Ethics refers to society's idea of what is right and wrong and we do it because society says it is the right thing to do.

Social contract is the idea that any given society has a set of conventions and trade-offs which it demands or requires, in order for participation in it to be possible and for the society to continue to exist. In particular, it recognises that authority exists in as much as the members of society cede power to the authority (voluntarily and on average — ideally, though not necessarily, as a carefully considered decision).

These two terms imply that we should follow society's rules because it is the best thing to so, how are these two terms different and what am I missing in my understanding?

4 Answers 4


The first definition isn't very good. You say

Ethics refer to society idea of what is right and wrong

which is fine, but then you add

... and we do it because society says it is the right thing to do.

Many people would disagree with this. There is some extra stuff here that is not part of the definition of ethics. Here is the OED definition (first one)

Ethics Moral principles, or a system of these. ... b) The branch of knowledge or study dealing with moral principles. c) Moral principles; maxims, precepts, or observations concerning these.

Ethics is concerned with what is right and what is wrong, for whatever reason that might be: it might be something to do with society, it might not. Ethics can be interpreted using social contracts, but they need not be. Kant's ethics are the counter-example that comes to mind.

  • Nothing against your answer but I've corrected the OP's grammar. Best : GLT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 21:01

The social contract approach to ethics takes out the 'should' of ethics. As such it aims to avoid the is–ought problem in meta-ethics. It attempts to explain ethics (a set of ethical norms) as a more-or-less stable equilibrium from which individual deviation will be punished (subtly or not-so-subtly). Given the choice between punishment and non-punishment, the individual will/prefers to/chooses to (rather than should) stick to the rules.

NB: A social contract (in its modern interpretation) isn't there "for the society to continue to exist", it is rather there because it happened to facilitate the survival of a society thus far. It didn't self-destruct nor did it get trashed by other (neighboring) social contracts. But it doesn't have a goal. It wasn't designed as such. It's a product of some kind of evolutionary process.

NB 2: Note that a social contract (in its modern interpretation) not only describes how to behave in a conforming society, but that this also describes behaviour towards deviating individuals. The act of punishment (in case of deviation) itself is a rule. (And this goes on. Failing to punish a deviator will result in some sort of punishment towards the non-punisher. Etc.)

So, if you are a proponent of this approach (like me) then this is all there is to ethics. But... some people might disagree with the approach. (At least, I suppose so.) :)

References: Natural Justice, Game Theory and the Social Contract, Volume 1: Playing Fair and Game Theory and the Social Contract, Volume 2: Just Playing, all by Binmore

  • To make it prescriptive, surely you do assume some goal. Otherwise, it can't say "you should punish for deviation" only the hypothetical "if you don't want people to break the other rules, then you should punish them". Isn't the only way of not having an "if" to specify a goal?
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:15
  • @Lucas Not sure if I get your point, but... It isn't that you don't 'want' other people to not break the rules. It is only that you don't want to be punished for not punishing someone who brakes the rules. (I admit that the theory seems to require a rather high level of individual rationality, but such a level may be also be instilled biologically or psychologically. Then again, think of practical situations yourself. It does make sense.)
    – user3164
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:23
  • OK. So you say it aims to avoid the is-ought problem, I'm saying that as you describe it, it does so by only talking about the "is" part of it. You have a system that describes what happens and is even capable of making predictions about what will happen if one makes interventions, what I don't get is how one is supposed to decide the ends to which interventions should be made. You can only give prescriptions once you've decided on what you think is good, as such, it tells you how (an 'is') to make changes, not which ones to make (a 'should').
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:39
  • @Lucas Indeed, the whole approach is only concerned with the 'is'. There is no 'ought' in this theory. There isn't any 'should', 'supposed to' or 'the ends'. That's the beauty of it. :)
    – user3164
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:55
  • I see you've changed prescribes to describes - your answer seems internally consistent now. Still, without prescriptions I'd think it incomplete as an ethical theory (but, in turn, better as a sociological one).
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 20:54

The social contract is the responsibilities and agreements between people, groups of people and the government. For example, America's social contract states that the government must protect people from hostile invaders and citizens must pay taxes.

Ethics can be based on social contracts (Hobbes), religion (Euthyphro), happiness (John Stuart Mill), personal values (Protagoras) and countless other subjects.

There are some situations where an act is immoral, but is required by the social contract, and situations where an act is moral, but not required by the social contract. For the former, paying taxes to a tyrant who will use the money to kill innocent people. For the latter, visiting sick people after work.


As commonly defined in philosophy, a social contract account is one theoretical approach to ethics in social and political philosophy. Here, ethics would mean the determination of what is right and wrong.

Ethics also takes on a broader meaning which is often synonymous with moral philosophy and morality as the study of right and wrong and why we think things are right and wrong.

But I also wonder based on the nature of your question, if you might be asking something else about a 3rd possible definition of ethics, viz., the ethos of a society -- as in the values that a cultural espouses through its identification of certain things as good (e.g. tolerance in some modern societies, chastity in others, warrior culture [say the Spartans], etc. etc.). This might be set in contrast to the social contract that imposes obligations of a different sort on people. So for instance in the US, what is considered ethical in a conservative Muslim community (based on its ethos) might differ greatly from the rights and duties imposed by a more broad social contract that includes a spectrum of religious and non-religious views.

This won't be the most common use of these terms in society, but it definitely could occur in say some author's nuanced usage. Normally, this would be spoken of as the values of the hearth versus the values of society or family versus law rather than ethics versus the social contract.

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