James Fieser






Hobbes’s Theory

The State of Nature

The Laws of Nature

Political Theory and Moral Theory

Criticisms of Hobbes

Hyde’s criticism: morality is immutable and eternal

Clarke’s criticism: punishment alone will not motivate us to always keep contracts

Hume’s criticism: we do not even tacitly agree to a social contract

Regan’s criticism: social contract excludes animals

Social Contract Theory After Hobbes

Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Theories

Prisoner’s Dilemma


Lingering Problems with Social Contract Theory

Mixing Moral Theory with Political Theory

Social Contract versus Social Reciprocation


Reading 1: Hobbes on the Social Contract

Reading 2: Godwin on Four Objections to the Social Contract

Study Questions



Anti-government groups in the United States are on the rise. Some are militia organizations that believe an armed populace is an essential safeguard against government tyranny. Others are driven by economic concerns as the national debt increases and the government bails out elite companies. Yet others have an anti-immigrant agenda in response to the increase of non-whites within the population. While their specific agendas may differ, a common theme of the groups is opposition to freedom-restricting activities of the government; some are even preparing for revolution and outright war. The most extreme case of this the destruction a nine-story federal office building in Oklahoma City by a car bomb that killed 168 people, 19 of which were children in a day care center within the structure. The perpetrators belonged to an anti-government militia group that specifically opposed government gun control efforts, and the intended message behind the bombing was that the government should not take away our freedoms.

            One troubling aspect of anti-government groups is its underlying ideological message, part of which we accept as freedom lovers, and part of which we reject for its extremism. According to many anti-government groups, we establish governments to perform only a narrow range of tasks, principally protection from foreign invasion. However, the government pushes its authority beyond its established purpose by unjustly restricting people’s freedoms. This justifies resistance, which even the U.S. Declaration of Independence endorses: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends [i.e., rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”

            The underlying philosophy of such anti-government groups is that of social contract theory. In its less extreme form, social contract theory is both a legitimate and a historically important account of political and moral obligation. Briefly, social contract theory describes a disease and then proposes a cure. The disease is that humans have unsociable tendencies and are unable to construct and live in cooperative societies. The cure is that we contractually agree to be civil to one another under threat of punishment from a governing body that we establish for this purpose. This mutual contract then becomes the backbone for our moral obligations to each other.

            Social contract theory has a long but spotty history. Plato hints at such a theory in his dialogue The Republic. A skeptical character in that work named Glaucon argues that people are naturally inclined to exploit one another. However, since we do not like being exploited, we agree not to exploit others on the condition that others do not exploit us:


When men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. [Republic, 2.358e]


For Glaucon, the mutual contracts that we create are the basis of the rules of justice. Plato himself did not accept this skeptical view of the origins of morality; instead, he argued that moral truths are fixed in a higher eternal realm of the universe. For almost 2000 years, most moral philosophers largely agreed with Plato’s view. In particular, they believed that both morality and governmental authority are grounded in objective natural laws that God himself endorses. During the seventeenth century, a few skeptically-minded philosophers offered alternative explanations of morality that were grounded more in the human than the heavenly realm. One of these was English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who presents the first detailed account of social contract theory. In this chapter we will examine Hobbes’s view and criticisms against it.



Hobbes presents his social contract theory in a series of works, the most famous of which is The Leviathan (1651). For Hobbes, the powerful governing body that we establish for protection is like the “Leviathan,” a large mythological sea creature as depicted in the Hebrew Bible and earlier Canaanite mythology. The Hebrew Bible describes the great sea creature as the “king over all the children of pride.” Similarly, Hobbes saw that the government as the king over prideful people, insofar as our human pride forces us to create a government for our own protection.


The State of Nature

A common story line in science fiction sagas is that modern society crumbles because of a nuclear world war or a colossal ecological disaster. A few isolated surviving humans forage through the ruins of destroyed cities, hoping to find a stray can of food, a container of gasoline, or a box of bullets. Every contact with another human is a life-or-death struggle to acquire the other person’s goods. Rather than looking into the future to describe a post-apocalyptic world, Hobbes looks to the distant past and asks us to imagine what life might have been like before there were any governing bodies. The condition that Hobbes describes is as brutal as any science fiction story. He calls this primitive condition the state of nature. He is not describing an actual time in human history, but, rather, hopes only to highlight the limits of our human nature and the effects of our unsocial inclinations on our interactions with others.

            Why, though, must the state of nature so unsocial? Just as there are science fiction movies that depict the future as a perfect utopia, we can also envision a more primitive human condition in which people get along with each other perfectly well. The first and overarching reason why people would be so unsociable in the state of nature is because we are selfish, and incurably so. Selfishness is embedded within our emotions and thought processes, and we will always be acting in ways that benefit each of us individually. Even when it seems as though we are acting from motivations of kindness and compassion, beneath the surface we are still thinking about ourselves.

            A second reason for our unsociability is that people are roughly equal to one another in both intellectual cunning and physical strength, and this makes us feel as though we can acquire what we want in life without too much resistance from other people. Intellectually, we all gain knowledge through experience, and, with enough time and effort, we can all rise to a comparable intellectual level. Physically, although a bigger person might be able to beat me in an arm wrestling contest, with a little cunning I can overpower him. Hobbes writes that “as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret mechination, or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.” Although intellectual and physical equality might seem like good things, in the state of nature they only perpetuate struggle. If someone stood out with superhuman physical abilities, such as Superman, then he could simply take control and force people to cooperate. Perhaps the same thing could happen if someone stood out with superhuman intellectual abilities. But since we’re all more or less equal in the state of nature, no one will naturally emerge to take charge.

            A third reason for our unsociability is that we are naturally quarrelsome and always ready for violent confrontation. Hobbes notes three reasons for this as well. First, we equally desire things that are in limited supply. All of us seek after basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. If all of our physical needs in life could be met simply by reaching up and picking things off a tree, then there would be no need to engage in conflict with anyone. The reality of the situation, though, is otherwise. Necessities are in limited supply, and as we compete for the same things, we quickly come to view one another as enemies. Through violence, then, we seek to subdue “men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle.” The second cause of quarrel is that, once we acquire some goods, we immediately become distrustful of people who approach us, and so we attack them. This is not merely paranoia, but a necessary means of protecting things that we’ve acquired. For example, when people win large amounts of money in a lottery, they are often targeted by scam artists who try to defraud them of their winnings with shady investment opportunities. The more distrustful we are of outsiders, the better we’ll be able to retain what we’ve acquired. In the state of nature, this distrust translates inclines us towards violence. The third cause of quarrels is that we will attack others simply to preserve our reputations as tough guys that people should not mess around with. If our reputations diminish, then others will see us as easy prey.

            The consequence of all this is a state of war pitting all against all. It includes actual as well as anticipated wars that, similar to the cold war between the United States and the former Soviet Union, involve constant military posturing. Hobbes’s description of this state of war is one of the most famous passages in philosophy:


In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan, 13]


For Hobbes, in the state of nature, we would lack all social comforts that come about through mutual cooperation. We would not even attempt to grow food, import goods, or build dwellings on our own since we would thereby make ourselves targets of attack by other people. Our rivals would see what we have, desire it, and kill us to acquire it. We would have no “knowledge of the face of the earth” since the only geographical area that counts is the one immediately around us as we seek to survive attacks by others. We would have “no account of time” since the only time that matters is the present moment in which we struggle to survive. We would have no arts and no literary compositions since these are luxury items that humans create only after we secure our survival. We would have no society since social interaction requires trust and cooperation, which we would not be capable of. In essence, our human lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

            What kind of morality is there in this state of nature? In a word, none! Hobbes argues that in this condition the “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place.” It is a moral free-for-all in which we can do whatever we want, in which “every person has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Hobbes offers several examples from ordinary-life situations to support his gloomy description of our amoral human nature. When we go on trips, we take guns with us for protection against robbers. When we go to bed at night, we lock our cabinets to prevent our housekeepers and even our own children from stealing from us. We take these extra steps to protect ourselves in addition to the protection we get from the police and court systems. And individual countries, like individual people, are always poised to defend themselves against invaders who want to plunder their resources. If this is how bad it is right now, think of how much worse it would be within the state of nature without the police, courts, and international laws.


The Laws of Nature

The state of nature that Hobbes describes is so disturbing that it gives us strong motivation to want to rise above that condition if possible. None of us wants to die violently; we all want decent living conditions; we also carry hopes that we can improve our living conditions through work. But we cannot fulfill any of these desires until we achieve peace, and Hobbes next describes what we need to do to secure such peace. This part of his discussion is influenced by natural law theory, particularly the version developed by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). In his work The Law of War and Peace (1625), Grotius argues that there are fixed moral laws of nature that are binding on everyone worldwide. Further, according to Grotius, we set up governing bodies to ensure that we follow these moral mandates of natural law and thus live peacefully. Hobbes not only follows Grotius’s basic solution to securing peace but also adopts the language of natural law theory. For Hobbes, then, we get out of the state of nature by following the laws of nature.

            Hobbes lists fifteen distinct laws of nature that facilitate ending conflict and securing peace, the first three of which are the most important. He describes the first law of nature as this:


Every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. [Leviathan, 14)]


This first law of nature tells us that we should seek peace but that we should defend ourselves if we cannot achieve it. The binding nature of this law is clear: We all wish to survive, and peace is the best way to do this. When peace fails, however, we need to defend ourselves.

            The second law of nature describes more precisely how we achieve peace with one another. We saw that in the state of nature “Every person has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Imagine that each of us carried around a bag with slips of paper that listed all of our respective rights in the state of nature. The rights that I would have in that situation are almost infinite in number and allow me complete liberty. For example, I might pull one slip out of my bag that says I have a right to hop around on one foot. I might pull another slip out that says I have the right to kill you—which surely would worry you. However, in your rights bag, you would have a similar slip of paper that says you have the right to kill me, and that certainly would worry me. And as long as we both hold onto our rights to kill each other, we can never achieve peace.

            The second law of nature, then, says that you and I should agree to give up those specific rights that threaten each of us respectively:


A man [should] be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. (Leviathan, 14)


According to this law of nature, if you’re willing to remove from your bag the slip of paper that grants you the right to kill me, then I should be willing to remove from my bag the slip of paper that grants me the right to kill you. We should do this with all rights that breed hostility—such as the right to kill, steal from, lie to, or assault others—and enlist any person who is willing to cooperate with us. In short, the second law of nature tells us, “Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.” Why should I be willing to give up any of my personal rights? Because my survival depends on it. However, Hobbes implies that we should only mutually give up those rights that are necessary for securing peace. For example, my right to hop around on one foot has no bearing on the peace process, so I should not give up that right.

            The third law of nature is simply that “people perform their covenants made,” since our agreements are empty words if we do not keep them. For Hobbes, even if you and I have the best of intentions and plan on giving up our hostile rights forever, we must actually abstain from those hostilities; otherwise, we will remain in the state of nature. Assuring that we abide by our agreements is tricky. I will always be looking for ways to cheat the system, and I can only assume that you will, too. Our verbal agreement alone is not enough, and we both need some extra motivation to follow through on our agreements. The solution is that we both agree to give unlimited power to a political authority that will punish us if we break our agreements. This means that you and I must give up a few more of our rights, handing them over to this political authority. But it is worth it if this is the only way to guarantee our contractual arrangement, which in turn ends the state of nature.

            Hobbes’s remaining twelve laws of nature are principally rules of diplomacy that preserve peaceful coexistence once it is established. For example, the fourth law tells us that we should show gratitude toward others who comply with contracts. If we do not, then others might regret participating in the contract. The fifth law says that we should compromise on minor issues that serve the larger interests of society. If we have to debate every little issue, then the peace process will grind to a halt.


Political Theory and Moral Theory

Hobbes’s social contract theory serves double duty: as (1) a political theory that justifies the existence of a government and (2) a moral theory that specifies our moral obligations. As a political theory, Hobbes’s social contract theory maintains that governments are the creations of people, and not the creations of God. The complete justification for a government’s existence is its role as preserver of the peace. However, even though we are the ones who create governments, we are never allowed to overthrow them once they are established, even if we’re not happy with the job that they’re doing. The reason for this is that, to guarantee that governments will be effective in their peacekeeping mission, we must give them absolute and irrevocable authority over us. For Hobbes, if governments have anything less than this, then they will be unable to enforce the laws.

            The governments that we establish can be monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies. However, Hobbes believed that monarchies are the most effective in preserving the peace, for several reasons. Monarchs will receive better counsel since they can select experts and get advice in private. Monarchs’ policies will also be more consistent since they are operating as individuals, unlike other forms of government that have many leaders. Similarly, there is less chance of a civil war with a monarchy since monarchs will not disagree with themselves.

            As to Hobbes’s moral theory, two features are prominent. First, morality is not a permanent feature of the nature of things, but, instead, is only a creation of the social contract. We saw that, in the state of nature, “Notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place.” The notions of morality that emerge through the laws of nature are contractual agreements. In this regard, Hobbes is a moral skeptic insofar as he holds that moral principles have no objective foundation independent of human society.

            The second feature of Hobbes’s moral theory is that our specific moral obligations are intimately linked with the fifteen laws of nature. For example, the third law of nature states that we should keep our contracts. When we do this, we have the moral virtue of justice; when we fail to do this, we have the moral vice of injustice. Similarly, the fourth law of nature states that we should show gratitude toward those who keep their contracts. When we follow this fourth law, we have the virtue of gratitude; when we fail to do so, we have the vice of ingratitude. Other virtues that Hobbes lists include sociability, modesty, equity, and mercy, with each linked directly to one of the fifteen laws of nature. Hobbes also notes that his theory recognizes the same virtues as traditional virtue theories, such as Aristotle’s, which includes courage and fortitude. So, Hobbes writes that “the science of virtue and vice is moral philosophy, and therefore the true doctrine of the Laws of Nature is the true moral philosophy.” There are two specific implications to Hobbes’s virtue account of morality. First, the job of moral philosophy is to find out specifically which virtuous character traits facilitate adherence to the various laws of nature. Second, our job as morally responsible people is to cultivate virtuous character traits since, if we do not, we place the peace of society at risk.

            To summarize, here are the main points of Hobbes’s theory:


• The prepolitical state of nature for humans is a condition of mutual conflict that contains no objective moral values.

• We achieve peace by mutually agreeing to give up our rights to harm one another.

• To ensure compliance, we create governments that punish those who break the agreements.

• To further secure compliance we recognize various laws of nature and acquire moral virtues.



For decades after his death, Hobbes was the principal target of criticism among moral and political philosophers, and dozens of negative reactions were published that criticized almost every part of his theory. We will look at three attacks that are directed at central features of his moral theory.


Hyde’s Criticism: Hobbes Denies That Morality Is Immutable and Eternal

We saw that, for Hobbes, traditional moral values are nonexistent in the state of nature, and morality is a creation of the social contract. But while boldly denying morality in the natural condition, he fudges the issue a little when describing the invented status of morality within the social contract. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “the Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal.” Traditionally, when philosophers such as Grotius claimed that morality is “eternal” and “immutable,” they meant that moral values are universal and unchanging, and are not creations of human convention. Hobbes’s choice of the words “immutable” and “eternal” was probably politically motivated, representing an attempt to avoid condemnation by conservative critics. If so, his ruse was not successful. Edward Hyde (1609–1674), a British politician and acquaintance of Hobbes, charged that Hobbes’s laws of nature are not at all “immutable” and “eternal” in the usual philosophical sense:


If nature has thus providently provided for the peace and tranquillity of her children, by laws immutable and eternal that are written in their hearts, how come they to fall into that condition of war, as to be every one against every one, and to be without any other cardinal virtues, but of force and fraud? [A Survey of Mr. Hobbes (1676)]


According to Hyde, even the content of Hobbes’s laws of nature reveal that they are not immutable and eternal in the traditional sense:


But where are those maxims to be found—which Mr. Hobbes declares and publishes to be the laws of nature—in any other author before him? That is only properly called “the law of nature” [when] that is dictated to the whole species [ibid]


Hyde has two complaints against Hobbes. First, he accuses Hobbes of actually denying the immutable and eternal nature of morality, as seen in Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature. Second, he claims that Hobbes tries to intentionally misdirect us by describing the laws of nature as immutable and eternal when Hobbes clearly does not mean it. Hobbes must plead guilty to both of these charges. However, from today’s perspective, neither of these crimes are as bad as Hyde makes them out to be. As to Hyde’s first charge, philosophers today typically do not describe moral principles as “immutable” and “eternal.” To do so requires that we postulate some eternal realm in which moral principles permanently exist—a realm completely outside of human society. This calls for more metaphysical speculation than philosophers today are comfortable with.

            As to Hyde’s second complaint, even intentionally misdirecting us on key terminology is defensible. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers, theologians, and scientists could be imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for publishing controversial ideas. The most famous example of this is the case of Italian astronomer Galileo (1564–1642), who, under threat of torture, retracted his claim about a sun-centered solar system. Sometimes, controversial authors could appease religious and political authorities simply by being diplomatic in their choice of words. Hobbes was concerned about negative reactions from the authorities, and it is reasonable to interpret his choice of the terms “immutable” and “eternal” as an act of diplomacy.

            We can also see Hobbes’s choice of these words as an attempt to reformulate the traditional moral vocabulary. Like astronomers and other scientists of his time, Hobbes hoped to break from medieval traditions and set his area of inquiry on a new and more scientifically rigorous course. The context of Hobbes’s comments about the immutable and eternal nature of morality shows how he tried to redirect discussions on the nature of morality:


The Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal. For injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, iniquity, acception of persons, and the rest, can never be made lawful. For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it. [Leviathan, 15]


Hobbes argues here that the laws of nature are “immutable and eternal” to the extent that they are required for preserving life through making peace. Hobbes, then, shifts the discussion of moral truths from a mysterious eternal realm to the observable realm of human nature and our desire for survival. In the end, the history of philosophy shows that the terms “immutable” and “eternal” did not take to being redefined and simply were dropped. But Hobbes did the best he could when working with the terminology of his day.


Clarke’s Criticism: Punishment Alone will not Motivate Us to Always Keep Contracts

Suppose that I agree to participate in the social contract. Although I understand that I’m supposed to keep the agreements that I’ve made, I occasionally see potential opportunities to violate these agreements when it might benefit me. For example, while my neighbor is not looking, I could sneak next door, steal his lawnmower, and sell it to a pawnshop. If I’m careful, I will not get caught. So what should stop me from violating the social contract if I can get away with it?

            British philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) draws attention to this problem and argues that ultimately Hobbes’s theory offers no safeguard to ensure that we will keep our agreements in such situations:


If the rules of right and wrong, just and unjust, have none of them any obligatory force in the state of nature, antecedent to positive compact, then, for the same reason, neither will they be of any force after the compact, so as to afford men any certain and real security; (excepting only what may arise from the compulsion of laws, and fear of punishment, which therefore, it may well be supposed, is all that Mr. Hobbes really means at the bottom.) [Discourse, 1]


Clarke argues here that, if we are not motivated to follow moral rules in the state of nature, then we will not be any more motivated to follow moral rules once we enter into the social contract. Clarke recognizes that fear of punishment may provide some motivation to follow the rules, but he claims that this is not enough. For Clarke, our main motivation to follow moral rules comes directly from an awareness of eternal and immutable moral truths themselves—and Hobbes denies this as a source of moral obligation. In short, according to Clarke, fear of punishment is the only source of motivation that Hobbes provides, and that is not sufficient to motivate us to always keep our agreements.

            Hobbes addresses this issue himself, agreeing that someone might reason as follows: “There is no such thing as justice . . . [and that for someone] to make or not make, keep or not keep, covenants was not against reason, when it conduced to one’s benefit.” Take, for example, someone that we can call a sneaky contract breaker. He knows the terms of the social contract, and verbally agrees to them, but thinks he’s clever enough to break the rules without getting caught.  However, Hobbes suggests that this line of reasoning is flawed:


He, therefore, that breaketh his covenant, and consequently declareth that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any society that unite themselves for peace and defense but by the error of them that receive him; nor when he is received, be retained in it without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security. . . [Leviathan, 15]


In other words, according to Hobbes, it is not reasonable for the sneaky contract breaker to base his own security entirely on his ability to go undetected. If he is caught, then he will be expelled from society, and, it is just not reasonable for him to take this risk. So, for Hobbes, fear of punishment is sufficient to restrain the sneaky contract breaker.

            Hobbes is probably right that we will not take the risk if there is a good chance that we’d be detected. But what if I plan the perfect crime, with no reasonable chance of getting caught? That is, what if I am an extra-cautious contract breaker? In this case, Hobbes needs another source of moral obligation that goes beyond an immediate fear of punishment. Perhaps we can rescue Hobbes from this dilemma by drawing on the virtue component of his theory. Suppose that I carefully scheme to steal my neighbor’s lawn-mower, and I succeed without getting caught. As a creature of habit, I am likely to plan similar crimes against other neighbors, and each time I do I increase the risk of being detected. By starting down the initial path of theft, then, I am taking an unreasonable risk since the odds of my getting caught are increased with each new act of theft. To eliminate this risk, the reasonable thing for me to do is develop the virtue of justice so that I will habitually avoid stealing and never even start down that perilous path. So, when I recognize my tendency to fall into dangerous habits, my fear of punishment should motivate me to develop consistent virtues, which in turn will keep me from breaking the rules. Hobbes’s actual comments on the role of virtues are brief, and he does not offer this specific solution there. However, in view of Hobbes’s position that “the science of virtue and vice is moral philosophy,” this virtue-based solution fits neatly into his overall theory. In short, contrary to Clarke, fear of punishment, along with this virtue of justice, may be enough to keep us from breaking contracts, even though we can get away with it.


Hume’s Criticism: We Do not Even Tacitly Agree to a Social Contract

Hobbes did not believe that there was an actual point in history when people got together and signed a social contract. However, if the social contract is not a specific historical agreement, then serious questions are raised about what kind of agreement it actually is and how it forms the basis of morality and governance. Hobbes himself tries to address this problem, noting that we can agree to contracts in either of two ways. First, we may agree through a concrete verbal expression, such as “I hereby agree to abide by the terms of the contract.” Second, we may indicate agreement by inference, whereby, through either our silence or actions, others will understand that we’ve agreed to something. Social contract theorists after Hobbes emphasized this second method, which they dubbed tacit consent. Locke provided the definitive description of what counts as tacit consent:


Every man, that hath any possession, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it. . . [Two Treatises of Government (1690), 2.119]


Thus, according to Locke, if I obtain any possession or benefit from a government, then I’ve tacitly agreed to abide by the rules of that government. For example, if I rely on protection from the local police or the U.S. military, then I’m receiving a benefit from these government agencies and thereby tacitly agree to their rules.

            Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) was not satisfied with this notion of tacit agreement. According to Hume, willful consent is the key element in any agreement—including tacit agreements—and virtually no one has willfully consented to the authority of their governments:


A tacit promise is, where the will is signified by other more diffuse signs than those of speech; but a will there must certainly be in the case, and that can never escape the person’s notice who exerted it, however silent or tacit. But were you to ask the far greatest part of the nation, whether they had ever consented to the authority of their rulers, or promised to obey them, they would be inclined to think very strangely of you: and would certainly reply, that the affair depended not on their consent, but that they were born to such an obedience. [Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), 3.2.8]


Hume argues that most people believe they were simply born into a condition of obedience. In fact, according to Hume, based on the idea of a line of succession, politicians try hard to trick people into believing that governments have natural authority over their citizens. Our current rulers claim that many years ago an earlier generation of citizens tacitly consented to a specific government, and governments today inherit that authority over us. Since we cannot go back in time and interview that first generation of citizens, we accept the politicians’ story and see ourselves as born into a condition of obedience. In short, we are tricked into accepting governmental authority, and neither we nor earlier generations of citizens ever tacitly agreed to a social contract. Ironically, Hume feels that this deception is actually a good thing. We need governments for our own protection, and if governments are forced into tricking us into accepting their authority, then so be it. The fact remains, though, that there neither is nor ever was a valid social contract that people tacitly consented to.

            Hume is correct that people do not willfully consent to the terms of a social contract—either explicitly or tacitly. Critics after Hume recognized this problem, and British political philosopher William Godwin (1736–1836) highlights a range of related conceptual problems with terms of the social contract:


Upon the first statement of the system of a social contract various difficulties present themselves. Who are the parties to this contract? For whom did they consent, for themselves only, or for others? For how long a time is this contract to be considered as binding? If the consent of every individual be necessary, in what manner is that consent to be given? Is it to be tacit, or declared in express terms? [Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), 3.2]


According to Godwin, not only is there a problem with whether the contract is tacit or explicit, but there are also questions about who is involved in the contract, how long the contract is binding, and what the precise terms of the contract are. Suppose that a defender of Hobbes concedes all of these problems and grants that there is no actual contract in place. Instead, according to the defender, the contract is only hypothetical. That is, we are only considering how a rational person would respond if that person were placed in the state of nature and presented with a social contract agreement.

            However, appealing to hypothetical contracts leads to yet another problem. It does not make sense to say that I specifically am obligated to the terms of a social contract simply because some imaginary rational person would agree to those terms. We do not convict real people for crimes that imaginary people commit. We do not reward real people for heroic deeds that imaginary people perform. Why, then, should real people be contractually bound by an agreement made by an imaginary person? We simply are not. In short, we must reject the idea of an actual social contract that we supposedly agree to tacitly. We must also reject the idea of a hypothetical social contract that an imaginary person agrees to. We will return the issue of willful consent at the close of this chapter.


Regan’s Criticism: Social Contract Excludes Animals and Non-Rational Humans

The social contract is like a moral club. Those who join are entitled to moral consideration and are under the umbrella of governmental protection. Those who do not join are essentially in the state of nature and have no moral consideration. One requirement for joining the club is that implicit signers of the contract must be rational and understand the terms of the contract. Unfortunately, animals do not pass this requirement:


To make covenants with brute beasts is impossible, because not understanding our speech, they understand not, nor accept of any translation of right, nor can translate any right to another. And without mutual acceptation, there is no covenant. [Leviathan, 14]


Contemporary philosopher Tom Regan (b. 1938) sees this as a big problem with Hobbes’s version of social contract theory: “As for animals, since they cannot understand contracts, they obviously cannot sign; and since they cannot sign, they have no rights” (“The Case for Animal Rights,” 1985). Although many animals experience pain, are aware of their surroundings, and are even aware of their own identities, the narrow requirements of the social contract exclude them from direct consideration. As members of the moral club we might agree to some set of rules that addresses the issue of animals. For example, we can agree that if I own a dog, you cannot harm my dog any more than you can damage my car. Both my dog and my car are my property and my property is protected under the social contract. Similarly, we may also decide to prohibit torturing even stray or wild animals. If I’m allowed to torture strays just for fun, then I may be more inclined to torture people just for fun. To keep me from developing hostile tendencies toward humans who are club members, we may be willing to adopt a rule against torturing stray animals.

            However, neither of these rules about animals take animals’ interests into account directly. Animals count only to the extent that human club members have a personal interest in them. This exclusivity problem with social contract theory involves more than just animals. Even nonrational human members – such as infants and the mentally impaired—will not get direct moral consideration. Like animals, these beings are also incapable of rationally understanding the terms of the contract. It seems, then, that there are two levels of morality in social contract theory: (1) a higher level in which rationally consenting members have direct moral consideration, and (2) a lower level in which nonrational beings get only indirect consideration.

            In response, the situation for nonrational beings such as animals and infants is not as discriminatory as Regan maintains. Even rationally consenting club members get only indirect moral consideration. I do not show you moral consideration because you directly deserve it as a valuable person; I give you moral consideration only so that I myself can survive. Your moral wellbeing, then, is secondary and dependent upon the value that I place in my own survival. To be precise, social contract theory implies that there are three distinct levels of moral consideration: (1) a primary level of consideration that I give myself, (2) a secondary level that I give to signers of the contract, and (3) a tertiary level that we agree to for animals and babies. If we are willing to accept the secondary moral status of fellow humans, it is not much more of a stretch to accept the tertiary moral status of nonrational beings. It might still seem unfair that nonrational beings must rely on the preferences of rational club members in order to gain even tertiary moral consideration. However, animals and infants are not the kinds of beings that can speak on their own behalf. In any moral theory they require proxy spokespeople to assert their rights, and in any moral theory this will depend on how the spokespeople prefer to value animals and infants.



Shortly after Hobbes’s writings appeared, theologically-minded critics attacked Hobbes for eliminating God’s role in mandating morality and establishing political authority. Accusations of atheism and irreligion were common, and several religious leaders reportedly even discussed burning Hobbes to death. Fortunately for Hobbes, threats like this never materialized. In spite of these harsh reactions, Hobbes’s general notion of the social contract captured the imagination of philosophers after him, and for 150 years, social contract theory was a dominant theme among political philosophers.


Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Theories

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, social contract theorists modified features of Hobbes’s theory to make it less skeptical, but they all accepted the basic concept of an original state of nature, and a social contract that addresses limitations of our natural state. For example, German philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694) agreed with Hobbes that the state of nature is fairly miserable and that, to survive, we enter into a social contract and establish political authorities to punish contract violators. However, Pufendorf argued that God sets the basic terms of the social contract by mandating that we should be sociable. For Pufendorf, then, the social contract is grounded in God’s authority, and not simply in the authority of people.

            British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) also put a more positive spin on social contract theory. According to Locke, the state of nature is not a condition of moral anarchy as Hobbes supposed; instead, it is an environment in which we have God-given natural rights to life, health, liberty, and possessions. Locke agreed that we need to contractually form governments to punish rights violators. However, whereas Hobbes believed that governments should have absolute authority once we put them in place and political revolutions are never justifiable, Locke argued that citizens may overthrow their government if it fails at its peacekeeping role. So, in Locke’s version of social contract theory, political revolutions are sometimes justifiable. The British Whig party quickly adopted Locke’s version of social contract theory to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which resulted in the overthrow of England’s king. This, in turn, provided the intellectual climate to justify the American Revolution and the rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

            As in Great Britain, social contract theory played a vital role in 18th-century French political thought, especially in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Contrary to Hobbes, who described the state of nature as a condition of mutual conflict, Rousseau argued that it is a condition of individual freedom in which creativity flourishes. According to Rousseau, in this state of nature people cannot avoid interacting with one another, and so citizens set up a social contract to regulate this interaction. The contract specifically establishes an absolute democracy that is ruled by the general will of the people, which, for Rousseau, involves what is best for all people. Just as social contract theory offered a philosophical justification for revolutionary activity in Great Britain, it similarly offered justification for the French Revolution of 1789.

            Serious interest in social contract theory declined during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as an ever-growing number of political philosophers questioned speculations about the state of nature and the very concept of a social contract. In recent decades, though, scholars have turned again to this theory, particularly Hobbes’s version. Contemporary discussions usually expand on three central aspects of the social contract. First, there is a description of a hypothetical environment in which we interact. This involves an account of the limits of our human rationality, the levels of risk that we take in making decisions, the way we balance our short-term versus long-term interests, the extent to which we are self-regarding versus other-regarding, and the degree to which we are physically and mentally equal. Second, in view of this hypothetical environment, there is a description of conflicts that inevitably arise. According to one explanation, our emotions drive us to act selfishly, in ways that conflict with other people’s interests. According to another explanation, conflicts arise based on how we rationally calculate what is in our respective best interests. Third, in view of the inevitable conflicts, there is a description of the type of political authority that is reasonable for us to create.


The Prisoner’s Dilemma

One of the best-known contemporary discussions of social contract theory is the prisoner’s dilemma, which describes how conflicts inevitably arise in a hypothetical state of nature. Specifically, the prisoner’s dilemma clarifies how our rational calculations lead to conflict. Imagine that you and I are caught robbing a bank, but the district attorney does not have quite enough evidence to guarantee a conviction. He needs us to confess to our crime, so, using a common interrogation tactic, he puts us in separate rooms and tries to get each of us to turn on the other. In this case, he offers a plea bargain based on various confessions that we might make:


• If I confess and you do not, then I will get only a 3-month sentence, but you will get a 10-year sentence.

• If you confess and I do not, then you will only get a 3-month sentence, but I will get a 10-year sentence.

• If neither of us confesses, then we will both get a 1-year sentence.

• If both of us confess, then we will both get an 8-year sentence.


If you and I could communicate, then the best arrangement would be for both of us to not confess, since then we’d each get only a 1-year sentence. However, since we cannot communicate, I cannot trust that you’ll keep your mouth shut. Even if you and I are friends, I need to calculate what the best deal is for me, regardless of how you respond to the district attorney’s offer. So, in spite of what you decide to do, I’ll clearly be better off by confessing, since it is better to serve 3 months or even 8 years than it is to serve 10 years.

            The point of this illustration is that, although mutual cooperation is the best mutual deal, I will still be rationally motivated to pursue the best deal for me individually. That is, since I cannot trust your decision, I have to look out for my own interests and do what’s best for me. In Hobbes’s terminology, since I cannot trust you in the state of nature, then I’ll have to look out for my own interests and attack you before you attack me. If I eliminate you first, then I serve my interests better than if I sat around passively. Ultimately, cooperation in the state of nature is not reasonable for any of us individually, and we will always be poised for war.

            The original prisoner’s dilemma scenario rests on the assumption that I cannot communicate with you about devising the best mutual strategy to shorten our stays in jail. The parallel in Hobbes’s state of nature is the assumption that I cannot trust you even if you say that you will not attack me. Is this distrust justified? My reasons for distrust in the state of nature rest on a variety of intricate questions about human nature—specifically, whether we can be naturally kind to strangers. Hobbes believed that we are not psychologically designed to be naturally kind to people whom we do not know. If we agree with Hobbes’s pessimistic view about human kindness, then we are justified in distrusting all strangers in the state of nature in spite of the good intentions that they express. However, this pessimistic view is a matter of debate; in fact, this is among the more hotly debated issues in ethics. The best we can say is that, if the pessimists are correct, then—as the prisoner’s dilemma suggests—the state of nature will be a perpetual state of conflict.


Rawls and Social Contract Theory

The most influential contemporary proponent of social contract theory is John Rawls, as he develops it in his book A Theory of Justice (1971). Paralleling Hobbes’s state of nature, Rawls describes a hypothetical situation that he calls the original position. In the original position, we are neither at war with one another nor trying to start a government. Instead, we are merely a group of rational, equal, and self-interested people who want to devise mutually beneficial moral guidelines for reforming our social system. To help us arrive at the most impartial moral guideline, we temporarily ignore our actual status in society, such as the size of our bank accounts and the amount of property that we own. Metaphorically, it is as though we voluntarily stand behind a veil of ignorance. This assures that I will not try to rig the system and create moral guidelines that benefit me the most—whether I am rich or poor.

            According to Rawls, after some back-and-forth discussion, we will eventually arrive at two rules of justice. We will then use these two rules to generate a longer and more specific list of obligations. The two rules of justice are these:


• Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

• Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (1) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and (2) attached to positions and offices open to all.


The first rule tells us that we should give one another as much freedom as we can. This includes moral liberties such as free speech and free movement. It also includes economic liberties, such as acquiring property and making money. Finally, it includes political liberties, such as voting and holding public office.

            So far, none of this is controversial from the standpoint of American society, which was founded on broad notions of liberty. However, we sometimes need to place limits on the wealth and power that we individually accumulate from our various liberties. Economic liberty is nice, but when we look at the vast fortunes accumulated by entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, we might feel that enough is enough.

            The second rule is a guideline for regulating the accumulation of wealth and power. According to this rule, Bill Gates can have an unequal amount of money only if such a capitalist economic system is to everyone’s advantage —including poor people. This aspect of Rawls’s theory is controversial. The default economic arrangement is that Bill Gates should get only an equal share of wealth. The burden of proof, then, is on the capitalist businessperson to show that even poor people benefit when an entrepreneur can pursue his economic dreams unimpeded. This, though, is a tough case to support, which makes socialism the default economic policy. Rawls clearly thinks that this socialistic orientation is the most impartial way to distribute wealth. However, capitalists would reject Rawls’s second rule of justice as too biased toward socialism.



Since the seventeenth century, social contract theory has been a useful tool for justifying political revolutions when governments fail to do their jobs. In the years ahead, political revolutionaries will likely continue to draw on social contract theory to justify overthrowing incompetent governments. Social contract theory also helps us understand why we allow our governments to have so much control over our lives. Take, for example, the power that we give our local police officers. We permit them to walk around with guns and even shoot us if necessary. We give them the authority to kick down our doors, storm through our homes, haul us to jail, and interrogate us for hours. Why would we want to give someone this kind of power over us? Social contract theory offers the best, and perhaps only reasonable, answer: We give the police this power in exchange for protection. In spite of social contract theory’s strong points, there are two lingering problems to the social contract tradition, in many of its forms.


Mixing Moral Theory with Political Theory

The first problem with social contract theory is that it does not adequately account for moral obligations that go beyond our political obligations. Social contract theories commonly weave together issues of political authority and moral obligation. Hobbes, for example, believed that we have no moral duties outside of the social contract, and morality emerges as a tool for preserving a peaceful society under the absolute authority of a ruler. From one perspective, this is an advantage of social contract theory since it reduces the conceptual clutter of two separate theories explaining our distinct moral and political obligations. Moral theories and political theories both talk about the behavioral obligations that we have to our fellow humans, and it makes sense to connect these obligations. From another perspective, though, the close relationship between political theory and moral theory is a liability of social contract theory, since it gives too much weight to political obligations. Issues of political authority and political obligation are undoubtedly important for us, and, if we simply ignore the government, we might do things send us to prison. However, political issues are not the only important issues in our lives, and for many of us, they are not even among our most important issues. Moral issues permeate our lives, and every encounter we have with other people involves a proper and an improper way of behaving. Although some of these obligations have direct ties to political issues, many have only a very remote connection.

            Suppose, for example, that you cheat on your spouse and continually lie to your family and friends concerning your secret life. Suppose also that you wipe out your family bank account on personal pleasures and that, when you’re home, you are drunk most of the time. Although all of these actions are immoral, they do not violate any laws, and they pose no threat to political authorities and the continuation of a peaceful political society. So, issues of political obligation only go so far in defining the scope of our moral obligations. The Oklahoma City bombing illustrates this point, too. Most of us feel that the bombers were grossly misdirected in their belief that the U.S. government unjustly overstepped its authority. For the sake of argument, though, let’s concede their bizarre political point and grant that the U.S. government forfeited its status as a legitimate authority. Does this make the bombing any less of an immoral deed? Certainly not. Completely apart from the political issue, there remains the moral issue concerning the value of the 168 victims’ lives, which the bombers callously ignored.


Social Contract versus Social Reciprocation

The second lingering problem with social contract theory is that it is naive to take the notion of a contract literally. We noted in our discussion of Hume’s criticism that a literal social contract requires consciously willful consent, and in point of fact, no one really gives this kind of consent to social contracts. Even Rawls’s theory suffers from this problem. When people negotiate the rules of justice, they willfully consent to step behind the veil of ignorance. In reality, though, neither we nor our legislators do this. We may not even be psychologically capable of doing this.

            Although we may not be able to fully rescue social contract theory from this problem, we might recast the theory in a more modest form as a theory of social reciprocation. That is, instead of seeing our situation as involving a formal contract that we consciously consent to, it is more plausible to see it simply as a kind of social reciprocation that we are content with. We pay our taxes, follow the laws, and acknowledge the authority of our government; what do we get in return? We receive governmental protection and some governmental benefits, such as free education and the use of public highways. Most of us are content with this give-and-take relationship, and we may not really care about who established the relationship to begin with. We’re happy to leave that issue to the historians. From our individual perspectives, we do not object to keeping the social relationship going, and many of us are even grateful for this relationship when we consider the horrible alternatives that we find in war-torn countries around the world. For example, without strong governmental protection, members of ethnic or religious factions might rise up and slaughter each other. To the extent that we are content with this reciprocal relationship, we will routinely follow the rules of the relationship to keep the social machine working.

            The key difference between a social contract and social reciprocation is that a contract involves a distinct mental act of consent that occurs at a distinct time. Philosophers today refer to this kind of psychological act as an occurrent mental state, which means that it principally occurs during a short and fixed period of time. By contrast, a merely reciprocal relationship requires only a long-term mental viewpoint of contentment. We might compare this mental viewpoint to the outlook of someone who is persistently happy. Suppose, for example, that you are a persistently happy person, and I ask you when you first became happy. You answer, “As far as I know I’ve always been happy, and I do not remember any distinct point in time when I was not.” Philosophers today refer to this as a dispositional mental state insofar as it is long-term and persistent within a person’s mind. Such is the case concerning our mental contentment with the give-and-take relationship between ourselves and society. Insofar as we’ve been consistently content with this reciprocal relationship, then we will follow the required rules.

            Traditional social contract theorists might object that mere contentment is not strong enough to assure that we consistently abide by society’s rules. Even if I am content today, I may become discontent a week from now and then stop following the rules. Granted, the words “contract” and “consent” are much stronger than the words “reciprocation” and “contentment.” However, peppering our moral vocabulary with these stronger words will not necessarily make us take our social obligations more seriously. The Oklahoma City bombing is a good illustration of this. A traditional social contract theorist would say that earlier in their lives the bombers tacitly consented to the terms of the contract, but later in life they both violated those terms. In spite of the weighty implications of the word “contract,” the bombers nevertheless did not take their moral obligation seriously. A less cumbersome explanation would be that, early in life, the bombers were dispositionally content with the give-and-take relationship between themselves and society. Later, though, they became dispositionally discontent and no longer felt compelled to continue the relationship or to abide by the rules.



Thomas Hobbes presented the first systematic account of social contract theory. According to Hobbes, our human nature prevents us from naturally living at peace with one another. Hobbes depicts this by describing a pre-political state of nature in which people constantly war. To move beyond this state of nature, we recognize the need to seek peace, the need to give up our hostile rights, and the need to keep our agreements. Accordingly, we enter into a social contract with one another and establish a government with absolute authority over us to assure that we abide by our agreements. Morality, for Hobbes, involves acquiring virtues that habitually incline us to do what the terms of the social contract require of us.

            Edward Hyde criticized Hobbes for denying the immutable and eternal status of morality. But contemporary moral philosophers have abandoned the specific concepts of immutability and eternality because of the metaphysical difficulties that they create. Samuel Clarke criticized Hobbes for thinking that fear of punishment would sufficiently motivate people to follow the rules of the social contract. If we plan a perfect crime and face no risk of getting caught, then fear of punishment alone will fail as a motivation. As creatures of habit, we are inclined to repeat crimes, and this continually increases our chances of getting caught and punished. To eliminate all risk, we should develop virtues that habitually incline us to follow the rules in all situations. Hume criticized social contract theory on the grounds that people do not willfully consent to the terms of the contract; and, without willful consent, there is no contract. Social contract theorists cannot rescue themselves by claiming that the contract is only hypothetical.

            Many recent discussions of social contract theory draw on the scenario of the prisoner’s dilemma, which helps explain why people are so uncooperative in the state of nature. But the prisoner’s dilemma works as an explanation only if we grant that people are not naturally kind to strangers. Rawls offers a contemporary version of social contract theory, which involves a group of rational people devising rules of justice in an original position. Rawls’s theory is controversial since it leans towards socialism.

            There are two lingering problems with social contract theory. First, we should recognize that social contract theory does not adequately account for moral obligations that rise above our politically-based obligations. Second, we must abandon the idea of a contract involving an occurrent mental state of willful consent. Instead, we should see the relationship as involving a dispositional mental state of contentment. More precisely, we are simply content to have a reciprocal relationship with governing bodies whereby we follow rules in exchange for protection and benefits.




State of War

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war. And such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but [also] in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known. And, therefore, the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lies not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together; so the nature of war consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

            Whatever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.


Proof of the Natural Condition

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things, that nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade and destroy each other. And he may therefore (not trusting to this inference made from the passions) desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience. Let him therefore consider with himself [that], when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied. When going to sleep, he locks his doors. When even in his house, he locks his chests, and this when he knows there be laws and public officers armed, to revenge all injuries [which] shall be done [to] him. [Consider] what opinion he has of his fellow subjects when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens when he locks his doors; and of his children and servants when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words? But neither of us accuse man’s nature in it. The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions, that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it.

            It may perhaps be thought [that] there was never such a time nor condition of war as this, and I believe it was never generally so over all the world. But there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America (except the government of small families the harmony whereof depends on natural lust) have no government at all and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. However, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common power to fear; [and] by what manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government, . . . [would] degenerate into in a civil war.

            But though there had never been anytime wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another; yet in all times, kings and persons of sovereign authority (because of their independence) are in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on each other. That is, their forts, garrisons, and guns [are fixed] upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies [are fixed] upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war. But because they uphold thereby the industry of their subjects, there does not follow from it that misery which accompanies the liberty of particular men.


Nothing is Unjust

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the [instinctive] faculties, neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct. But [there is] only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in; though with a possibility to come out of it consisting partly in the passions [and] partly in his reason.

            The passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggests convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called the laws of nature. . . .


Why People are Naturally Unsociable

It is true that certain living creatures, [such] as bees and ants, live sociably one with another (which are therefore by Aristotle numbered among political creatures), and yet have no other direction than their particular judgments and appetites; nor speech, whereby one of them can signify to another what he thinks expedient for the common benefit. And therefore some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same. To which I answer,

            First, that men are continually in competition for honor and dignity, which these creatures are not. And consequently among men there arises on that ground, envy, and hatred, and finally war; but amongst these not so.

            Secondly, that among these creatures the common good differs not from the private; and being by nature inclined to their private, they procure thereby the common benefit. But man, whose joy consists in comparing himself with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent.

            Thirdly, that these creatures, having not, as man, the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business. Whereas, among men, there are very many that think themselves wiser and abler to govern the public better than the rest, and these strive to reform and innovate, one this way, another that way; and thereby bring it into distraction and civil war.

            Fourthly, that these creatures, though they have some use of voice in making known to each other their desires and other affections, yet they want [i.e., lack] that art of words by which some men can represent to others that which is good in the likeness of evil; and evil, in the likeness of good; and augment or diminish the apparent greatness of good and evil, discontenting men and troubling their peace at their pleasure.

            Fifthly, irrational creatures cannot distinguish between injury and damage. And therefore as long as they be at ease, they are not offended with their fellows: whereas man is then most troublesome when he is most at ease. For then it is that he loves to show his wisdom, and control the actions of them that govern the Commonwealth.

            Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is natural; that of men is by covenant only, which is artificial. And therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required, besides covenant, to make their agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power to keep them in awe and to direct their actions to the common benefit.


Creating Peace and a Commonwealth through a Social Contract

[There is only one] way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of each other, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly. [That way] is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will. Which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and everyone to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so bears their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, everyone to his will, and their judgments to his judgment. This is more than consent, or concord. It is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man. [It is made] in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a commonwealth; in Latin, civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defense. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he has the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consists the essence of the Commonwealth, which, to define it, is: one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves everyone the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defense.

            And he that carries this person is called sovereign, and said to have sovereign power; and everyone besides, his subject.


Source: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), 13, 17.




Upon the first statement of the system of a social contract various difficulties present themselves. Who are the parties to this contract? For whom did they consent, for themselves only or for others? For how long a time is this contract to be considered as binding? If the consent of every individual be necessary, in what manner is that consent to be given? Is it to be tacit, or declared in express terms?


First Objection: Extending the Contract to Future Generations

Little will be gained for the cause of equality and justice, if our ancestors, at the first institution of government, had a right indeed of choosing the system of regulations under which they thought proper to live, but at the same time could barter away the understandings and independence of all that came after them to the latest posterity [i.e., to current generations of people]. But, if the contract must be renewed in each successive generation, what periods must be fixed on for that purpose? And if I be obliged to submit to the established government till my turn comes to assent to it, upon what principle is that obligation founded? Surely not upon the contract into which my father entered before I was born?


Second Objection: Limitations of Tacit Consent

Secondly, what is the nature of the consent, in consequence of which I am to be reckoned the subject of any particular government? It is usually said, “that acquiescence is sufficient; and that this acquiescence is to be inferred from my living quietly under the protection of the laws.” But if this be true, an end is as effectually put to all political science, all discrimination of better and worse, as by any system invented by the most slavish sycophant that ever existed. Upon this hypothesis every government that is quietly submitted to is a lawful government, whether it be the usurpation of [English military leader] Cromwell or the tyranny of [Roman emperor] Caligula. Acquiescence [i.e., silent acceptance] is frequently nothing more than a choice on the part of the individual of what he deems the least evil. In many cases it is not [even] so much as this, since the peasant and the artisan, who form the bulk of a nation, however dissatisfied with the government of their country, seldom have it in their power to transport themselves to another. It is also to be observed upon the system of acquiescence, that it is in little agreement with the established opinions and practices of mankind. Thus what has been called the law of nations, lays least stress upon the allegiance of a foreigner settling among us, though his acquiescence is certainly most complete; while natives removing into an uninhabited region are claimed by the mother country, and removing into a neighboring territory are punished by municipal law, if they take arms against the country in which they were born. Now surely acquiescence can scarcely be construed into consent, while the individuals concerned are wholly unapprised of the authority intended to be rested upon it.

            Mr. Locke, the great champion of the doctrine of an original contract, has been aware of this difficulty, and therefore observes, that “a tacit consent indeed obliges a man to obey the laws of any government, as long as he has any possessions, or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of that government; but nothing can make a man a member of the commonwealth, but his actually entering into it by positive engagement, and express promise and compact.” A singular distinction; implying upon the face of it, that an acquiescence, such as has just been described, is sufficient to render a man amenable to the penal regulations of society; but that his own consent is necessary to entitle him to its privileges.


Third Objection: Length of the Contract

A third objection to the social contract will suggest itself, as soon as we attempt to ascertain the extent of the obligation, even supposing it to have been entered into in the most solemn manner by every member of the community. Allowing that I am called upon, at the period of my coming of age for example, to declare my assent or dissent to any system of opinions or any code of practical institutes; for how long a period does this declaration bind me? Am I precluded from better information for the whole course of my life? And, if not for my whole life, why for a year, a week or even an hour? If my deliberate judgment or my real sentiment be of no avail in the case, in what sense can it be affirmed that all lawful government is founded in my consent?

            But the question of time is not the only difficulty. If you demand my assent to any proposition, it is necessary that the proposition should be stated simply and clearly. So numerous are the varieties of human understanding, in all cases where its independence and integrity are sufficiently preserved, that there is little chance of any two men coming to a precise agreement about ten successive propositions that are in their own nature open to debate. What then can be more absurd than to present to me the laws of England in fifty volumes folio, and call upon me to give an honest and uninfluenced vote upon their whole contents at once?

            But the social contract, considered as the foundation of civil government, requires more of me than this. I am not only obliged to consent to all the laws that are actually upon record, but to all the laws that shall hereafter be made. It was under this view of the subject, that Rousseau, in tracing the consequences of the social contract, was led to assert, that “the great body of the people, in whom the sovereign authority resides, can neither delegate nor resign it. The essence of that authority,” he adds, “is the general will; and will cannot be represented. It must either be the same or another; there is no alternative. The deputies of the people cannot be its representatives; they are merely its attorneys. The laws, that the community does not ratify in person, are no laws, are nullities.”

            The difficulty here stated has been endeavored to be provided against by some late advocates for liberty, in the way of addresses of adhesion; addresses, originating in the various districts and departments of a nation, and without which no regulation of constitutional importance is to be deemed valid. But this is a very inadequate and superficial remedy. The addressers of course have seldom any other remedy than that above described, of in discriminate admission or rejection. There is an infinite difference between the first deliberation, and the subsequent exercise of a negative. The former is a real power, the latter is seldom more than the shadow of a power. Not to add, that addresses are a most precarious and equivocal mode of collecting the sense of a nation. They are usually voted in a tumultuous and summary manner; they are carried along by the tide of party; and the signatures annexed to them are obtained by indirect and accidental methods, while multitudes of bystanders, unless upon some extraordinary occasion, remain ignorant of or indifferent to the transaction.


Fourth Objection: Divesting our Moral Rights

Lastly, if government be founded in the consent of the people, it can have no power over any individual by whom that consent is refused. If a tacit consent be not sufficient, still less can I be deemed to have consented to a measure upon which I put an express negative. This immediately follows from the observations of Rousseau. If the people, or the individuals of whom the people is constituted, cannot delegate their authority to a representative; neither can any individual delegate his authority to a majority, in an assembly of which he is himself a member. The rules by which my actions shall be directed are matters of a consideration entirely personal; and no man can transfer to another the keeping of his conscience and the judging of his duties. But this brings us back to the point from which we set out. No consent of ours can divest us of our moral capacity [i.e., moral rights]. This is a species of property which we can neither barter nor resign; and of consequence it is impossible for any government to derive its authority from an original contract.


Source: William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), 3.2.




Please answer all of the following questions.


1. What is the “disease” and what is the “cure” as described by social contract theory?

2. Why does Hobbes think that we are equal both physically and intellectually in the state of nature?

3. What are the three causes of quarrel in the state of nature?

4. What examples does Hobbes give to prove his gloomy description of human nature?

5. Explain the first three laws of nature?

6. According to Hobbes, why can we not overthrow governments?

7. Explain the two features of Hobbes’s account of morality?

8. What are Hyde’s two criticisms of Hobbes’s social contract theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

9. What is Clarke’s criticism of Hobbes’s social contract theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

10. What is Hume’s criticism of social contract theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

11. What is Regan’s criticism of social contract theory, and what is the response given in the chapter?

12. What is the state of nature like according to Pufendorf, Locke, and Rousseau, respectively?

13. What is the point of the prisoner’s dilemma?

14. According to Rawls, what is the “original position” and what are the two rules of justice?

15. What is wrong with mixing moral theory and political theory?

16. What is the difference between willfully consenting to a social contract and being dispositionally content with social reciprocity?

[Reading 1: Hobbes on the Social Contract]

17. What are Hobbes’s proofs of the natural condition?

18. What are Hobbes’s six reasons for why humans are naturally unsociable?

[Reading 2: Godwin on Four Objections to the Social Contract]

19. Explain Godwin’s first objection about extending the contract to future generations, and second objection about the limitations of tacit consent.

20. Explain Godwin’s third objection about the length of the contract, and fourth objection about divesting our moral rights.

[Question for Analysis]

21. In a minimum of 150 words, pick any one of the following listed views in this chapter and criticize it. Hobbes: state of nature, the laws of nature, one of the six reasons why humans are naturally unsociable; one of the responses to Hyde, Clarke, Hume, or Regan; views of the state of nature by Pufendorf, Locke or Rousseau; the prisoner’s dilemma; Rawls’s original position or two rules of justice; one of Godwin’s four objections to the social contract.a