Hobbes, Rousseau and the Social Contract 6 December 2016

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Print the seventeenth century, Leviathan Hobbes, vintage engraviThe Social Contract theory has evolved over the centuries, but its origins can be traced back to the Old Testament and Ancient Greek Hellenistic philosophy. Socrates, as represented in Plato’s Dialogues, uses a form of the Social Contract to explain why he should not oppose his arrest and death by poisoning, even though it does not serve his personal interest. In fact, terminologically, the topic of the discussion may be criticized as being too narrow: it can be argued that only Hobbes contributes to the classical ‘formulation’ of the Theory, whilst Rousseau merely modifies it. It is important to note that Hobbes and Rousseau are above all political theorists. In fact, the Social Contract theory has been more influential in the field of political science than in the field of moral philosophy and ethics. Whilst in this light, an attempt to determine Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s individual contributions may seem superfluous, it is possible to determine how each of these philosophers has influenced the predominant version of the Social Contract theory of the 21st century. From a semantic perspective, it needs to be remembered that the Social Contract theory is an evolving, dynamic concept.

There are substantial differences of approach between Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract theories. It can be argued that, whilst Hobbes puts forward a thoroughly ‘anarchist’ view of society, Rousseau attempts to use the idea of the Social Contract to compel people to act morally.The Social Contract theory launched an anti-positivist branch of moral philosophy, suggesting that empirical methods are inappropriate in a discussion about sociology and ethics. In that respect, Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s contributions to the Social Contract are similar.

It is indeed possible to sum up Hobbes’ contribution to the Theory by saying that he established the ‘basics’ of its ‘traditional’ version. Whilst Hobbes did not ‘create’ the theory, he was indeed the one to ‘introduce’ it into the Western political science, and is responsible for its prominence throughout 17th and 18th centuries. Contextually, Hobbes’ version of the theory was very much shaped by the events preceding and following the English Civil War. Importantly, Hobbes puts forward a view that a man left to his own devices is a ‘brute’, and that the ‘state of nature’ for human beings is anarchy and moral chaos. Moreover, Hobbes makes the key contribution to the theory by stating that human beings are not inherently ‘good’, whilst before Hobbes, human beings were seen as good as a result of the influence of Confucianism. In this respect, Rousseau also differs from Hobbes, as whilst he accepts the oppressive influence of society on the individual’s actions, he still suggests that humans have some moral compass inside them, and are free to make some decisions for themselves. Rousseau, therefore, has a compatibilist view of free will. He writes: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ Thus, he suggests that humans are inherently free, even when they are influenced by outside factors, whilst Hobbes argues that free will only goes as far as to allow humans to submit to the Social Contract willingly. Rousseau further suggests that there are ways to ‘break the chains’ of the Contract.

For Hobbes, normative behaviour is aimed at controlling the ‘brutish’ human impulses in society, and such behaviour is only a social construct. He still insists that the ‘brutish’ ‘state of nature’ is the ‘natural’ state for humans, although he does say that it is undesirable that they should remain I this state. Rousseau, instead, notes that the individual freedom is superior to the ‘state of nature’, and also states that in the ‘state of nature’ humans are not completely free, since they are ruled by animalistic reductionist desires, not their reason. Rousseau’s version is similarly impacted by the historical context in which he was writing, since the similar ‘anarchist’ zeitgeist was widespread in the pre-Revolutionary France of the 18th century. Rousseau can be accused of being ‘vague, but his ‘vagueness’ can be partially explained by the fact that he is a product of the Romantic tradition. In fact, whilst Rousseau coins the term ‘the Social Contract’ (when he uses it as a title for his work), his writing shows that he is conscious of contributing to a tradition that is already widespread. Thus, he writes: ‘I prefer liberty with danger than peace with slavery’, which opposes the key objective of Hobbes’ Theory: safety and harmony for the society as a whole through the Social Contract. For Rousseau, the implication of the theory are different, since he argues that the Contract and its derivative ethical norms achieve societal harmony and prevent exploitation and social injustice. Rousseau’s version of the Theory emphasized that the aim of the Social Contract is satisfying the ‘general will’. Rousseau uses the concept of the ‘general will’ to explain exactly how people enter the Contract (by reconciling their individual free will with the ‘general will), whilst Hobbes admittedly does not go into such depth. The concept of the ‘general will’ was extremely influential in fuelling the French Revolution.

If we attempt to analyze Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s versions of the Theory in terms of their contemporary impact, we will find that both influenced the construction and structure of the Western system of jurisprudence. In Leviathan, Hobbes writes: ‘The passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by the industry to obtain them.’ Thus, another important distinction between Hobbes and Rousseau is that for Hobbes humans are at least partially motivated by fear, as well as self-interest, in entering the Social Contract, whilst for Rousseau they are primarily motivated by rationality. For the purposes of this discussion, Hobbes’ notion of ‘peace’ may be perceived as the chief objective of society, in the sense of ‘peaceful cohabitation’. Hence, Hobbes also sets up the debate about the importance of agency versus structure, since humans in creating the structure are motivated by a desire for ‘things such as are necessary for commodious living’, and not an inner impulse to ‘be good’, which is the key impulse for the contrasting society model, proposed in Tomas More’s Utopia. The most unorthodox aspect of Hobbes’ Social Contract is his unusual outlook on equality. He argues that the ‘natural equality’ of all men inclines every individual to fight another for the sake of preserving his own freedom. Thus, just as Locke differentiates between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom, Hobbes’ differentiates between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ equality.

There are two ways of approaching Hobbes’ Social Contract, depending on whether it is seen as a theory that is still functional, or that which is already outdated. On one level, it can be argued that Hobbes’ theory is unnecessarily ‘dictatorial’, which is how the Theory as a whole was interpreted by Socrates. Socrates’ approach to authority is influenced by the ancient Draco’s (Draconian) laws in Athens, as well as the overarching notion of the Ancient Greek Polis (the City), which has clearly influenced Hobbes in formulating his Theory. In contemporary terms, and especially since it has experienced a resurgence of popularity in the post – 9/11 21st century context, Hobbes’ Theory seems to justify the ‘herd instinct’, and the suppression of the individual, which is what bothers Rousseau about its original version. Similarly, the Polis was supposed to be preserved at the expense of individual citizens. In this light, the Theory suggests that the individual must thoroughly ‘submit’ to society to be part of it and receive its protection. John Locke criticized Hobbes’ Social Contract for putting forward a ‘brutish’ version of freedom. Locke emphasizes a distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom, suggesting that Hobbes’ ‘brutish’ freedom puts forward a reductionist view of human nature. At the same time, it needs to be remembered that, whilst such a criticism was influential in the Renaissance epoch, when it was widely believed that ‘man is the measure of all things’ (Protagoras), it is not so applicable in the 21st century, when reductionist viewpoints are quite widespread (Dawkins, Hutchins, Pinker), and when humans are seen as merely one of the stages of life in the ecosystem.

Rousseau’s version of the theory may be seen as an ‘amelioration’ of Hobbes, as indeed it often is seen. Nevertheless, it is perhaps more reasonable to say that they both provide slightly different versions of the overarching theory, which may only be seen as ‘complete’ when both their contributions are taken into account. Indeed, as it has been noted above, the Social Contract theory is an evolving concept, and the surge in popularity of Hobbes in the post-post-modern (meta-modern) context may cause Rousseau’s version to be overlooked. However, it is also true that even the version of Hobbes’ theory and responses to it that are popular in the 21st century are seen in the context of Rousseau’s modification. Indeed, Rousseau drew attention to the ‘dangers’ of Hobbes’ Social Contract theory as a pillar of Western philosophy, especially in its tendency to exploit the weak. Hence, whilst Hobbes’ theory is indeed again becoming increasingly popular, it is important to note that Rousseau’s contribution sparked a debate about how far the individual is to submit to society. In particular, this concerns what expressions of individuality harm the social structure, as seen in the contemporary French concept of La Cite, which has evolved since the French Revolution and which, apart from other things, aims to draw a line between state and religion, so as not to forbid religious discrimination on the basis of the Social Contract (since the Theory could be interpreted to require individuals to surrender their religious beliefs to the ‘Polis’ when they move into a different society.)

One of Rousseau’s contributions to the theory with most relevance, especially in the 21st century, is his criticism of Hobbes for suggesting that humans are increasingly selfish. Whilst society is becoming increasingly secular in the West, and hence human beings are indeed increasingly seen from a reductionist viewpoint, Rousseau’s point that humans are born in a ‘blank state’ of ‘tabula rasa’, and therefore are neither selfish, nor altruist by nature, falls in line with contemporary research on cognitive development of human beings, making his philosophy more applicable. Hence, his concept of ‘tabula rasa’ falls in line with Jean Piaget’s analysis of human development, and especially the autonomous and heteronomous stages of moral development. Rousseau therefore shows that, whilst social interactions are controlled by the Social Contract, this does not ‘destroy’ morality. This shows that the Social Contract, in fact, ‘works’.

Importantly, whilst Hobbes holds that the Social Contract prevents people from committing murder because they do not want to be murdered themselves (re-interpreting the Golden Rule of Judea-Christian ethics, later used by Immanuel Kant: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’), Rousseau argues that people gain civil rights in return for complying with the Contract. Thus, for Hobbes freedom from harm is not gained, but rather presupposed within the Theory; for Rousseau it is a gift obtained as a reward for following the Contract. Rousseau presupposes that humans benefit from the Contract. However, the common presupposition that Hobbes ‘celebrates’ the Contract is wrong; he actually states that it is unfortunate that societies function by following the Social Contract. As has been noted above, Rousseau allows for more ‘individual’ freedom than Hobbes; where Hobbes states that an individual is ‘enslaved’ by his obligation to follow the rules, Rousseau states that breaking the rules is possible, when it is known that others break them. This concept has been used by Martin Luther King in his arguments for peaceful opposition to racial discrimination in the 20th century USA, since he argued that segregationists themselves opposed the First Amendment. Equally, Rousseau states that breaking the rules is possible, when it is known that others break them.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

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About Polina Simakova / Agrippina Domanski

Polina is a 19-year-old theology student, fluent in French English and an avid writer. She recently published 'The Bosnian War' in 'The Lampeter Review', as well as its French version in Dumas de Demain, and the same poem as a guest poet in 'Current Accounts'. She has also won Audio Arcadia's October short story competition with her submission 'Marshes'.