Social Contract Theory

According to this idea, people voluntarily hand over some of their freedoms to the government or other authorities in return for stability, safety, and protection in their lives. Political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were incredibly influential in the discussion and argument of this theory throughout history. Theoretically, people lived in a state of nature without any authoritative figures and regulations.

Although people had complete freedom to do as they wished, their lives were filled with danger, fear, and insecurity. In order to overcome these difficulties, people decided to organize a community with a government that would guarantee their safety, security, and protection. People were supposed to be able to exist in a safer and more stable atmosphere in return for sacrificing some of their rights and freedoms.

Explanations of Social Contract Theory

Opportunities for simultaneous trade do exist in nature from time to time. In return for a piece of meat you hunted, I can offer you a piece of fruit I collected.

However, in many contexts, there are chances for cooperation in which simultaneous interchange is impossible.

For example, if a wolf attacks you and I run to your help, you cannot compensate me for the expense I expended. Another reason that simultaneous trade is not always possible is that the interactants' wants and capacities are rarely entirely matched. If I am hungry and you are the only one with a plentiful supply of food, I will not be able to repay you right away. It would help if you believed I would rush to your aid when needed. When transactions are not simultaneous, the door is open for defection—taking advantage and cheating by neglecting to reciprocate.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, evolutionary psychologists, devised the social contract theory to explain the development of cooperative exchange in humans, with a focus on how humans handled the problem of cheating. The prospect of cheating is a constant danger to the advancement of collaboration. The rationale for this is that cheaters have an evolutionary advantage over cooperators, at least when the cheating is not caught or penalized.

If I accept the benefits you provide but fail to reciprocate the favor later, I profit twice: I have acquired benefits while avoiding the reciprocal costs. As a result, over evolutionary time, cheaters will outnumber cooperators until the whole population is made up of noncooperators. If creatures have a method for detecting and avoiding cheats, reciprocal altruism can arise. Reciprocal altruism can take a foothold and expand over time if cooperators can detect cheats and interact primarily with like-minded cooperators. Cheaters will be disadvantaged since they will not gain from cooperative transactions.

Cognitive Capacities of Social Contract Theory

What problems must people solve to evolve mechanisms that motivate forming social contracts and avoiding the ever-present threat of cheaters? Cosmides and Tooby (1992) outlined five cognitive capacities −

  • Ability to Recognize Different Individual Humans

  • Ability to Remember the Histories of Interactions with Different Individuals

  • Ability to Communicate one's Values to Others

  • Ability to Model the Values of Others

  • Ability to Represent Costs and Benefits

Let’s discuss each one of them in brief −

The Ability to Recognize Different Individual Humans

The capacity to recognize many people may appear obvious, but this is only because humans are so adept at it. According to one research, people may recognize persons they have not seen in up to 34 years with a more than 90% recognition rate. Moreover, scientific research suggests that this talent is localized in a specific brain region. Individuals with a lesion in a specific area of the right hemisphere acquire an exact deficiency termed "prosopagnosia," which is an inability to distinguish faces. Humans are also very adept at recognizing other people purely by their walk.

The Ability to Remember the Histories of Interactions with Different Individuals

His ability is divided into numerous categories. First, one must be able to recall whether the individual with whom one has previously dealt was a cooperator or a cheater—second, keeping track of who owes what to whom is necessary. This necessitates using an "accounting system" to keep track of the expenditures made and the benefits gained from a specific individual. Failing to keep track of these interactions leaves a person open to being deceived.

The Ability to Communicate one's Values to Others

How can your companion supply the benefits you require if he or she does not grasp what you want? You may be exposed to future defections if you do not convey your distress to a defector. Take this example from de Waal's (1982) chimp research. The research focused on Puist and Luit, who had a lengthy history of mutual aid when one of them was under threat.

The Ability to Model the Values of Others

The capacity to grasp the values of others is the inverse of the ability to communicate your values. Understanding others' goals and requirements allows you to adjust your trades to maximize the advantage you bring, making the other person more reliant on you than if you had failed to reflect his or her beliefs. This implies that people may do "marketing research" to build distinct understandings of the preferences, requirements, and motivations of each person with whom they interact—a hypothesis that has yet to be empirically tested.

The Ability to Represent Costs and Benefits

According to Cosmides and Tooby (1989), many animals exchange a restricted number of commodities, such as food and sex. Humans, on the other hand, can and do exchange an astonishing variety of items, including knives and other tools, meat, berries, nuts, fish, shelters, protection, status, stone axes, assistance in fights, sexual access, money, blow guns, information about enemies, assistance with term papers, and computer programs, to name a few. As a result, Cosmides and Tooby contend that developed social trade mechanisms cannot be prewired to represent (conceptualize) and bargain for specific commodities.

Proponents of the Social Contract Theory

One of the most significant proponents of the social contract theory, Thomas Hobbes, believed that people were inherently egotistical and that this would cause them to clash with one another. He thought existence was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" in a natural condition. Hobbes also claimed that to prevent this; people required a stable government to act as a check on them, a barrier between them, and a source of order.

Another essential political thinker was John Locke, who believed people were naturally virtuous and could coexist peacefully. In his view, people engaged in a social compact because doing so served their best interests. Following Locke, individuals possess certain unalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property. Also, he describes that the purpose of government is to uphold these liberties and meet the requirements of the populace.

Contrarily, Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that although people are morally upright by nature, society tends to pervert them. As explained by Rousseau, the social contract is an arrangement people make to give up some of their personal liberties and rights to build a society that the general will would govern. The social contract would serve this purpose by promoting the common welfare and guaranteeing everyone's requirements was met.

Although this theory has been extensively studied and contested throughout history, it is still crucial in contemporary politics and society. A basic tenet of democratic societies is that people trade some of their liberties and rights for safety, security, and protection. The social contract theory, however, has also drawn much criticism, with some contending that it is excessively straightforward, overlooks the complexities of human nature, and does not consider the reality of power and inequality in society.

Effects of Social Contract Theory

Understanding the Connection between People and Government: The concept that people voluntarily give up some of their liberties in return for safety and security offered by the government or society has been made more evident by this theory. As a result, people now better grasp the social and governmental structures to safeguard and further the populace's interests.

Promotion of Individual Liberties and Rights

The concept that people have certain fundamental liberties, such as the right to life, liberty, and property, which the state must safeguard, has been supported by this notion. Due to this, modern societies now place more stress on individual independence and human rights.

Development of Democratic Institutions

The compact social theory, which stresses that the purpose of government is to serve the people's interests, has been instrumental in the growth of democratic institutions. Systems of representative government, in which people are allowed to vote and participate in the legislative process, have been established as a result.

Critique of Unjust and Tyrannical Governments

The theory has also been used to critique governments that breach the social contract by impinging upon the rights of individuals or moving against the interests of the community. As a result, civic disobedience, demonstrations, and other forms of activism have been encouraged to make governments answerable for their actions.


Finally, social contract theory has significantly impacted our comprehension of government, society, and the relationship between people and the state. While this theory has many different meanings, its core idea – that people give up some of their rights and liberties in return for safety, order, and security – remains an important concept in contemporary politics and society.

The social compact is necessary for social order, individual rights protection, and advancing a just and fair society. Hence promoting it can aid in the development of more educated and active people as well produce a just and fair society.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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