6.1 The Individual and Society

What does it mean to be a member of a community, to “belong” to the society in which you live? In response to such questions, philosophers propose theories about what ought to be the case; in contrast, social scientists describe what is the case. Social and political philosophy, like Ethics, is a normative pursuit, and a conception of what constitutes moral actions for individuals is integral to how they relate to the community (the larger social group) to which they belongs. A conception of “the good” is central to understanding what makes a society just, or fair, for its members. As we look at how specific philosophers view the relationship of the individual to society, and what makes a society good, notice that a particular conception of human nature will underly theories on the relationship between individuals and their society, be it a local community or a nation.

6.1.1 Aristotle and “The Good Life”

Man Is Social by Nature

In his work PoliticsAristotle (384 – 322 BCE) explained how virtuous lives of individual citizens are supported by the political community itself. He believed that achieving virtue and acquiring a sense of self-identity require social interaction and working with others. Being a member of society (using his term,”the city”) is the natural state of man. Humans are, by nature, social creatures who live in groups, and life in a community (the city) is necessary for a complete human life. Note that for Aristotle, “the city” represents the pinnacle of societal structure; it starts with families, families form villages, and villages grow to become cities, the centers of culture.

The interest of the city is more important than that of an individual. Public interests take precedence over individual ones. From Politics, Book I, Chapter II:

Besides, the notion of a city naturally precedes that of a family or an individual, for the whole must necessarily be prior to the parts, for if you take away the whole man, you cannot say a foot or a hand remains, unless by equivocation, as supposing a hand of stone to be made, but that would only be a dead one; but everything is understood to be this or that by its energic qualities and powers, so that when these no longer remain, neither can that be said to be the same, but something of the same name. That a city then precedes an individual is plain, for if an individual is not in himself sufficient to compose a perfect government, he is to a city as other parts are to a whole; but he that is incapable of society, or so complete in himself as not to want it, makes no part of a city, as a beast or a god. There is then in all persons a natural impetus to associate with each other in this manner, and he who first founded civil society was the cause of the greatest good; for as by the completion of it man is the most excellent of all living beings, so without law and justice he would be the worst of all, for nothing is so difficult to subdue as injustice in arms: but these arms man is born with, namely, prudence and valour, which he may apply to the most opposite purposes, for he who abuses them will be the most wicked, the most cruel, the most lustful, and most gluttonous being imaginable; for justice is a political virtue, by the rules of it the state is regulated, and these rules are the criterion of what is right.

A precise explanation of Aristotle’s conception of a “just state” is elusive. Recall, from the Ethics unit topic of Virtue Ethics, Aristotle’s concept of virtuous actions and acquiring virtuous character. An individual with a well-developed virtuous character understands if a particular situation is just or not. The just society has no fixed rules, but the virtuous person chooses just actions and understands why such actions are just.

Aristotle Summary

Aristotle’s view and his picture of human nature is that humans are social, political creatures in their natural state of nature. Capabilities for speech (communication) and reason foster a cooperative life with others. There is no “pre-social” state of nature; humans by nature are social and expand their social organization beyond the family. Together, individuals build cities, and the best interest of the city (or society) is more important than the interests of individuals.

A supplemental resource is available (bottom of page) on Aristotle’s politics.

Aristotle’s view that humans are social by nature stands in contrast to that of other philosophers who see human nature (often articulated as the “state of nature”) as less than social, possibly even chaotic. The agenda of each philosopher we will meet next is to justify the government bodies and/or social principles essential for members of a society to enjoy a good, or just, life.

6.1.2 Social Contract Theory in the Age of Reason

What Is Social Contract Theory?

Social contract theory is the view that political structure and legitimacy of the state stem from explicit or implicit agreement by individuals to surrender specified rights in exchange for the stability of social order and/or for the protection of government. Social contract theory is “theoretical.” The “idea” of a contract is offered as an explanation or justification of a relationship between the individual and the larger society or government. Social contract theories demonstrate why members of a society would rationally find it in their best interests to comply with and uphold the principles and regulations of their society. A social contract theory attempts to justify a particular political system (a currently existing one or an ideal one) by showing why members of society would consent to it. Members of society freely relinquish something they value (for example, aspects of their freedom) in exchange for something else they also value (for example, a sense of security.)

Human reason is a key element in social contract theories. First, the underlying view of human nature includes that we are rational beings and therefore can understand why and how regulations and principles make life better. Further, given that humans are rational, the contract itself needs to express what a rational person would agree to.

Social contract theories put forth by philosophers typically refer to contracts between a nation and its citizens. Consent to such contracts is meant to occur tacitly, or implicitly, by virtue of being a citizen of the state. (An exception to this might be the case of an immigrant becoming a naturalized citizen, and here, there would be an actual oath of compliance, or consent.) The social principles and political structure of a society that are established by its members’ consent come to represent that society’s standard for what is good, or just.

Several philosophers proposed social contract theories during the period in European history known as the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, the late 1600s through early 1800s. As we look at three of these philosophers, keep in mind that: (1) each has a specific view of man’s “state of nature” (human nature prior to socialization), and (2) each argues for a social contract that assumes his view of human nature.

Thomas Hobbes: Man is Self-Centered and Mean

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a British philosopher who lived during the English Civil War (1642-1648). The work that expresses his political thought most completely isLeviathan (1651). Hobbes’ underlying epistemological and metaphysical beliefs contribute to his socio-political views; he was a materialist and committed to laws of causality and the motion of bodies. He held vividly pessimistic views of humans in their state of nature and of the social contract that is required for living in a relatively untroubled society.

The following excerpt from Chapter XIII of Leviathan demonstrates Hobbes’ picture of man in his naturally combative state.

From Equality Proceeds Diffidence
From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other. And from hence it comes to passe, that where an Invader hath no more to feare, than an other mans single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the Invader again is in the like danger of another.

From Diffidence Warre
And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him.

Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power, to keep them in quiet, is far enough to make them destroy each other,) to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by the example.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrel. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

The first, maketh men invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the third, for Reputation. The first use Violence, to make themselves Masters of other mens persons, wives, children, and cattell; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other signe of undervalue, either direct in their Persons, or by reflexion in their Kindred, their Friends, their Nation, their Profession, or their Name.

This very brief passage from Chapter XIV provides a glimpse of Hobbes reasoning toward a contract among men to relinquish some rights in return for safety.

What it is to lay down a Right?
To Lay Downe a mans Right to any thing, is to Devest himselfe of the Liberty, of hindring another of the benefit of his own Right to the same. For he that renounceth, or passeth away his Right, giveth not to any other man a Right which he had not before; because there is nothing to which every man had not Right by Nature: but onely standeth out of his way, that he may enjoy his own originall Right, without hindrance from him; not without hindrance from another. So that the effect which redoundeth to one man, by another mans defect of Right, is but so much diminution of impediments to the use of his own Right originall.

Hobbes Summary

In Hobbes view, in the state of nature humans are selfish, destructive, unprincipled, and at war with each other. But because humans are also rational, they realize that their lives will be better if they cooperate with others and live under the protection of a Sovereign authority, namely the British monarchy. This social contract, according to Hobbes, is about giving up some freedom in exchange for safety. Political structure is required if there is to be peace and cooperation.

John Locke: Man Has Natural Rights

John Locke (1632-1704), a British empiricist philosopher we met first in the unit on Epistemology, had a more upbeat view of human nature than that of Hobbes. In their natural state, according to Locke, men are notably rational and possess inalienable rights to pursue life as they choose. In his work, Second Treatise on Government (1690) Locke details his views of the social contract, the purpose and structure of government, and his picture of the ideal relationship between an individual and the government.

The following brief excerpts from Locke’s Second Treatise on Government exemplify Locke’s view that humans, by nature, possess rights, which entail the responsibility to not invade the rights of another:

Sect. 4. TO understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty

Sect. 7. And that all men may be restrained from invading others rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man’s hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world ‘be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders. And if any one in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.

Locke Summary

John Locke used the social contract to justify the authority of the state. However, he thought that the role of the government was to be the ‘servant’ of its citizens and protect peoples’ natural rights. The right to private property, among those natural rights, is central to Locke’s case for civil government; property ownership is subject to contention, and the contract expects civil authority to protect property and other rights of the individual. Locke believed that all people have natural rights no matter what the culture or circumstances. Natural rights constitute a basic moral law; moral requirements are imbedded in his conception of human nature; every person has these rights, simply by virtue of being human. In Locke’s view, the right to life, liberty, health, and property are inalienable. His ideas were instrumental in forming the basis of America’s Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Man is Compassionate (but Corruptible)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a Swiss philosopher who wrote at the height of the Enlightenment period. He saw humans in the state of nature as compassionate and essentially moral beings. However. when removed from this literally “natural” state into urban chaos, humans are subject to corruption and loss of their natural compassion; having private property, for example, encourages less admirable characteristics such as greed and self interest. Rousseau moved from a social contract position that aligned with his picture of humans in their original compassionate state of nature to a new normative theory for social contract meant to improve the state of mankind in the wake of accelerating social change.

Rousseau Summary

Rousseau thought society ought to be ordered such that people give up some individual freedom and rights for collective liberty. His view of social contract involved uniting together to express a single collective will. In this way, the state (or society) acts as a moral person, rather than just a collection of individuals. The general will is the will of a politically unified group of people that defines the common good, determines right and wrong, and is established by passing laws. Majority vote democratically confirms general will.

Supplemental resources are available (bottom of page) on the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.


The Enlightenment-era philosophers we have met claim to imagine humans in a “state of nature” that is prior to socialization. Do you think a pre-social conception of human nature is possible? Why or why not? And if this is possible, would it be a useful starting position for understanding the individuals’ best interests in defining a relationship with a governing body? Why or why not?

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

6.1.3 Rawls: Social Contract in the Just Society

John Rawls (1921-2002) was an American political philosopher whose work, A Theory of Justice (1971), proposes a hypothetical variation on the social contract theory. Unlike prior social contract theorists, Rawls made use of neither a specific historical context in need of reform nor an original “state of nature” from which people emerge to enter a social contract. Rawls regards the principles of justice that structure the society as what requires agreement. Though Rawls describes no pre-social “state of nature,” he relies on a view of human nature, a Kantian view that humans are rational and can reason from a universal point of view. The essential feature of this capability for Rawls is that a rational person is able, from an impartial perspective, to judge and accept principles of society that would treat everyone with equality and fairness.

The following concepts from A Theory of Justice are central to Rawls hypothetical conception of social contract theory:

Original Position: From this perspective, persons have no knowledge of their particular circumstances, are rational, and are disinterested in one another’s well-being. This is the hypothetical position, or standpoint, from which the nature of justice can be discovered.

Veil of Ignorance: Rawls uses this term to characterize the epistemological status of one in the Original Position: no knowledge of personal situation.

Justice as Fairness: Rawls’ characterization of his theory that principles of justice are agreed to from an original-bargaining position that is fair.

The Two Principle of Justice: These are the basic, most fundamental principles that would be chosen from the Original Position (from behind the Veil of Ignorance) to regulate a just society:

Note: Treatment of Rawls’s principles of justice includes material adapted from information in a Wikipedia.org article found at Wikipedia: John Rawls[CC-BY-SA]

  1. All persons in a society should have as much basic liberty (rights and duties) as possible, provided that everyone has equal (the same) liberties.
    • This principle is known as the Liberty Principle. For Rawls, basic liberty includes freedoms of conscience, association and expression, as well as democratic rights. Rawls defends a personal property right that is about moral capacity and self-respect, rather than the natural right of self-ownership advocated by John Locke.
  2. Social and economic inequality should be permitted only if such an arrangement makes everyone better off.
    • Rawls refers to this second principle as the Difference Principle.Any principle devised and accepted behind a veil of ignorance will provide equal advantage for everyone, including for those who turn out to be the least advantaged members of society. The aim is to guarantee liberties that represent meaningful options for everyone and ensure distributive justice. Certain freedoms such as political voice or freedom of assembly have little value to those who are desperately poor and marginalized. While it is impossible to demand the exact same effective opportunities of everyone while maintaining basic liberties for all, at the very least we should ensure that those least well off have enough freedom to pursue personal goals and a life worth living.

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) explore Rawls’s concepts and provide a lively discussion of his theory of justice.


Why, according to Rawls, should talented and hard-working poor children have the same chances of success as rich children? Do you agree with him?

Do you believe that taxing the rich to pay what it costs to provide equal educational opportunity for all is required as a matter of justice?

Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion topic.

Supplemental Resources


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Aristotle: Politics. Read section 7c.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Social Contract Theory. Read section 2a on Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes. This video on Hobbes (6+ minutes) includes relevant details of Hobbes’ personal background as well as the historical context of Hobbes version of the social contract.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Social Contract Theory. Read section 2b on Locke.

John Locke. In addition to providing context for Locke his political philosophy, this video describes Locke’s use of Hobbes’ idea of “state of nature” which diverges from Hobbes’ picture of it; his view entails a form of government different from Hobbes’ Sovereign. The last 2 minutes of this 9-minute video are interesting, though not pertinent to Locke’s political philosophy.

Social Contract Theory Lecture Final. This video, which runs for 20 minutes, is a slower and more detailed lecture/presentation on Locke’s social contract theory. The lecturer points out the intentional parallels between the TV show “Lost” and Locke’s conception of social contract.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Social Contract Theory. Read section 2c on Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This 7+ minute video helps to get inside Rousseau to understand the culture and times contributing to his political thought.

Enlightenment Contract Theories Compared

Social contract theories. This video (8+ minutes) summarizes and compares the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Social Contract Theory. Read section 3a on Rawls.

The video selections that follow are lectures from Michael Sandel’s Harvard University course called “Justice.” The videos include interactions between Sandel and his students and between students whose opinions on these issues differ.

Lecture 14: A Deal is a Deal. This lecture introduces and explains Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, as a development of Kantian ethical philosophy.

Lecture 15: What’s a Fair Start?. This lecture provides deeper investigation of the meaning of fairness and equality.