Explain the social contract theory of morality. What are two difficulties that Rachels says face the theory? What can defenders of the theory say in response to these difficulties?

Morality is always a controversial topic to study and no one knows from where we got moral codes of a certain society. Many philosophers offer different theories about morality and many people believe that we got molar codes from the divine power, the creator: God. Others believe that people developed moral codes from past experience. Yet on one has the tangible evidence to prove that how morality become a vital part of a civilized society. To explore the roots of morality many theories have been developed by different scholars and philosophers, social contract theory is one of them which was developed by Thomas Hobbes. The central idea of social contact theory is that people collectively agree upon the set of moral rules to reduce social instability and create peace in society (Hobbes). This paper will discuss how Hobbes comes up with social contract theory and how he justifies this theory. This paper will also discuss some of the advantages and the weaknesses of social contract theory highlighted by Rachels in his book, The Elements of Moral philosophy.

Hobbes’s argument is that suppose there is on God and on one else to give us moral codes than how people developed moral codes and morality. To understand Hobbes’s argument let see the following example. Assume that there is an Island and it has all resources for a comfortable life, but those resources are just sufficient for one person and the only person is living on that Island. He doesn’t require to struggle for the comforts of the life and he is happy with his life. Now, the question is that does that person need moral codes? If yes, what kind of moral codes he need and why he needs those moral codes?  Now, imagine that another person appears on that Island. Both of them have same requirements and both of them have more or less similar abilities to harm each other. Do they need moral codes to have comfortable life? From this hypothetical example Hobbes makes the following arguments:

  • “Equality of need” all of us have same basic needs. Hobbes defines basic needs as, “food, clothing, shelter, and so on” (Rachels, 83).
  • “Scarcity.” Since there are two people and they have adequate resources for one person. Hobbes believed that the world is similar to that hypothetical Island because we have limited resources on earth where we have to do hard work to gain those limited resources.
  • “The Essential equality of human power” Hobbes claims that though some people may be stronger than others yet it is difficult to get the power in society and everyone has ability to harm other.
  • “limited altruism”  Hobbes believed that even if individuals are not wholly selfish still people give more importance to their own interests first, therefore, one cannot assume to get goodwill unless he himself ensure to be good for others (Rachels, 83).

This hypothetical example illustrates that morality has to do with society because the only person does not need any moral codes other than take caring of himself. Secondly, moral codes are important to ensure one’s self-rational interest in a society where moral codes will provide mutually benefit to everyone and all members of society are required to fulfill those moral rules. For example, not to harm anyone, keep promises, not lie, not stealing, and many more. Hobbes claims that these rules are kind of social contract to build a peaceful society and he named it a social contract theory (Rachels).

Like other moral theories social contract theory has also some advantages. Social contract theory provides plausible answers to some of the controversial and difficult questions. For example, social contract theory gives an idea that what kind of moral rules we should have to construct a peaceful society. For instance, a society should ensure that all members of the society should keep promises, do not murder, theft, lie, assault and many more. This theory also explains that why we should follow social contract. The loyalty to the society is not only beneficial for the well being of the society, it also promises better life of individuals. People cannot just expect others to behave well unless they themselves do the same. Social contract theory is only workable when all members of society follow the rules. To ensure this, societies have set rewards and punishments to benefactors and cheaters respectively. Rewards and punishments are essential in a society to maintain the social contract and to have a peaceful environment. Further, we need social contract to guide people in a rational way which will guarantee justice and equality in a society so that everyone can savor a comfortable life. Social contract can also help us to get solutions to the moral problems. It will also provoke fear in people as a result, people will refrain themselves from breaking rules.

The other most important strength of social contract theory is that it tells us when to follow social contract and when we can break the rules. According to social contract theory everyone is required to follow the rules and if someone is not fulfilling his/her duties than you have no obligation to keep your promises to him/her. At that time you have right to break promise and behave in the same way as the others behaves with you. This is one of the reasons all people are required to follow the social contract otherwise they will suffer a lot because when society will not have trust on them then  life will be miserable. Many people show loyalty to the society due to fear of being ostracized and stigmatized by the society. In addition to this, social contract theory doesn’t demand too much from individuals like untilitianism or other moral theories do. In social contract we have to comprise on our natural liberty and on our self-interest to get greater good.

Since, nothing is perfect in this world and we can obverse faults and short comes everywhere and this is also true for social contract theory. Rachels has highlighted two very important drawbacks of social contract theory. Firstly, Rachels says that Hobbes has created a hypothetical world and then explains the social contract theory. In real life we don’t have any social contract and none of us have signed any social contract to maintain morality in the society. Therefore, we cannot apply hypothetical social contract in real world. The defenders of social contract theory say that obeying the sensible rules is rational if they are “really is in one’s best interest” (96). Therefore, social contract theory is valid because it benefits those who follow the contract. Moreover, if someone doesn’t comply with social contract still it applied to them and they are just being irrational (Rachels, 96).

Secondly, according to social contract theory we may ignore the rights of individuals who don’t benefit us. For example, “human infants, Nonhuman animals, Future generations, oppressed populations” are the vulnerable groups (97).  The cases of human infants, future generations and oppressed people can be justified it in the following ways. For example, once we were infants and others took care of us and now we have obligation to take care of new infants. Though this is not a direct benefit, but it can be justify in this way. For future generation we have to consider their rights because the generations before us had considered our rights and they took care of our benefits now it is our time to considered rights of upcoming generations.  In case of oppressed people though we are not getting any advantage from them, but just assume that if we were oppressed we may also given our rights and now if others are oppressed we have to take account of their rights. It is true that to some extent one doesn’t have freedom, but in reward of these compromises one gets protection and corporation from society.

In case of animals’ rights social contract theory doesn’t give any rational reason. We can say that animals such as pets and fame animals should treated well as we get benefits from them, but in general we don’t have any specific obligation to treat animals in a way we required to treat human beings. Social contract theory seems fail to defend animals’ rights.

Finally, the main concept of social contract theory is that people should collectively agree on the social contract to gain greater benefit and to ensure peaceful society. There are many benefits of social contract theory such as, it ensure protection, justice, peace, and stability of society. At the same time we can also observe some drawbacks of social contract theory. For example, this theory doesn’t clearly explain the rights of human infants, future generations, and oppressed people. Animals’ rights are not defended by social contract theory. In addition to this, some people believe that social contract is hypothetical theory; therefore, we cannot apply this theory in real world, but defenders claims that there is no harm to follow a rational theory to ensure peace in society. In general we can have more pros than cons for social contract theory; therefore, we cannot ignore the importance of social contract theory.




Works Cited


Pojman, Louis P. “Social Contract Theory and the Motive to Be Moral.” Ethics: Discovering


Right and Wrong. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1990. 64-78. Print.


Rachels, Stuart, and James Rachels. “The Social Contract Theory.” The Elements of Moral


Philosophy. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 82-94. Print.








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