Social Contract Theory of Morality - Terminology

Social Contracts result in societies of rational, self-interested people who are motivated to cooperate in order to maximize their own interests [1]. We can trace this notion back to Socrates, who used it to illustrate a simultaneous mutual commitment between the state and the citizens that constitute an implicit contract [2].

Contractarianism is a theory used in politics, to justify the legitimacy of coercive political authority; and morals, to explain the legitimacy of proposed moral norms [3]. Other authors state that is a third type of contractarianism: constitutional [4].

Political/Civil Contractarianism(seventeenth and eighteenth century). Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau mark the turning point against the previously assumed Aquinas’s Natural Law. From Locke, we take the idea of an authority figured that accepted by the governed; from Rousseau the idea of general will. And from Hobbes’ Leviathan, the idea of institutionalized power to escape the “state of nature” in which “life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” [5].

Kant’s use of the social contract is consistent with his moral theory about the capacity of human potentialities and his political philosophy, conceiving that the social contract is a requirement of reason when structuring how to live in society. For him the will legitimizes political authority [6].

All these philosophers influenced the Traditional Social Contract Theory, which understood this contract as a way to give the authority (or the sovereign) the authority (or power) to govern on behalf of a community [7]. The reason why people would surrender their endless freedoms is because it is a means to achieve peace through cooperation for the sake of everyone, instead of a few, allowing them to live in certainty and safety. This theory was based on five key points, common to David Gauthier’s theory: basic equality in the desires and needs of people, gregarious nature, scarcity of goods and limited altruism, both making cooperation necessary, and practical rationality the means.

The Modern Social Contract Theories of Morality see morality as a “set of standards which would be agreed upon by rationally self-interested individuals smart enough to realize the benefits of living in a society in which these standards are observed” [8] also making the individual’s interests the key reason why, strategically, one chooses to be part of this contract.

Moral Contractarianism (from early twentieth century). When stepping in moral ground, this theory grounds moral principles exclusively in the interest of individuals to maximize their possible benefits by rationally choosing to constrain their otherwise limitless freedoms and free will [9]. Important authors are John Harsanyi, John Mackie and James Buchanan.

But certainly, the most important one is David Gauthier, who formulated the Contemporary Social Construct Theory, under which we understand moral questions as limited exclusively to matters of practical rationality, without the existence of any moral standards previous to the contract the agents agree on.

Gauthier uses The Prisoner’s Dilemma to explain the usefulness of morality in decision-making. It implies that the agents involved are both rational, are aware of this fact and thus assume they will come to the same conclusion with the information available. Inherent to this situation there is a “structural problem of interaction” [10], as Gauthier calls it, that indicates how sometimes what appears to be the rational choice can result in an outcome that is not the best possible, showing that rationality alone isn’t the answer, but everyone’s rationality is requires, which he explains with his concept of Straightforward Utility Maximization and Constrained Maximization. For Gauthier, moral constraint has two features: internally decided by the agent's will, and this should be done in a way that maintains impartiality amongst persons.

Finally, John Rawls is worth mentioning for his restatement of a Kantian contract theory, seen as “a device which underpins his conception of a just society as a fair system of social cooperation between individuals who are free and equal.”[11].

Social Contract Theory has been critiqued by Hume, Hegel, Marx [12].

[1] Cudd, 2007
[2] Socrates, Crito, cited in Boucher, 1994
[3] Cudd, 2007
[4] Boucher,1994, p. 3
[5] Waluchow, 2003, p. 128
[6] Boucher, 1994
[7] Waluchow, 2004
[8] Waluchow, 2004, p. 126
[9] Boucher, 1994
[10] Waluchow, 2004
[11] Boucher, 1994, p. 214
[12] Boucher, 1994

Cudd, A. (2007). Contractarianism. Retrieved May 20, 2013 from
Milde, M. (January 01, 1999). Unreasonable Foundations. Social Theory and Practice, 25, 1, 93-125.
Boucher, D., & Kelly, P. (1994). Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls. London: Routledge.
Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Photo Credits
Du Contrat Social: ou Principes du Droit Politique Title page of the genuine first octavo edition (first state with standing Justice) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract 1762.