Social Contract Essay

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Social contract describes a broad set of philosophical theories that concern the legitimacy and preservation of extant governing institutions. While applicable to the entirety of the aforementioned theory, four books authored by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and collectively bearing the title of Social Contract are most commonly associated with the term. These books concern the balance between individual rights and social order imposed by a legitimate state authority. Rousseau asserts that humans are essentially self-interested and prone to short-term opportunistic behavior, which without limitations hinders the acquisition of stability and higher-order goals. To balance these immediate and long-term goals, Rousseau advocates governance by the “sovereign will” of the populace, with individual citizens free to engage actively in the process or freely emigrate. These views contributed significantly to 18th-century discourse, which typically held governance at two extremes: either the authoritative role of the monarchy or voluntary participation in small social collectives. Rousseau’s positions have helped to shape the contracts citizens form with their governments and the contracts they form with businesses or other associations governed by the “partial will” of their select members.


Theories of social contracts and the rights and obligations of a nation’s citizens have been a topic of discussion since first appearing in 4th-century-b.c.e. Greek writings. However, the increasing amounts of subjugation by foreign governments during the Renaissance catalyzed modern writings on contract theories. The writings of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651) were among the first to articulate the need for a governance contract to counter the individualistic and destructive tendencies of humans when residing in a state of nature. Hobbes contended that the populace left to its own devices would remain in a vicious and barbarous state unless people agreed to forfeit rights and liberties in exchange for absolute rule that allows order and social civility. Rousseau differed from Hobbes in a series of discourses written in the 17th century in which he suggested that humans had within them the potential for goodness and thus the “sovereign will” of the populace should dictate governance systems.

The Social Contract (1762) is the work of Rousseau most associated with outlining the role of political institutions and the rights of the citizens. As mentioned previously, the crux of his writings builds off Hobbes’s earlier works and asserts that people must give up some rights to their government in exchange for social order and security. However, Rousseau’s insistence that humans must have their “sovereign will” exercised to legitimate a governing body marked a notable departure from Hobbes’s belief in rule by authoritarian monarchy. While differing greatly from Hobbes’s position Rousseau stops short of advocating a fully participative democracy. In fact, Rousseau advocates that the will of the populace be carried out by a government ruled by aristocrats because of their advanced education and intelligence and in doing so does actively challenge the appointment of royalty by God to govern. In sum, Rousseau does not advocate any specific system of government, but primarily contributes the suggestion that a legitimate government must express the general will of the people.

Reception And Influence

The publication of the Social Contract was fundamental to the paradigm shift away from monarch rule in the 18th century. Its theories influenced social reform in Europe (most notably the French Revolution [1789]), the formation of socialist thought, and the founding of the United States of America. In light of its success, the Social Contract has also received much criticism. Many critics argue that the concept of maintaining of government that consistently expresses the general will is only feasible in the abstract. That once one attempts to elucidate the mechanisms and inner workings of such a government, the difficulties overwhelm its practicality. Others point to the lack of true ability for citizens to emigrate and thus decline participation in the social contract as a shortcoming. Mark Hulliung highlights this last critique in his assertion that the Southerners’ inability to secede the Union and the resulting United States’ Civil War marked a turning point in the influence of social contract on American and Western thought.


In the last century, industrialization and the decline of available agrarian subsistence have brought the role of corporations into the social contract debate. As international boundaries and restrictions fall and the power, wealth, and social impact of corporations supersede many governments to which they were once dependent, citizens are now increasingly questioning the role of the “sovereign will” in directing corporate action. The businesses that Rousseau described as small and temporary collectives whose actions were easily directed by the “partial will” of their select and transient membership have been replaced by corporate forces now faced with managing the often-conflicted interests of investors, managers, employees, and direct and indirect stakeholders. The extant challenge for the social contract will be the balance of corporate profits, international competitiveness, and the continued expression of the “general will” in all things.


  1. Christopher Bertram, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Rousseau and the Social Contract (Routledge, 2004);
  2. John Douglas, “For-Profit Corporations in a Just Society: A Social Contract Argument Concerning the Rights and Responsibilities of Corporations,” Business Ethics Quarterly (v.18/2, 2008);
  3. Mark Hulliung, The Social Contract in America: From the Revolution to the Present Age (University Press of Kansas, 2007);
  4. Richard Marens, “Returning to Rawls: Social Contracting, Social Justice, and Transcending the Limitations of Locke,” Journal of Business Ethics (v.75/1, 2007);
  5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, the First and Second Discourses (Yale University Press, 2002);
  6. Jaime Saavedra and Mariano Tommasi, “Informality, the State and the Social Contract in Latin America,” International Labour Review (v.146/3–4, 2007);
  7. Brian Skyrms, Evolution of the Social Contract (Cambridge University Press, 1996);
  8. Christopher D. Wraight, Rousseau’s The Social Contract: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum, 2008).

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