Social Contract Theory: Comparative Analysis of Hobbes and Rousseau

Social Contract Theory is a political and moral theory that explains the origin of society and the legitimacy of authority. Although the origins of the social contract theory can be traced to the biblical times, the 17th-century European philosophers, among them, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes popularized it. Rousseau and Hobbes sought to justify the application of the social contract theory in explaining political legitimacy and society by basing their arguments on the concept of ‘state of nature'. This paper is a comparative analysis of Hobbes and Rousseau's approaches to the social contract theory.

According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, people are at liberty to do as they wish. Since human beings are evil and selfish, they are most inclined to take actions that only benefit themselves with total disregard of the others. Further, without organization and social structures, there are no social goods such as farming, education, housing, technology and so on. The philosopher equates the state of nature to anarchy and as a ripe ground for conflict and wars. It is, therefore, only through establishment of rules and surrendering their freedoms of anarchy that people can live in harmony and enjoy better living conditions and privileges that are not accessible in the state of nature. By putting this argument forward, Rousseau justifies the centrality of the social contract in establishing a moral and rational society.

In explaining human conditions in the state of nature, Rousseau differs with Hobbes by arguing that it was a period of happiness and equality among men. However, as populations grew they had to change their way of life to satisfy their needs. With time, people began to live in small communities, and this led to division of labor. Some communities grew and prospered than others and inevitably resulted in comparisons between each other, which led to pride, envy, contempt, and shame. The introduction of private property aggravated matters and resulted in more inequality, crime, and other social ills. Consequently, through introduction of social contract, people surrendered their freedoms guaranteed by the state of nature and instead allowed evil to set on humanity.

In nutshell, the arguments advanced by Rousseau support the importance of social contract and governments in creating harmony and peace. On the contrary, Hobbes views the social contract as a primary factor of human suffering and, therefore, advocates for a return to the state of nature, where peace and harmony can be found.