Social contract

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In moral and political philosophy, the social contract or political contract is a theory or model, originating during the Age of Enlightenment, that typically addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual.


  • Mainstream theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy differ from each other in many respects, but they have a general approach in common – the approach of ‘social contract’ theory. The social contract approach was pioneered by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, and it has been the strongest influence in the analysis of justice from the eighteenth century to our own time. The distinguishing features of the approach include taking the characterization of ‘just institutions’ to be the principal – and often the only identified – task of the theory of justice. This way of seeing justice is woven in different ways around the idea of an imagined ‘social contract’ – a hypothetical contract about social organization that the people of a sovereign state can be imagined to have endorsed and accepted. Initiated by Thomas Hobbes, major contributions were made in this line of thinking in the period of European Enlightenment by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant (even though the reach of Kant’s philosophical analysis is immensely larger than the rather limited domain of social contract theory).
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • The contractarian approach has remained the dominant influence in contemporary political philosophy, led by the most prominent political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, whose classic book, A Theory of Justice published in 1971, presents a far-reaching statement of a particular version of the social contract approach to justice. The principal theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy, coming not only from Rawls but also from Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, David Gauthier and others, share in common, explicitly or by implication, the idea of a social contract that identifies ideal social institutions (even though the substantive contents of their respective theories are different from each other in terms of the diagnosis of what exactly the social contract should demand).
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • In the social contract approach, the search for justice is confined to the citizens of a particular sovereign state, who can be imagined to be in a contractual relation with each other. As a result of this methodology, the people whose views are brought into any specific assessment are citizens of some particular sovereign state for which the pursuit of justice is under discussion. We may demand that the citizens of each sovereign state view citizens of other states (or even stateless people) with compassion, respect and sympathy, satisfying some requirements of ‘minimal humanitarianism’ (as both John Rawls and Thomas Nagel have argued), but ‘the principles of justice’ arrived at for any particular sovereign state would not have any application beyond the limited domain of a specific state.
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108

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