary moment of power preserving the public space is the act of civil disobedience, especially the various movements during the turbulent decades of the mid twentieth-century in the United States, on which Arendt wrote.[3] When citizens gather together to protest an unjust law, power exists between them. The public action to protest unjust laws is a manifestation of the public space discussed above. To think of power as Arendt does means that those engaged in civil disobedience are attempting to reclaim the public space of debate. Through enacting unjust laws, government has abused the legitimacy it has been entrusted with:  through civil disobedience, citizens try to reclaim that legitimacy.

Reclaiming the public space of debate is an effective mechanism for citizens when they believe a government has lost its legitimacy. Robust public debate in many forms ensures that it is not merely the ruling regime that defines the parameters of public debate, especially if they attempt to drown out dissent as, for example, in the delegitimization of the media or press. Public debate competes with political leaders’ attempts to substitute fabricated truths in order to maintain power.

In sum, the public space is preserved through power that “springs up” among citizens when they gather together. Public space refers to the activity of shared debate among plural human beings; this space and activity are maintained as long as opportunities exist for the gathering of citizens.[4]

4. Conclusion

Arendt’s political thought is unique among political thinkers because it does not lay out a theoretical program like a social contract or theory of justice. Instead, Arendt’s political thought is existential in attempting to understand how a meaningful space for politics and public debate can be lost and how that space might be re-enlivened through political action. Current political circumstances, especially the rise of nationalist and populist movements across the globe, speak to the importance of robust public debate among citizens. 


[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 200.

[2] Arendt’s insight, that power holds a group together, is fairly intuitive. Any group of people that decide to achieve some common goal must work together and not be at cross purposes. Being in agreement and working together means the group has power between them, but if they quarrel and pursue separate projects, there is no longer power present.

[3] See Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience” in Crises of the Republic (New York: HBJ Publishing, 1970)

[4] Twentieth-century German thinker Jurgen Habermas is close to Arendt in his thinking on the public space or public sphere, especially in his insistence upon undistorted forms of speech and communication. His thought is that public debate can proceed through what he calls “the force of the better argument.” Habermas, as well as Rawls, is generally associated with a school of political thought known as deliberative democracy, where the emphasis upon public debate is essential. Aspects of Arendt’s thought can be considered to belong to this school of thought.  However, their accounts of the public sphere (in the case of Habermas) or public reason (in the case of Rawls) belong to more idealist strains of political theory whereas Arendt’s political thinking has a different starting point.


Hannah Arendt,  Love and Saint Augustine. Edited by Johanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929).

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. (New York: Meridian Books, 1958).

Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience” in Crises of the Republic (New York: HBJ Publishing, 1970).

Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

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Ethics and the Expected Consequences of Voting by Thomas Metcalf



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Download this essay in PDF.

About the Author

David Antonini received his PhD from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2018. He is the author of Public Space and Political Experience: An Arendtian Interpretation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). He is an instructor at Great Basin College in Pahrump, Nevada. 

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