The Social Contract


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Having concluded that it is natural and rational for people to give up some liberty in order to gain security of self-preservation, Hobbes develops a conception of what forms of social organization and political system are consistent with those aims. The condition in which people give up some individual liberty in exchange for some common security is the Social Contract. Hobbes defines contract as "the mutual transferring of right. The social contract is the agreement by which individuals mutually transfer their natural right. In other words, I give up my natural right to steal your food because you give up your natural right to steal mine.

In place of the natural right we have created a limited right; in this case the right of property. Hobbes notes that we do not make these agreements explicitly because we are born into a civil society with laws and conventions i. It is by performing the thought experiment regarding the state of nature and following the chain of reasoning Hobbes put before us that we can see the foundations of our commitment to civil law.

One matter that Hobbes' investigation allows is the examination of governments for the purpose of determining their legitimacy. The purpose of a government is enforce law and serve the common protection.

Wherever the government turns to favor the strong over the weak, one might way that the government has exceeded its legitimate function. In Hobbes' time the rulers claimed their authority to rule by virtue of divine right. God made them King and anyone who questioned the authority of the King was challenging God.

Hobbes made some powerful enemies by doing just that. ADA Text Version. Government exists because it is generally preferable to the alternative, anarchy , which is the absence of government. The benefits of organizing society under centralized authority almost always outweigh the costs. According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes , the life of humans in the state of nature is "nasty, brutish, and short. They therefore agree to surrender their precarious natural freedom to governments in Hobbes theory a Leviathan, or monarch for security.

Government exists to insulate us from the arbitrary violence of nature and protect us from each other. An 18th century philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau offers an alternative explanation.


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  • The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

According to Rousseau, mankind in the state of nature was not miserable as portrayed by Hobbes but happy and free. Over time, however, society and its institutions have corrupted man's better nature. Governments should be organized to reflect this general will. And this is me right over here. And at first, it sounds pretty good. I have unlimited rights here. There's no one infringing on my right. I can say what I want. I have the freest possible speech. There are no laws that I could break.

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I have the freest possible religion. I have no government telling me what to practice or what I can't practice.

I have, I can own what I want. I have property. I can go anywhere, so I have movement.

SparkNotes: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (–): The Social Contract

And I also have some freedoms that those of us who live in a government don't typically have. So I would have the freedom to tax others or to take from others, take property.

If I'm stronger than them, or if I'm just sneakier, I go in the middle night, I can just take their property from them. I could just settle on their land.

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I could have the freedom to punish others or imprison others if I don't like 'em. It doesn't even have to be for a reason. This is a freedom that most of us don't have in the world that we live in today. But without a government, I would have this freedom, this freedom to go and take stuff from others and to do physical harm or imprison them or enslave them. Now, this might sound good to you as an individual, but remember everyone in this government-less society would have these same, would have these same freedoms.

And I especially like the ability to have my own property and to have my own freedom of movement. But what if this person right over here doesn't like me to have freedom of movement? And so they say they're going to invoke, look, I can punish or imprison you because I don't like you. And so they're going to infringe on my freedom of movement by imprisoning me, or maybe I might do it to someone else. And so even though you have all of these freedoms, because everyone else does, especially these latter few, they might be able to take some of these from you, including your freedom to live, your health, your happiness.

And this is well-described in political philosophy. In particular, you have a gentleman by the name of Thomas Hobbes, who's considered one of the fathers of political philosophy.

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