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Social Contract Theory

Last updated Oct 3, 2022 Edit Source

Social contract theory is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. It focuses on the individual and collective benefits of protecting certain human rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property

In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that without rules and a means of enforcing them, people would not bother to create anything of value, because nobody could be sure of keeping what they created. Collaboration (and thus society) is possible only when people mutually agree to follow certain guidelines

Hobbes argues that everybody living in a civilized society has implicitly agreed to two things (collectively known as the social contract):

  1. the establishment of a set of moral rules to govern relations among citizens (necessary if we are to gain the benefits of social living)
  2. a government capable of enforcing these rules.

What prevents the community from enacting bad rules is that no one is above the rules. Since everyone is in the same situation, no community members will want to put unfair burdens on others because that would mean putting unfair burdens on themselves.

Close correspondence between rights and duties. If one has a right, others have a duty not to take that right away. For example, moral obligation to not take away the right to life of another.

Types of rights:

# Rawl’s Theory of Justice

To be well ordered, a society must establish the rights and duties of its members and also determine a just way of distributing “the benefits and burdens of social cooperation”

# The Veil of Ignorance

Rawls proposes a thought experiment: the principles are determined from an original position in which each person is hidden behind a veil of ignorance. People must agree to the principles before they know what place they will hold in society; they are ignorant of their sex, race, ethnicity, wealth, intellectual capacity, physical abilities or disabilities, and so on. Thus, Rawls claims that agreements reached from this initial condition would be fair because they could turn out to be in a disadvantaged position in society relative to others

Rawl proposes that rational people behind the veil of ignorance would decide on two principles of justice (Rawl’s Difference Principle)

  1. Each person has a fully adequate number of basic rights as long as these are consistent with everyone else having these same rights
  2. If social and economic inequalities exist, it is for one of two reasons:
    1. Associated with societal positions anyone has a fair opportunity to assume
    2. They benefit the least-advantaged members of society the most

# Counterarguments