What Is the Concept of Social Contract Theory as to the Origin of the State?


Diego Sanchez

The concept of Social Contract Theory is a fascinating and influential idea that seeks to explain the origin of the state and the relationship between individuals and their government. Developed by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this theory provides valuable insights into the nature of political authority.

What is Social Contract Theory?

Social Contract Theory posits that individuals willingly enter into an agreement, or social contract, with their government. This contract establishes the rights and responsibilities of both parties, ensuring order, protection, and the promotion of general welfare within a society.

The Origin of the State

According to this theory, the state arises from a hypothetical scenario known as the “state of nature.” In this state, individuals live without any form of government or authority. The absence of a governing body leads to a chaotic and insecure environment where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as described by Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes, an influential philosopher who lived during the 17th century, argued that in order to escape this state of nature characterized by constant fear and violence, individuals voluntarily surrender some of their rights to a sovereign authority. This authority ensures security and stability for all members of society.

John Locke, another prominent thinker from the same era, had a different perspective. He believed that people enter into a social contract not just with a governing authority but also with one another.

According to Locke’s theory, individuals retain certain natural rights such as life, liberty, and property. The purpose of government is to protect these rights rather than infringe upon them.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an Enlightenment philosopher from the 18th century, further expanded on these ideas. He argued that in order for a social contract to be legitimate and representative of the collective will of society, it should be based on the general will of the people. In Rousseau’s view, the state should be a direct democracy where every citizen participates in decision-making processes.

The Role of Consent and Legitimacy

Key to the concept of Social Contract Theory is the notion of consent. The government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, reflecting the will and interests of the people. This consent can be explicit, such as through voting or participating in political processes, or implicit through living within a society and benefiting from its protections and services.

The legitimacy of a government is closely tied to its ability to uphold and respect the terms of the social contract. When a government fails to do so, individuals may have grounds for challenging or even overthrowing it. This idea has been instrumental in shaping notions of individual rights and popular sovereignty in modern democracies.


Social Contract Theory provides a thought-provoking framework for understanding the origin and nature of political authority. It emphasizes the voluntary nature of governance, highlighting that individuals willingly enter into agreements with their governments for mutual benefit and protection.

By exploring different variations of this theory put forth by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, we gain valuable insights into how societies are structured and governed. Understanding Social Contract Theory helps us appreciate our rights as citizens and encourages critical thinking about our roles within society.

  • Thomas Hobbes’ perspective highlights security as a key motivation for entering into a social contract.
  • John Locke’s emphasis on natural rights underscores individual liberties as essential components.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s focus on general will emphasizes collective participation in decision-making.

Through these lenses, we can analyze contemporary political systems and evaluate their adherence to the principles outlined by Social Contract Theory. By critically engaging with these ideas, we contribute to an ongoing dialogue about the relationship between individuals and their governments, striving for a more just and equitable society.