Thomas Hobbes Social Contract Theory Explained


Developed in 1651, the Thomas Hobbes social contract theory that looks to address the origin of society. At the same time, it looks at the overall legitimacy of how a state has authority over an individual. According to Hobbes, individuals consent, other tacitly or explicitly, to surrender personal freedoms to a ruling leader or group in exchange for protection of the freedoms they can maintain.

Hobbes suggests in his publication entitled Leviathan that social contracts are required for a society to exist. Without such a contract, whether written or unwritten, humanity would devolve into anarchy.

Key Points of Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory

Thomas Hobbes believed that the lives of individuals in the state of nature, or the natural condition of mankind, is one that is poor, solitary, brutish, and short. It is a place where self-interest is present because there is an absence of any rights. This prevents social contracts from being implemented, which makes it impossible to form a society. It is a place where life is essentially anarchy.

People living in an anarchic state are individuals where their state of nature is asocial and apolitical.

Hobbes argues in the social contract theory that all humans, by nature, have equal faculties of the body and the mind. There are no “natural” inequalities that are so great that an individual human would be able to claim an exclusive benefit. Because of this equality, everyone is willing to fight one another. Without a state in power, humanity would be in a constant state of war.

Social contracts are occurrences where individuals came together because they were tired of living in that perpetual state. These groups would cede some of their individual rights with the purpose of having other groups be able to cede their rights. Using the warfare example from Hobbes, Group A would give up their ability to kill Group B if Group B is willing to give up the same ability.

By making these agreements, the groups would be establishing a state. A ruler or authoritarian group would be required to oversee that agreement so the ceded rights were not used. Then laws would be created to govern the social interactions that people would have so that the initial social contract could be maintained.

In doing so, Hobbes proposes, humans would be able to focus on other aspects of life instead of living in perpetual warfare.

The Issue with Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory

The issue with the social contract theory that Hobbes proposed is that it would trade one area of self-interest for another. Instead of having individuals looking out for themselves, the social contracts would create state systems that were now anarchic. You’d have groups without leadership in place instead of individuals. Each state would now act in their own self-interest, in competition with the other states that were created.

This means each state must be in perpetual warfare with each other because no individual would be above the state. Each state would seek out the resources it needed for preservation. In the end, states would then be at perpetual war with each other as a battle for survival.

Once again, the social contracts would need to come into play. Each state would need to be willing to cede specific rights in the hopes that other states would be willing to do the same. So, State A would cede the right to take State B’s corn and State C’s oil, in exchange for State B and State C ceding the right to take State A’s wheat.

Without the fear of an outside power, humans would not heed the law of reciprocity. Each would be willing to take from the other instead of doing unto others as we would like to have done unto us.

Social Contract Theory and Globalism

Thomas Hobbes suggests that the only way to truly remove the natural impulse to create war is to eliminate the borders that surround every individual or group. When you have personal property, you have a natural desire to protect it. You work together as a neighborhood to protect the homes of one another. Patriotism reflects a desire to protect one’s national group. Contracts can be made to curtail natural rights to prevent warfare in its various forms, but does not eliminate all conflict.

By removing the borders, one eliminates the conflict altogether. This would create a world where there is but one overall state, overseeing a borderless planet.

Yet even then, the social contract theory has limits. When there is one group solely in charge of the social contract, it can be manipulated in a way that benefits the group instead of the individuals that form the group. We have seen this occur multiple times at a national level in the 20th century, from the atrocities of the Third Reich to the totalitarian dictatorship of Pol Pot.

Imagine what that sort of leadership could do if it was on a global scale.

Ultimately, this means we naturally want to keep certain borders in place. Borders help us to feel safe. They give us an opportunity to deny the social contracts that others might propose.

Rights vs Freedoms in Thomas Hobbes Social Contract Theory

Rights and freedoms are often used interchangeably. This is because we have developed a series of social contracts that help to govern our existence and many have been in place for centuries. The Bill of Rights to the US Constitution, for example, offers US citizens the “right” to freely exercise their religion, be able to speak their mind, while also being able to peaceable assemble.

Rights define what an individual is entitled to have while living in a social contract that has been agreed upon. That is why the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution are called the “Bill of Rights” and not the “Bill of Freedoms.”

Freedoms are an absence of coercion, constraint, or necessity in a choice or an action. That is why Hobbes sees the social contracts that are formed between groups as such a necessity. When humanity is given freedom, it means there are no constraints. A person can do whatever they want, whenever they want, and the only way to stop them is to exercise your freedoms before they do.

Rights ensure specific freedoms that are protected by a social contract. Rights and freedoms are inseparable, but they are also separate.

Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theory does not seek to make out a moral or legal entitlement that individuals or groups may be able to claim. It simply seeks out a definition and purpose for why humanity is willing to cede certain freedoms to create governing states. The goal is to prevent war on an individual level and nothing more.