Society as contractual agreement


A fundamental question of social science is: How is society possible? This question had been posed for many times, even if with different answers in mind and sometimes suggesting that societies are not really possible, in fact they “happen” against all probability and despite the action of people. One strand of answers is given by drawing on contracts, which are in one or another way drawn by the people. There are two different arguments for the necessity of such a contract. The one is the pessimistic version of an answer of the question introduced above. Thinkers of this strand argue that society is in a way an unlikely event and human beings have to find a way to keep their natural interests under control. Before we go into more detail, taking Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) as example we can mention Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) as representative of another strand of thinking. Further below we will deal with his argument that the aim of such a contract – which he accepts as well as necessity – is more a matter of caution; for him human beings are fundamentally socially oriented and he starts from a pre-stabilised harmony. The contract is only concerned with securing this harmony rather than having to enforce this.

It is interesting that both Hobbes and Rousseau based their ideas on the philosophy of natural law.

For Hobbes humans had been fundamentally egoistic, self-serving and of equal strength. This is in his view true even for altruistic action. However, a society based on self-serving individuals is permanently in danger to develop into – or even more, it actually is – a state of perpetual war of all against all. The only way to overcome such a state is by drawing a contract, i.e. establish an institution (the state) which secures that the right of everybody to everything is overcome and action is “coordinated” and egoism suppressed for the sake of all, i.e. the society. Otherwise neither original, basic industry nor progress is possible. Such a contract is based on the realisation of laws of nature, i.e. the realisation of moral principles. These laws – interestingly changeable, even if natural laws – are defined as ‘a precept, or natural rule, found by reason, by which a person is forbidden to do what that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.’

Furthermore, he defines peacekeeping as another law and a third is aiming on tolerance – he uses the term liberty – against others. – All these laws can be traced back to selfish motivation even if they are restricting the individual. However, they make to a certain extent possible to realise the egoistic interests insofar as they are – with about 15 others Hobbes suggests – laid down in a contract, thus establishing the state. However, even in this form and even if the observance is founded on egoistic interests there is always the danger of offences against the laws. The offences and the observance alike are to be seen against the background of the basic equality of strength.

If one can assign Rousseau to the natural philosophy in a strict sense can be questioned insofar as his work is at the very same time based on the philosophy of morals. Perhaps this reflects his dual orientation given by being both philosopher and pedagogue at the same time.[1] Rather than arguing for a contract as means of founding a society against the natural behaviour, an agency to keep egoism as basically antisocial behaviour under control – as it was the Hobbes’ argument – Rousseau saw the necessity of such a contract in securing and maintaining a life in accordance with the natural qualities of humans. For him all humans had been born free and equal – and the proposed contract aimed to adhere to these natural characteristics. His basic idea at least had been based on the conviction that social responsibility and already the demand to socialise is inherent in human nature, thus making living together fundamentally “positive”.

Thus, while Hobbes started from the point of creating a “society” (in form of a rather strict state) to regulate social relations, Rousseau was more concerned with securing basic social relations – the state only being a means, which would – ideally – be seen as a safeguarding instance in the background even if this instance could be very strict. For instance in his proposed republic he did not recoil from proposing the death penalty to secure these rights. The overall patterns – Hobbes versus Rousseau – can still be seen in traditions that are guiding the society-building in England on the one hand and France on the other. The lasting royalism on the one hand side stands against the democratic republic on the other. Furthermore, even if both countries are (up to recently, at least) marked by highly centralised political and soci(et)al systems the meaning is different. We might speak of a despotic regime against a centralised collectivism.

At least two questions remain however open. Contract theory in neither understanding gives sufficient evidence for the reasons behind aiming on a “social contract”; moreover, in fact, there was never such an agreement in a strict sense – constitutions, which we may take as such social contracts, had barely drawn by the people themselves. Furthermore, they are – at least in the advanced form, as we know them, not so much employed by regulating the behaviour of individuals. Instead, they regulate institutions and their relationship to each other and to the people. The questions, now, are (a) what is the real basis for drawing such contracts and (b) how does society regulate the relations of the individuals.

As we could see the theories of social contracts are by and large based on idealistic assumptions – the good, the bad, even the evil; the essence of the human being etc. Other theories, however, start on the contrary not from any kind of “natural” or “moral” notion of existence. Rather, an alternative point of departure is the real being of humans – their existence in their environment. This environment is natural and social alike and it is the existence in this social space, which influences the individuals’ behaviour as well as the individual influences its environment. A process of appropriation takes place as a permanent process of exchange – based on the existing conditions but at the same time changing these conditions. “The social” is not something ‘abstract’, something based on voluntarism, moral or human nature. It is based on the action of people themselves. This is a very rough sketch of a historical-dialectical approach, as it goes back in particular on Marx and Engels. However, according to this approach we still have a kind of contract, which is based on the power. Power itself is based on the position in the process of appropriation and thus decisively depending on the property of productive means. Since the process of production itself is a social process and the means of production are – hic and nunc – privately owned. This contradiction requires regulation and is the reason for building up institutions as the state. These are seemingly neutral entities. However, they are based on the existing relations between the soci(et)al actors (classes) and reflect their interests (not least, because their existence depends on production of means, which stem from “outside”, i.e. from surplus gained in the process of production.

Another interpretation takes as point of departure as well the “real being”, the relation between people. However, here it is more concerned with the results of the process of living together. Norbert Elias draws our attention on the increasing distance of people and their action – exchange and any other action is not (solely) concerned with the immediate environment, which can directly be controlled. Rather, action goes beyond this frame and is influenced and influences actions, facts, mechanisms etc. in a second, third and nth order. Action, thus, gets more and more mediated and regulated. This regulation takes place as establishing “formations” – settings in which institutional, organised mechanisms play an important role as do internalisations, i.e. the acceptance of values and attitudes. Elias understood the process, which he analysed, as culturalisation. In the course of this process people establish long chains of action. On the one hand, they loose control-here concerned with the immediate environment; on the other hand they gain control – in regard of space and time – and can influence (and are influenced by) circumstances, about they don’t even know. Psychological aspects, not least connected with psychoanalytic school, play an important part in his theory.

[1]       However, this argument is somewhat inadmissible as far as most of the early social thinkers had not been “mono-disciples”.