Contractarianism and Thomas Hobbes


According to them, human conduct can be considered ethical if it is as per the norms laid down in the contract between the parties.

Every society is based on one or other kind of contract explicitly or implicitly, for example, caste system, class system, or role allocation in the family on gender basis or otherwise.

When such a contract happens between the state and citizens, it is called a social contract. According to this contract, people are expected to follow the law, and the state is expected to serve the people.

In this school, we will study three thinkers

  1. Thomas Hobbs
  2. John Locke
  3. Rousseau

They have many differences in their ideas, but they also have some commonalities

Their philosophy focused on the relationship between the state and citizens

The Foundation of this relationship is based on an explanation of human nature and human rights.

Thomas Hobbs

Hobbes detested violence. He had read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and had personally witnessed the decades of the English civil war which culminated with the beheading of Charles II. The desire to avoid war motivated both his moral and political thought.

Concept of state of nature

Hobbes’ philosophy began by considering what the world would be like without morality. He believed that it would be a state of nature; a terrible place without art, literature, commerce, industry, or culture. Most terrifying of all, it would be a place of “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of [humans] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short, murderous, selfish (lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s profit or pleasure:), self-preserving (protects oneself from harm).

But why would it be so bad?

In the first place, Hobbes believed that human beings endeavour desperately to fulfil their desires for food, clothing, shelter, power, honour, glory, comfort, pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and a life of ease.

Unfortunately, such things do not exist in abundance; they are scarce. In addition, he believed that persons were relatively equal in their power.

 Given desires, scarcity, relative power equality, and the predominant sense of self-interest all human beings exhibit, Hobbes concluded that human beings, in a state of nature, would be engaged in a fierce struggle over scarce resources. Individuals would attack, steal, destroy and invade to protect themselves and prove their status. Thus, Hobbes’ first thesis: the state of nature is a state of war.

Right of nature

Hobbes’ second thesis was that individuals in a state of nature have no a priori moral law that obligates them to constrain their behaviour. For Hobbes, self-preservation justified the use of force and fraud to defend ourselves in a state of nature. In this state, only the power of others limits, what we can do. Hobbes called this the right of nature.

State of peace & Law of nature.

Hobbes argues that the state of nature is a miserable state of war in which none of our important human ends is reliably realizable. So he argued that humans as rational beings will try to avoid war and ensure peace in all possible manners. Hobbes calls these practical imperatives “Lawes of Nature”, the sum of which is not to treat others in ways we would not have them treat us. These “precepts”, “conclusions” or “theorems” of reason are “eternal and immutable”, always commanding our assent even when they may not safely be acted upon.

Morality was defined by articles of peace, essentially, the rules to which any rational self-interested person would agree. In the state of nature, we should exercise our right to nature; in the state of peace, we should follow the law of nature. In other words, morality is the set of rules that make peaceful living possible or Morality is the agreed-upon, mutually advantageous conventions which, assuming others’ compliance, make society possible. 

Social contract

This led to Hobbes’ fourth thesis: A Theory of Morality

Self-interest ultimately justifies morality. We can easily see that killing, lying, cheating and stealing are prohibited since they threaten society and are not in anyone’s self-interest. Whether the moral prohibitions against homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, or euthanasia are justified in terms of individual and societal interest is more debatable. But whatever the agreed-upon rules, according to this theory they do not exist before human contracts. We create morality by our agreements within the constraints demanded by self-preservation and self-interest; we do not discover antecedent moral truths.

Before the contract, actions are neither moral nor immoral. But after the contract is signed, society forbids some actions, allows others, remains undecided on a few, and continually renegotiates the contract to satisfy rival parties. Therefore, the moral sphere is one of continual bargaining and power-struggling where conflict is resolved through

  • Moral discourse
  • The political mechanism, or
  • Violence.

Though it is in our interest to agree to the articles of peace; it is not rational to comply with our agreements unless some coercive power forces us. Otherwise, we might feign agreement and, when the other complies, violate the accord. To prevent this, a coercive power must ensure that we comply with our agreements. This agreement between individuals to establish the laws that make communal living possible and an agency to enforce those laws is called the social contract.

Leviathan state

Because the state is a small institution, to govern society, it will require more power; hence he advocated for a leviathan state (strong state/big state), a state which has absolute powers, which means people can’t revolt against it and the state can use force on its subjects to maintain law and order. People will have rights in such a state, but these rights will be conditional but not absolute.

Why the Social Contract Theory is Attractive

  • First, it takes the mystery out of ethics, ethics has to do with all of us being able to live well.
  • Second, it says that morality is objective, there are objective reasons we shouldn’t kill or lie, but there are no mysterious moral facts from on high.
  • Third, moral rules aren’t meant to interfere in people’s lives.
  • Fourth, it doesn’t assume we are altruistic, it assumes we are self-interested, probably a more realistic assumption.
  • Fifth And finally, it gives us a reason to be moral—morality is in our self-interest.

The moral obligation of his philosophy

  • The state got a moral foundation for its existence, i.e., social contract theory.
  • The state got moral foundations for governing the people and making the laws.
  • The state got the right to enforce the law even against the will of subjects.
  • The state can compromise the right the rights of a few for the sake of the larger good, i.e., stability, peace, law and order etc.

Application of Hobbs’s theory

His philosophy is applicable where there is a need for State Enforcement of the law Maintaining law and order, peace, security, and inclusion. To secure resource mobilisation.

Application of Hobbs’s theory


  1. Contract theory answers the question of why “we” should be moral, but not why “I” should be moral. Instead, why not be a free rider? That is, why shouldn’t I be immoral if I can get away with it? Yes, it is good collectively for us all to be moral, but individually it seems I always do best by being immoral if I can get away with it.
  2. [The prisoner’s dilemma.] This is the toughest question for a contract theory of morality. Hobbes’ believed that we should penalize the non-cooperative move to deter individuals from choosing it. But this raises the problem of corruption and injustice among the coercive agencies—governments and their law enforcement departments. Perhaps then this problem is intractable, and there will be no solution until we change the hard wiring of our brains.
  3. He considered human nature as negative, which is influenced by the prevailing conditions of his time (16th-17th century) when society was facing incidences of widespread crimes like murders, thieving etc., but human nature is not so much negative as there are plenty of examples where people have shown selfless behaviour, charitable work in all the society shows that people are kind enough towards the weaker sections.
  • He advocated for an absolute state/leviathan state which is not acceptable in today’s time, where there is the concept of limited government. Because the leviathan state may turn into exploitative and authoritative where, in the name of law order state goes on submission the basic rights of the people without considering the threshold, where individual rights end and state’s rights begin.
  • His philosophy contradicts virtue ethics which is essential for human existence
  • Gita = selflessness
  • Vivekanand = service to Jiva is service to Shiva
  • Gandhi = self-governance
  • Aristotle =human is a rational creature

The essence of all these philosophies is that humans can also behave in the interests of others. Thomas Hobbs was saying that a strong government is the best government, but Gandhi said that the least government is the best government.

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