This great 8-Bit Philosophy video discusses Thomas Hobbes’ and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the Social Contract. The social contract is basically an implicit agreement among members of a social group to abide by certain rules and/or be ruled by a governing body. This explains the purpose of government as well as an argument for how it should operate. Modern philosophers, such as Rawls, also argue for new versions of this theory that explain ethics more broadly.
- Where did Hobbes and Rousseau differ about the original state of nature? Who do you think was right, or closer to the truth?
- What is the social contract? Why would anyone agree to be ruled by someone else or limit themselves by rules?
- What would life be like now if we suddenly did not have a social contract?
- Could all of morality be an implicit social contract?
Keywords: ethics, moral theory, contractarianism, meta-ethics, government, politics, laws
One thought on “Do We Need Government? The Social Contract [3:24]”
The video showed “social contract” as between people and the government. That’s incorrect. The contract is amongst the people themselves. A modern example would be the Constitution of the United States of America. The people agreed to constitute a government. And further, they agreed to elect representatives to a legislature that would work out further agreements on their behalf, and enact these agreements into laws. The laws were not just about rules. Every rule implies a right. A law against theft implies a right to property.
There have been other arrangements, of course. There were families, tribes based on extended families, communities, states, and nations with different forms of government. A tribe could offer a better defense of its hunting grounds than a family. A nation could offer better defense
against pirates (Vikings) and empire builders (long list).
I imagine a smaller community might have hired defenders, who later became knights, who later became kings. But power corrupts.
To deal with that, a king was forced to sign a Magna Carta, delegating some authority to a
parliament, which first recognized the knights, and later included representatives of the people.
But back to nature. In the absence of any agreement, there are no rights. All practical rights arise by agreement. The difference between the natural communities of Hobbes and Rousseau was that one community had no social contract in place and the other did. Without any agreement on rights, there are no rules other than “might makes right”. To counter the biggest and strongest imposing his will upon everyone else, the community must agree to unite to combat him. Any right that cannot be defended becomes merely rhetorical.