social contract


social contract

Actual or hypothetical compact between the ruled and their rulers. The original inspiration for the notion may derive from the biblical covenant between God and Abraham, but it is most closely associated with the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes argued that the absolute power of the sovereign is justified by a hypothetical social contract in which the people agree to obey him in all matters in return for a guarantee of peace and security, which they lack in the warlike “state of nature” posited to exist before the contract is made. Locke believed that rulers also were obliged to protect private property and the right to freedom of thought, speech, and worship. Rousseau held that in the state of nature people are unwarlike but also undeveloped in reasoning and morality; in surrendering their individual freedom, they acquire political liberty and civil rights within a system of laws based on the “general will” of the governed. The idea of the social contract influenced the shapers of the American Revolution and the French Revolution and the constitutions that followed them.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on social contract, visit Britannica.com.

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