You are currently viewing Civil Society Is Not A Contract: A Reply to Hobbes and Locke

Civil Society Is Not A Contract: A Reply to Hobbes and Locke

This is a reply to a member of our local discussion group who argued that human beings “choose” to enter civil society:

My modest comment on your comment would be to say that I don’t think individuals “choose” to enter society. We are all born into a fully-functioning human society as helpless infants and nurtured to maturity in it, whence most of us contribute our own equally helpless infants who go thru the same process under our care. We may indeed “choose” to leave that society. But unless we are feral children raised by apes or lions, or choose to abandon human society altogether, as some hermits have done, but very, very few, I submit the “choice” factor can only be negative, in the form of a repudiation of social reality. I know the Hobessian/Lockeian theory rests on the notion of “entering” society (“choosing” to form such) but that is a handy myth invented to support Hobbes’ view of a social contract needed to surrender our Will to a Dictator/Leviathan) and Locke’s embellishment of that same idea (both ideologically essential to their arguments, but false in fact) , that just as we choose to “enter” a civil society, we may therefore choose to repudiate it and construct it anew. 
In this sense I maintain that the contract theory re the formation of civil society was false but essential to an ideology seeking a renewal of the situation.
Surely the most upsetting example of the fallout of a political contract theory ever seen was the disastrous and incredibly murderous French French Revolution of 1789 which wrote up a “contract” (a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”) very early in the revolt, which subsequently served as a justification for the slaughter of about 250,000 citizens in the name of “liberty” and “equality”.

So much for that “contract”. 
Next in line (though prior historically) is the U.S. Declaration of Independence that provided support for the American Revolution (really, not a revolution at all; but a War of Independence claiming a right to inherited British laws, not revolutionary new ones). This made the USA a “propositional” nation, but not a contractual one (as none can be, as David Hume argued).
He got it right when he exposed the contract theory by arguing that no contract is possible without a pre-existing social and legal regime to give the laws validity in the first place (even though the basis of the contract argument may be false). In other words, contracts do not bring legality into existence. They are formed in a fully pre-existent civil and legal society.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mike

    Considering the current state of affairs, I would argue that the whole concept of a civil society or a “social contract” is becoming obsolescent. The only way our society can function is for the citizens to agree to conform to the normal rules of civilized behaviour (tolerance of free speech, respect for private property, belief in capitalism, support for democracy, etc.) Increasing, I see a society wherein individuals feel free to act as if there were no rules, and they should be not held accountable. For example, large American cities, particularily those on the West Coast, now have large encampments that are comparable to third world slums. The wealthier have used their resources to insulate themselves, but those of lesser means have to try and survive. Additionally, among the chattering classes, there seems to be a longing for a system that will have society exert control over ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, and which will only allow those which are acceptable to those of so-called “progressive” values to be expressed.

    1. William Gairdner

      Sadly, much of what you say seems true

Leave a Reply

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.