Why Social Contract Theory Fails

Jean Jacques Rousseau ou l’homme de la nature | Augustin Legrand | 1795

Social contract (SC) theory, as increasingly expounded upon, and amended accordingly, by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live’ (Friend, n.d.), thus obliging the emergence of the state out of the state of nature (SoN), claiming to justify the necessary existence of the state, whereby the people are said to have consented to the laws of such. However, these three prominent iterations of the SC, are insufficient in justifying the existence of the state, nor demonstrating the citizenry’s consent to its laws.

Hobbes’ SC infers that people emerge from the SoN, in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes, 1651, p. 97), toward the state, whereby man lives under some sovereign authority, to which beings ‘give up thy Right[s] to him’ (Hobbes, 1651, p. 132), to establish law and order, thus claiming the justifiability of the state and its laws, yet this is not the case. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectic, the ‘grasping of opposites in their unity’ (Hegel, 1812, p. 35), and the SC , based upon the common will which proceeds from the summation of the individuals’ arbitrary wills, reduces the state’s universal will down to a superficial common will, ‘not a will which is universal in and for itself’ (Hegel, 1812, p. 105). In executing the SC, the parties retain their particular wills, and therefore, the relationship remains arbitrary, and therefore susceptible to immorality, thus inferring false equivocacy in conflating the relationship between individuals to that between the individual and the state. Hobbes’ psychological egoism in this preceding SoN, in which it is contrary to our nature to act selflessly, yet we are capable of doing so, such that ‘nothing could count as an unselfish act’ (Waller, 2016, p. 22), entails several dilemmas. Firstly, Hobbes’ experiences of political turmoil renders an unrepresentative sample, such that it fails as a scientific principle amidst differing accounts of harmonious ‘states’ of nature. Secondly, egoism renders a meaningless tautology, as it suggests that all selfish acts are so, becoming meaningless when we may instead accept the distinction between selfishness and selflessness, for minimally, practical purposes. Thirdly, egoism does not provide the capacity for one to act upon two-fold motives, which we readily experience, as for example, one may volunteer for community service, in which one helps others whilst simultaneously strengthening one’s employability. In suggesting the state is morally necessary, and that the people’s only obligations are those defined in the SC, Hobbes binds morality to legality, such that the continuation of legal slavery is morally permissible. The moral-legal code of the SC further implies an exclusive-inclusive dichotomy, unable to make any distinction as to which moral-legal code is superior, such that genocide of peoples under different SCs may be deemed amoral, rather than immoral. Therefore, Hobbes’ SC does not justify the state, nor are its laws consented-to.

Locke’s SC infers that people are inherently good, and are equally granted the God-ordained inalienable rights of ‘life, liberty, and [property]’ (Locke, 1689, p. 20), but corrupted by society, yet ‘civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature’ (Locke, 1689, p. 110), thus claiming the justifiability of the state and its laws, yet this is not the case. Locke prescribes morality to property by suggesting that ownership is ascertained by ‘mixing’ one’s labour with something; however, its absurdity is demonstrated by Robert Nozick- casting a tin of tomatoes, which one owns, into the sea, which one does not own, would imply one owns the sea (Nozick, 1974). Nonetheless, if the principle is accepted, capitalism is unaware of, or indifferent to, the history of land, that is, the indigenous peoples owned land, and ‘mixed’ their labour with such, yet capitalism, in the formation of the state, declared such property to be the state’s- a moral contradiction; private property is immoral, under a Kantian reading, whereby morality is rational. Locke prescribes the protection of liberty and property to the state, yet does not recognise that within this increasingly exchange-oriented state, the state must act as a non-consensual legal force to protect the immoral transfer to private property. If one capitalist is both the trader and guarantor of the security of another capitalist, the threat of force distorts the relationship, removing any sense of equality, and if both are entitled to force, the nature of exchange erodes, just as the state succumbs to the Might-Makes-Right Fallacy, whereby validity is hindered by the threat of force. In this transition from Locke’s pre-political, yet moral, SoN, to the political state, firstly, there emerges a contradiction in the transfer of morality, as behaviours that were morally impermissible in the SoN are now said to be morally permissible in the state; that is the moral permissibility of the state, acting through its government, expands, whilst that of the people, acting through themselves, whether collectively or individually, contracts. The state is now permitted to functions hitherto forbidden, like execution, and more insidiously, aligns itself with the capitalist class in the adoption of private property, yet the nature of morality is its universality. Secondly, there is a two-fold contradiction in ‘giving up’ one’s ‘inalienable rights’, in the sense that it is logically impossible to alienate such- as Ernst Cassirer postulates, there is a violation of the meaning of humanity, common to all under the SC, such that ‘if a man could give up his personality he would cease to be a moral being’ and would ‘give up that very character which constitutes his nature and essence’ (Cassirer, 1963, p. 175). Thirdly, in the SoN, Locke prescribes God-ordained rights to each individual, yet from such, emerges the Socratic Euthyphro’s dilemma, which charges that either one accepts that morality is determined as God commands so, such that morality is arbitrary, or that morality is determined as God commands that which is already so, such that morality is independent of God (Plato, 389 BCE), yet Locke elects neither and so remains in nothingness. Therefore, Locke’s SC does not justify the state, nor are its laws consented-to.

Rousseau’s SC infers that people in the SoN live in harmony, yet the transition to private ownership corresponds with the shift toward the state, binding between the people, whom give up their rights to the General Will- not between the people and government- and the state serves the General Will, yet this is not the case. Rousseau posits the distinction between state and government, considering the state to be the representation of the General Will, and the government to be the mediation between the public and sovereign, with the state existing for itself, whilst the government exists for the sovereign. However, in doing so, Rousseau fails to posit the distinction between the state and civil society, by assuming civil society to be some political body which is opposed to the natural status, taking the functions of the state in abstraction, failing to recognise what Karl Marx identifies as the duality of state functions- ‘the political ruling is based on the social functions of a state, and political ruling can only exist in the progress of implementing state functions’, (Marx, 1995, p. 341) , such that the state is the instrument of class oppression, and equally, the reconciliator of social contradictions, with the latter constituting the basis of the former (Shi, 2015). Rousseau recognises the moral failures of the transition to private ownership, yet does not recognise that this collectivist state ultimately reduces to Hobbes’ monarchy in its class contradictions, and the state thus fails to act as the mediator of the General Will. These underlying economic forces reinforce one another, such that the individual is unable to simply leave the state and therefore the SC, but rather faces institutional barriers upon exiting, as one must pay fees for travel, passports, citizenship, and the revokement of such. This manifestation of the Might-Makes-Right Fallacy, whereby the state holds the politico-socio-economic means of power, falsely translates to the notion of consent to the laws of the SC. The state cannot be justified if the state’s conception is bound to a contract whose consent is enforced by the means of asymmetric power and ‘signed’ by incidence of birth, as, for example, a contract forced by means of economic power by a socioeconomically privileged landlord, whom holds the means of eviction, upon his tenant, born into poverty. Moreover, the terms of the SC are not constant but rather subject to constant amendment with disproportionate access to the means of change and disproportionate benefits, as the state, acting through government, may, for example, increase such institutional barriers to exit without public consent, thus accumulating greater revenue for the state whilst depriving the individual of wealth. This corresponds to the previous landlord-tenant contract being one in which the cost of rent increases without consent. Therefore, Rousseau’s SC does not justify the state, nor are its laws consented-to.

The SCs of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, accumulatively and individually, fail to justify the existence of the state, and therefore, nor do they ascribe meaningful consent to the citizens of the state in transitioning from the SoN to the state. Despite dissimilar perspectives on the ordination of rights, and the SoN, these perspectives converge unto an insistence that the state is necessary, yet this is shown not to be the case, and its implications do not provide any falsifiable mechanism by which to test the explainability, and therefore validity, of the theory, nor that its laws are consented-to.

References

  • Cassirer, E, 1963, Philosophy & History, the Warburg Institute, London.
  • Friend, C, n.d., ‘Social Contract Theory’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hamilton College, New York.
  • Hegel, G.W.F., 1812 (2010), the Science of Logic, Cambridge University Press.
  • Hobbes, T, 1651 (1909), Leviathan, Oxford University Press, London.
  • Locke, J, 1689 (1980, 2005), Two Treatises of Government (Second Treatise of Government), Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis & Cambridge. .
  • Marx, K, 1847 (1995), Marx’s Collected Works, People’s Publishing Press, Beijing.
  • Min, S, 2015, ‘Comparative Study on the Political Philosophy of Rousseau and Marx Through Marx’s Communist Manifesto’, Canadian Social Science, vol. 11, no. 6, pp. 98–103, DOI: 10.3968/7097.
  • Nozick, R, 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, New York.
  • Plato, 380 BCE (Woods, C & Pack, R, 2007), Euthyphro, Virginia Wesleyan College, Virginia.
  • Rousseau, J (Bennett J), 1762 (2010), The Social Contract, available at: <https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/rousseau1762book1.pdf>.
  • Waller, B.N., 2016, Consider Ethics: Theory and Readings, Pearson Learning Solutions, Boston.