What "ideology" does "social contract" belong to?

Some problems with "social contract":

  • It should be as reasonable to say that "We have a social contract" as it would be to say that "We don't have a social contract". Is social contract therefore consistent?

  • Is it possible that "social contract" contains bias? E.g. "I want a social contract, because I'm weak and I cannot succeed without it"?

  • Who can decide what the social contract is or isn't?

  • Can social contract have a single meaning? Why couldn't it have multiple (subjective) meanings? And if it has multiple meanings, then how do we know what it means?

Therefore, is "social contract" even a meaningful term? Except for some "naive use", i.e. "everyday speech". But not suitable for "rigorous" political discussion?

  • Is "ideologue" supposed to be "ideology"? Generally, what is reasonable to say is different from what is true. It may be reasonable to say that string theory is right, and that is not, but only one is true. Some people may be biased in favor of string theory, that says nothing about its truth either way. That is decided by how things are, not any "who". I am not saying social contract is analogous to string theory, but it shows that your objections are ineffective until you draw some relevant distinction between the two.
    – Conifold
    Sep 18, 2019 at 11:49
  • @Conifold But is social contract even true? If it's "beliefical", that is, not an "objective-like fact". Then it's not consistent and thus not consistently true.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 18, 2019 at 11:51
  • Yet "social contract" seems much use in contemporary political rhetorics, thus the question.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 18, 2019 at 11:51
  • You mean is it truth-apt like string theory? You can try to argue that it is not, but on its face it is an empirical theory of how most people view social relations in a political state. On another interpretation, it is a normative theory of how things should work for the collective benefit. Either way, there is no problem with its consistency, although it may or may not be true, and may or may not produce collective benefit.
    – Conifold
    Sep 18, 2019 at 11:56
  • 1
    Again, I cannot agree... What does it mean : "I don't agree on social contract" ? "Social contract" is a term, like e.g. "dog". "I don't agree on dog" ???? Sep 18, 2019 at 12:30

1 Answer 1


The concept of a 'social contract' comes from Jean Jaques Rousseau, one of the central 18th century Liberal philosophers. 18th century philosophy did not always (or even often) make clear distinctions between descriptive and prescriptive modes — philosophy hadn't yet begun to grapple with the is/ought distinction — so the point of this concept was both to explain the observation that people naturally and willingly form communities that limit the behaviors of individual members, and to rationalize that natural behavior into an abstract, rational construct.

The idea of an unbound Liberal individual, by contrast, comes from John Locke's theories, but even Locke held that where these isolated individuals come into contact with each other they establish contract-like behavior, respecting certain boundaries (e.g., not violating each others natural rights) and creating long-term or pro tem cooperative agreements. No Liberal theorist that I know of ever theorized that men prefer to live in complete isolation from each other, eschewing the benefits of society, and every Liberal theorist who discusses social life does so in terms of rational, contract-like behavior.

Remember, a social contract not only protects the weak from the strong, but also protects the strong from mass action of the weak. Many tyrants who break the bonds of the social contract with their citizens find themselves in the wrong end of a noose at the hands of a mob.

Whether or not one likes the concept of a social contract, one ought to recognize that jails are filled with those who refuse to buy into it. The social contract is a fact, and one must either abide by it or work to change its tenets.

  • Fair answer. But "social contract" is perhaps misused at this point. I find that Rousseau's formulation (as you give it) is reasonable, since it's similar to "anarchist conception of rights" (particularly mutualism). And anarchism is really not an "ideology". But I've read "social contract" being used to "machine" policies as well. As if there'd exist some "social contract", which "allows us to do this". I would probably replace the term "social contract" with "mutual interest".
    – mavavilj
    Sep 18, 2019 at 14:16
  • Well, you know, let's note that you wear your ideology on your sleeve (and yes, anarchism is an ideology, it just has an oppositional character that gives it a paradoxical relationship to the concept of 'ideologies'). But in any case, I suspect you are conflating the authoritative aspect of collective interests (in which people agree to restrain certain actions for the mutual interest) with outright authority (that attempts to impose certain kinds of restraint against the will of recalcitrant individuals). The latter is an essential aspect of the former, not a denial of the former. Sep 18, 2019 at 17:01
  • Anarchism is not an ideology, because "any ideology" contradicts anarchism. I.e. if there's a general idea, then it may not be anarchism anymore. However, if the general idea is result of anarchy, rather than "enforced" upon, then it might still be anarchism and actually the kind of social contract that's based on "voluntarity" and "free thinking". Anarchism: without preconceptions, ideology: a set of preconcepted ideas. Anarchism is therefore not a theory, it's the "state of nature", i.e. that which Rousseau also refers to as the "complement" of social contract/state/etc.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 18, 2019 at 17:17
  • Every 'State of Nature' argument is a feature of an ideology. It makes presumptions about the 'natural' characteristics of humans prior to or outside of social communities, and then projects that back onto social constructs to establish a moral framework. Sep 18, 2019 at 18:05
  • That's a meaningless phrase. But this isn't really the place to get into an extended discussion. Sep 18, 2019 at 18:13

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