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Social contract theories

Let's begin with the social contract theory -- or rather social contract theories, because there are several variations on the same theme. This is going to take a while to explain, so let me introduce a definition of "social contract theory" to give you an idea of what I'm going to introduce:

A social contract theory of the state is any theory which says that the existence of the state is morally justified by some sort of agreement, often called a "social contract," that is said hold among the residents of a particular geographical area over which the state has authority.

Sometimes this theory is called contractarianism. In order to explain what the social contract theory (or contractarianism) says, I'm going to have to explain what this "agreement" among residents of an area is supposed to amount to -- that is, I'm going to have to explain to you what a social contract is supposed to be. But before I do that, it will be useful to explain first why this contract is supposed to be necessary at all.

The 17th-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, is famous for presenting a sort of useful fiction in political philosophy, called the state of nature. The state of nature is, basically, the condition we all would be in if government did not exist. The way it's sometimes presented, it's the condition before the rule of law comes into being. Some have thought, I suppose, that there was a time before any government, any official monopoly on the initiation of the use of force, came into being. I think that what we know about the social behavior of indigenous peoples in undeveloped countries shows that that might be wrong in point of historical fact. It is very rare, indeed, that a group of people lacks anything like a government at all, even if the "government" consists only of tribal elders. That's why I say the state of nature is a "useful fiction."

Hobbes -- and others -- invites us to consider what the state of nature would be like. There are, of course, different views about the matter, but Hobbes view is perhaps the most famous. He thought that the state of nature, the condition of having no government, would in effect be the war of all against all. We would all be fighting amongst ourselves for scarce resources, grabbing whatever we can. "The life of man," Hobbes said, would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Sounds pretty miserable.

To make things worse, people in the state of nature, according to Hobbes, could not even correctly appeal to any sort of higher justice. There would be no justice at all, Hobbes thought -- because without law, and an institution to enforce law, there would be no such thing as justice. A mother could murder her child and that would be perfectly just. Why? Because there would be no law forbidding such a thing. So Hobbes thought that, in order to have justice, there be a law. If there is no actual law against murder, then murder is not unjust.

Now, you may disagree with Hobbes about how bad a state of nature might be; but in any case I think we can agree that it wouldn't be a walk in the park. Basically, what we're talking about here is anarchy. I think it's not too clear what life would be like in such a state; but I do think it's pretty clear it wouldn't be very nice. Now to be sure, there are some people -- only some of the people who call themselves "anarchists" -- who think that the state of nature would definitely be better than any situation where there is a government. But the vast majority of people, including most of you I would be willing to predict, would say that the state of nature would be very nasty and brutish indeed, just as Hobbes said.

Think of it like this: What if you couldn't call the police when you're being burglarized or threatened by someone? What if criminals had only you to fear when they came to take your stuff? Then they might simply band together into gangs, a few of them against one of you, and you'd be at their mercy. Yep, that's how I think it would be: the weak constantly at the mercy of roving bands of thugs.

"Now wait just a second," you might say. "If the thugs join forces in order to take my stuff, then what's to say I wouldn't join forces with other peaceful, right-respecting people, to stop them from taking my stuff? We would all agree to protect each other; if one of us is attacked, then the others will defend. All for one and one for all." Well, you might do that. You might form a sort of defensive league. But what if a gang sees this happening and gets more recruits, and consequently totally outnumbers and overpowers your defensive league?

"Well then," you might reply, "in that case, I'd try to get more people for the defensive league. We would all agree to defend each other, or at least to buy guns and supplies for people who will protect us. Perhaps my league would band together with other peaceful, rights-respecting leagues. In the end, surely there are more peaceful, rights-respecting people on earth than there are criminally-minded types. So we'll able to defend ourselves from them."

Now that's kind of interesting, because it's not clear that we're talking the state of nature anymore. If you do indeed successfully recruit enough people for your defensive league, and otherwise band together like-minded people who agree to protect each other from criminals, then your defensive league has become a government. Maybe not the sort complex, enormous government the United States now has, with a budget of over $1 trillion a year, but a government nonetheless.

This line of thinking is at the heart of the social contract theory. The dangers of the state of nature are great; and so we all agree to give up some of our freedomliberty in exchange for the promise of protection by others. That agreement is what makes the government's monopoly on the initiation of force morally legitimate. In other words, it's our agreement that gives government agents the right to reserve certain kinds of power for themselves; they are, ultimately, not just government agents, but our agents. They govern by the consent of the governed. You've heard that before -- well, social contract theory is where that catchphrase comes from.

So what exactly does this "agreement" amount to, anyway? Do social contract theorists actually say that we have, in fact, agreed to give up some of our liberties so that the government can exist? If I did in fact agree to this at some point, as an adult citizen of the United States, then where is my signature, or my oath? I am not aware of ever having made an oath of citizenship. I guess I recited the Pledge of Allegiance many times as a child; but I'm not sure that counts.

What Hobbes said isn't that there is an actual agreement that any of us actually have made. It's a hypothetical agreement. Now what does that mean -- "hypothetical" agreement? As I understand it, a hypothetical agreement to establish a state is an agreement that I would make, if I were living in a state of nature, and someone made an offer to set up a government in that situation. To say that I would agree to the establishment of a government in the state of nature is not to say that I have agreed, at any time, to the establishment of the actual government that actually exists. As far as Hobbes is concerned, in the end, that's irrelevant. What gives the state the right to exist is the fact that I would agree to establish it, and to give up the liberty I would have, in the state of nature, to initiate force. And of course the reason I'd agree to this is that it would be greatly to my advantage. I'd much rather sleep peacefully, thinking that criminals are not easily going to be able to harm me and take my stuff. So, sure -- I'd agree to the establishment of a government. Well if so, then I am party to a hypothetical agreement, which is called a "social contract." I do agree to give up the liberty to initiate force, and in exchange for that I expect to receive protection from the government; and I do have this hypothetical agreement because I would agree to an offer to establish a government, if I found myself in the state of nature. That's basically what Hobbes said.

John Locke, another Englishman who wrote about fifty years after Hobbes, disagreed with Hobbes about the social contract. For one thing, he didn't think the state of nature would be as bad as Hobbes envisioned. That's a point we needn't dwell on though. Locke also didn't think that the social contract was a hypothetical agreement; he thought it was an actual agreement. We actually have agreed to follow the laws of a government if we were born and raised, and come into adulthood in the country over which the government has authority. This is all the more the case if we take any action, such as voting or paying taxes, that requires us to acknowledge that the government is in place. So for Locke, it's an actual social contract that we have; not an ordinary contract of the sort that one signs, of course, but a binding agreement nonetheless. And it is that actual binding agreement, which we show we have when we vote for example, that gives the government its right the monopoly of the initiation of force.

In fact, Socrates, the first major philosopher in Western philosophy, believed in this very principle so strongly that he was willing to die for it. He thought that he had an agreement with the city of Athens to follow its laws; so if the city of Athens sentenced him to death, he thought he had a strict moral obligation to carry out his sentence and die; he thought it was absolutely forbidden that he escape, even though everyone expected him to. And the reason he thought so is that he thought he had that explicit agreement with the city of Athens. And you thought philosophy didn't have any practical applications!

So there is a very brief introduction to the social contract theory. There are other versions too, like those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, within the last thirty years, the American John Rawls. But it's not like the social contract theory doesn't have its problems and challenges. I'm only going to mention two.

First, there's the problem of the people who don't want to make the agreement, or who wouldn't even in the state of nature -- the problem of dissenters, if you will. Say we're in the state of nature and someone comes knocking on my door and says, "We've got this great deal going, all you have to do is sign on the dotted line, promise not to attack anyone, and we will protect you from thieves and other criminals." Well, what if I close the door, saying that I'm not interested? Is Hobbes really saying that everyone would, in the state of nature, sign on to the establishment of a government? I mean, would they? If Hobbes is saying that, he's really quite na´ve! Lots of people just don't know what's good for them.

So suppose that I wouldn't agree to the establishment of a government, in the state of nature. "I will take care of myself, thank you very much, and you and your government can go jump off a cliff" -- that's what I'd say when the offer is made. Then here's the problem: Do I have any obligation not to initiate force, according to the social contract theorist? Apparently not. Because the only thing that obligates me to give up my liberty to initiate force is that agreement. If I don't make it, or I wouldn't make it, then it looks like I'm still perfectly free to aggressively assert my will over other people, if I so desire. I have no agreement, so I would not recognize any government as being legitimate. And as far as I'm concerned, any government that tries to control me is, in fact, illegitimate. I never agreed, and never would agree, to give up any of my liberties to it.

Now, how can social contract theorist reply to this? It's a common objection, and it's rather difficult to answer. One thing that makes it particularly difficult is that the social contract theorist has to appeal to something else, in order to explain why dissenters are morally obligated to give up their freedom to initiate force. Surely, if I start a cult and move out to Montana and say I owe no allegiance to the United States, just about everyone here, I think, would say that I do indeed owe allegiance to the United States. No matter what I say. Even if deny that I owe any allegiance -- even if I explicitly deny having any sort of social contract with the United States at all. So, if you do want to say that I owe allegiance to the United States, then it's not a contract, real or imaginary, that's binding on me; it must be something else. The social contract theory, by itself, doesn't say what else.

Here's a second problem for the social contract theory. What if we start a dandy little government, but then it gets out of hand. It grows larger and ever more powerful, and more and more authoritarian, until it is arresting and executing people merely for openly disagreeing with government policies, and becomes an all-out totalitarian state. This has, of course, happened all too many times throughout the course of human history; and it almost certainly will happen again, if not in the United States, then in some other country that we now regard as relatively civilized and moral.

So, naturally, even if we do have, at present, an actual or hypothetical agreement with our country, there may come a time when we will want to dissolve the agreement. So one problem, which is a practical problem, is when we should dissolve the agreement with a government; when we may legitimately declare that we are not morally bound to do what the government says. If the United States government were to become a totally vicious totalitarian dictatorship -- not something that can be expected to happen anytime soon, but it could eventually -- then at what point would you be morally justified in defying the government?

That's one problem but it's not the objection to social contractarianism. After all, philosophers like Locke are very well aware that in some situations we may want to break ties with a government; in fact, Locke's theory on that subject was followed by American revolutionaries in breaking ties with the English government. The problem for social contractarianism, however, comes in attempting to state the justification of breaking ties with a government. Surely, we would be justified in defying some governments that might arise. That seems clearly true. The question now is why we would be so justified -- what would justify us.

All that the social contract theory says is that, if we are party to a social contract, then we're morally bound to give up our liberty to initiate force, and the government that is given that same liberty is legitimate. That's all the social contract theory says; so by itself, it doesn't give us any clear grounds on which to dissolve a social contract.

And for that matter, why don't we ask what sort of grounds justified you in agreeing to the social contract in the first place? Why was that agreement something that, morally, you ought to participate in? Surely you should participate in a social contract under some circumstances -- if you think it's very likely that the government will be to everyone's benefit, for example. If that's the reason, we're getting close to a totally different justification of the state: consequentialist justifications. So let's look at that next.