Social contract

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The notion of the social contract implies that the people give up sovereignty to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order through the rule of law. It can also be thought of as an agreement by the governed on a set of rules by which they are governed.

Social contract theory formed a central pillar in the historically important notion that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. The starting point for most of these theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any structured social order, usually termed the “state of nature”. In this condition, an individual’s actions are bound only by his or her personal power, constrained by conscience, and outside resistance. From this common starting point, the various proponents of social contract theory attempt to explain, in different ways, why it is in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily give up the freedom one has in the state of nature in order to obtain the benefits of political order.

Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous philosophers of contractarianism. However, they drew quite different conclusions from this starting-point. Hobbes advocated an authoritarian monarchy, Locke advocated a liberal monarchy, while Rousseau advocated liberal republicanism. Their work provided theoretical groundwork of constitutional monarchy, liberal democracy and republicanism. The Social Contract was used in the United States Declaration of Independence as a sign of enforcing Democracy, and more recently has been revived by thinkers such as John Rawls.


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