The Philosophical Framework of Social Contracts
Thomas Hobbes believed the lives of common people were naturally
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. But they gave up some of their liberties in return for security and protection from the state. This was the social contract. Then John Locke followed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote at length about social contracts that bound the commoners and the state and held a civil society together. Even now, we go about our daily lives interacting with others and conducting our business based upon on social norms rather than conscious adherence to laws. These norms may vary from society to society, but they indeed underpin pretty much everything we do no matter where in the world we may be.
Hobbes believed the social contract to be the most fundamental source of all that was good and that which we depended upon to live well. Our choice was either to abide by the terms of the contract, or return to the State of Nature, which Hobbes argued no reasonable person could possibly prefer.
For Locke society existed apart from government, and governments derived authority from the consent of the people because of an implied social contract (Civil Government 1690). The common people still had a right of rebellion which resided not in the individual but in the outraged common sense of the people when a government sought to impose on them anything contrary to their traditions and values.
Rousseau (Contrat social 1762) reconciled the traditioal ideas of social contract with a new conception of the general will. Rousseau believed in particular believed that by being nice in its social relations, humanity could regain its lost happiness.
Edmund Burke, the British statesman and political writer, takes Locke’s theory of the social contract as the basis of society and defines it as
A partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.
Aforementioned social contracts depend upon people being nice to each other, so things fall apart when either party is inconsiderate. Describing the fight against the theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill in Rights of Common (O’Connor 2014) Betty O’Connor writes,
Common rights often had no legal weight, they were part of an unwritten social contract, a remnant of feudal society’s complex web of inter-relations and obligations. And just like the old fights against access to the commons, even now life becomes a tangle of mess when one or more parties fail to live up to their social obligations.