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Social Contract Theory

  Social contract theory, in the social sciences, explains the formation and maintenance of states or societies (or both) as the outcome of tacit or explicit contracts between individuals or groups. Thus some social contract theorists envisage a state being formed by individuals as the best way of advancing their interests: they contract with the state to protect and enforce the terms of this bargian, and to do no more than that.

Social contract theory developed in medieval and early modern Western political thought, although it is not without antecedents in Greek thought or without analogues in the political thought of ancient India. It is common to see social contract theory as an intellectual expression of European feudalism, in which contractual obligations between king, lord and vassal were central to the organization of military, political and legal affairs. Social contract theory began in discussions of the duties of various status groups (kings, princes, nobles, bishops, commoners) but much later, notably in the writings of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, centred on what rights rational and equal individuals would seek to have protected by society or the state. In some authors social contract theory was presented as if there had actually been a genuine historical social contract, in which a constitutional convention of kings, nobles and commoners had met, debated and hammered out the terms of a collective bargain. However, with most authors social contract theory was employed as a fictional device or parable, or as a method for framing arguments about what would constitute a just state.

Having been long discredited, social contract theory has made a major comeback in the social sciences in the last three decades. This intellectual revival has been especially strong among rational choice theorists who have focused on problems of collective choice (for example, Kenneth Arrow\'s Social Choice and Individual Values, 1951, and James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock\'s The Calculus of Consent, 1962) and among moral and political philosophers. Indeed, for the last twenty years most political philosophy has been a set of footnotes and commentaries on John Rawls\'s A Theory of Justice (1971), a work of ‘ideal contractarianism’. Rawls\'s book asks what just political, legal and economic institutions would agree to be rational individuals behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ (that is, people who do not know what positions they will occupy in society but do have a good knowledge of how societies operate)? Rawls\'s way of framing arguments about justice and his answers, and the controversies they have invoked, have thoroughly revitalized social contract theory. BO\'L

See also game theory; justice; liberalism; libertarianism; political science.Further reading J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762); , J.A. Rawls, Theory of Justice.



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