Hobbes – Social Contract Theory

2 key concepts in Hobbes’ account: social contract, and state of nature.

State of nature: a state of experiment = doesn’t mean it actually existed in actual history. It’s just a hypothetical situation, from which we can draw conclusions about human beings.

Imagine a world with no God, no altruism, no morality, no government, no laws and police (no ways to enforce rules of society) – this is the State of Nature. Four basic features:

1) Equality of Need: food, shelter, clothing, etc.

2) Fundamental Scarcity: much toil to produce, esp. when nobody is producing.

3) Equality of Power: who gets these scarce goods? Hard to say – fair game.

4) Very Limited Altruism: only care about ourselves and those closest to us – cannot expect others to help us. People in SofN are fundamentally selfish (egoistic).

*a world of perpetual competition and struggle.

BUT: in this struggle, nobody prevails in the end: a “constant war of one with all.”

It would be a terrifying, dreadful, and very short existence (average lifespan for humans: maybe 10-20 years)

Notice that if selfish people cooperate and work together, the will each get more for themselves, and thus promote their selfish goals. Social cooperation increases output exponentially, not linearly, and so each person gets more for herself (well, usually, all other factors remaining constant).

This social cooperation, or willingness to cooperate, is the Social Contract – the agreement to cooperate (for selfish gain).

For social cooperation to be possible at all, people need to agree on the rules of cooperation. These rules, according to Hobbes, are called “morality” (e.g., don’t harm others, don’t break promises, be honest, etc.).

An enforcement mechanism to enforce the social rules: the role of the government (sovereign) or king.

Note: social sanction (peer pressure) is another way to enforce these rules.

These rules of social cooperation are called “morality” or the “moral rules.”

Thus, for Hobbes, morality comes into existence through the Social Contract.


  • Purpose of morality: make social cooperation possible (through rules of cooperation, i.e., “moral rules”).
  • Purpose of government and law: enforce the moral rules – make sure everyone obeys.
  • Morality (def.): the set of rules governing behavior that rational selfish people will accept on the condition that others also accept them. 

What idea of rationality is Hobbes working under?

Different from Kant [obeying CI].

For Hobbes: practical means-to-end rationality (sometimes called “instrumental rationality”): knowing the best ways and methods to get what you want.

Advantages (or Positives) of Hobbes’ Theory

A) How do we determine the content of moral rules?

Hobbes’ view gives a standard, which might be better than Kant or utilitarianism: only those rules that facilitate social cooperation are to be chosen! Only these are “moral rules.”

B) The theory instructs us on when we can rationally break the rules:

1) When someone breaks the rules first, he releases us from our obligations toward him, so we can do what we like toward this person (no need to respect the rules of cooperation toward him)!

(BUT, remember, power to punish this person is restricted to the sovereign only, so we cannot personally punish him, but the sovereign can – a sovereign theory of punishment.)

2) When a rule can never possibly benefit me, I can break it – indeed if I am selfish and rational, I MUST break it!

E.g., Jim Crow laws for blacks in America.

C) Puts reasonable limits on what morality can demand from us: morality must always respect the fundamentally selfish nature of human beings.

So, for example: “sacrifice your life for the lives of others!” — This is NEVER acceptable to a rational selfish person.

Cannot expect selfish rational people to follow such a rule, makes no sense for them to follow it.

Other such rules: excessive giving to charity and the poor, excessive altruism; etc.

Thus, morality cannot demand that we follow such rules. 

Natural limits placed on morality: cannot force us to follow rules that rational selfish people would NOT agree to follow.

For Hobbes, morality is nothing sacred or special!

Just a tool for rational selfish people to get more benefit for themselves. 

Problems for the Theory

Attack 1: Social Contract and State of Nature = fictions !!!

Didn’t happen historically.

Even if it did happen actually:

Maybe agreement was not unanimous (what about those who did not agree? Can we treat them in whichever way we want? That seems wrong);

Also: if contract agreed to by ancestors before us, why are we bound by it?

A REPLY that social contract supporter could give:

A contract/agreement does exist for all of us – it is implied, not explicit!

There are rules we all recognize as binding:

We expect others to follow these rules.

We accept the benefits of social life under the rules.

Thus we have duty to follow the rules!

Example: if you join a game, you implicitly agree to follow the rules of the game.

Same for society and moral rules!


You can choose to leave a game if you don’t like it.

Can you choose to leave society altogether?


Can’t choose to be born into a particular society.

Can’t choose to leave society altogether – no genuine choice – cost is too high.

If you’re rational and selfish, not a real option.

Can’t even move to another society – you may not like the rules of any society.


No real choice to leave society.

If no genuine choice or freedom to contract, the Social Contract is NOT a genuine contract, thus it is invalid (has no force).

A FURTHER REPLY that social contract supporter could give:

Just FORGET CHOICE AND AGREEMENT! Focus on rationality instead:

If you are “rational” you would choose to live in society under the moral rules no matter what – because you would benefit from doing so.

So you SHOULD follow the rules of society even if you don’t agree to it!

Attack 2: Some individuals or groups could NEVER possibly bring us any benefit.

For example: future generations who would be born 200 years after we are dead.

These humans could never bring us any benefit because we would all be dead before they were even born!

If they don’t bring us any benefit, we have NO reason to get into a social contract with them (we contract with others only for mutual benefit, but this future generation can’t offer us any benefit).

Thus, there would be no rules of morality to obey between us and this future generation of humans.

Thus, we can treat them in any way we want, including in immoral ways!

For example: run up the national debt, cut up all the trees, eat all the animals on earth, poison the environment and make it uninhabitable for them.

BUT: this is unacceptable (according to common sense morality). 

THUS: social contract theory is incorrect! (since it tells us to disrespect these future generations if we want.) WE MUST CARE about humanity’s future! 

(The Prisoner’s Dilemma)

Kathleen Li
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