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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S056-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

The idea that political relations originate in contract or agreement has been applied in several ways. In Plato’s Republic Glaucon suggests that justice is but a pact among rational egoists. Thomas Hobbes developed this idea to analyse the nature of political power.Given the predominantly self-centred nature of humankind, government is necessary for society. Government’s role is to stabilize social cooperation. By exercising enforcement powers, government provides each with the assurance that everyone else will abide by cooperative rules, thereby making it rational for all to cooperate. To fulfil this stabilizing role, Hobbes argued that it is rational for each individual to agree to authorize one person to exercise absolute political power. Neo-Hobbesians eschew absolutism and apply the theory of rational choice to argue that rules of justice, perhaps even all morality, can be construed in terms of a rational bargain among self-interested individuals.

John Locke, working from different premises than Hobbes, appealed to a social compact to argue for a constitutional government with limited powers. All men are born with a natural right to equal freedom, and a natural duty to God to preserve themselves and the rest of mankind. No government is just unless it could be commonly agreed to form a position of equal freedom, where agreement is subject to the moral constraints of natural law. Absolutism is unjust according to this criterion.

Rousseau developed egalitarian features of Locke’s view to contend for a democratic constitution.The Social Contract embodies the General Will of society, not the unconstrained private wills of its members. The General Will wills the common good, the good of society and all of its members. Only by bringing our individual wills into accord with the General Will can we achieve civic and moral freedom.

In this century, John Rawls has recast natural rights theories of the social contract to argue for a liberal egalitarian conception of justice. From a position of equality, where each person abstracts from knowledge of their historical situations, it is rational for all to agree on principles of justice that guarantee equal basic freedoms and resources adequate for each person’s independence.

T.M. Scanlon, meanwhile, has outlined a right-based contractualist account of morality. An act is right if it accords with principles that could not be reasonably rejected by persons who are motivated by a desire to justify their actions according to principles that no one else can reasonably reject.

Citing this article:
Freeman, Samuel. Contractarianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S056-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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