The Social Contract Theory

Life in society is only possible thanks to implicit and explicit agreements that we all, effectively, sign. In this article, we're going to explore how the social contract can benefit or harm you.
The Social Contract Theory
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

Living in society has innumerable benefits. In fact, it’s necessary for our survival and development as a species. In return, we’re pressured to comply with a series of rules. This exchange between people, which comes at a cost but also a gain, is called a social contract. However, it can be hard to keep at times.

The social contract depends, to a large extent, on the type of culture that prevails in the society to which we belong. It also depends on certain personal characteristics. Adhering to this social contract, although it’s optional, can benefit us in many ways.

brothers talking
Social contract theory was developed by Thomas Hobbes.

Social contract theory

The concept of the social contract dates back to antiquity. Indeed, it was used by philosophers like Socrates. But, it was Thomas Hobbes who really exposed and developed this theory. It had an influence on both the moral and political fields.

Broadly speaking, the social contract advocates that people establish an agreement among themselves to live together in society. This agreement is a fundamental reference for individual decision-making, to the extent that it speaks of possibilities and imposes limits.

By accepting the rules of the social contract, which can be explicit (like laws) or implicit, we understand that others will too. Consequently, despite having to make certain sacrifices or adjustments, we benefit from living together.

The degree to which each individual adheres to the social contract depends, in part, on the cultural setting. Some collectivist societies advocate and reward confluence, the search for the common good, and social harmony. On the other hand, others have more individualistic approaches. They encourage the individual to stand out, differentiate themselves from others, and remain true to themselves.

Should we adhere to the social contract?

The individualistic model is the prevailing one in the West today. It leads us to be aware of our rights and make use of them. But it also, in some cases, leads to disconnection from the community and a breach of the contract. In effect, we want to enjoy the benefits without doing our homework. This happens with affective irresponsibility. The opposite extreme leads us to dissolve ourselves in the collective, sacrifice ourselves excessively for the common good, and forget ourselves. Therefore, the key lies in a successful balance.

As well as political theories, the social contract has implications for our daily lives, well-being, and relationships with others. For example, in accepting certain jobs, paying taxes, and forming relationships with other people, we’re agreeing to abide by the rules of mutual exchange.

Although the obligations and demands may sometimes seem excessive, and we might be tempted to break away from the social contract, it benefits us in several ways.

  • It gives us a sense of belonging by connecting and making us part of a larger community. This connection can protect our physical and mental health.
  • We can access the support and validation of other people. Due to our social nature, we all need this, to a greater or lesser extent.
  • It allows us to be able to commit ourselves and form solid and meaningful bonds.
  • It promotes our development on a personal and societal level. After all, if we only acted according to our own rules and desires, harmony and progress wouldn’t be possible.
Puppets influencing each other
The social contract influences our daily lives and relationships with others.

Knowing our own schedules

It’s a fact that living alongside other people means we’re all subject to a series of rules, expectations, and limits. But, for this social contract to favor us, we need to know our own agendas. We must recognize our desires and needs, as well as our boundaries, especially when they involve others. In other words, we must clarify with ourselves what we expect, need, and want to obtain from specific exchanges.

For example, in the labor area, we need to know what types of jobs we’re looking for, and what hours and conditions are suitable for us. And, when it comes to marriage, we need to recognize what kinds of communication, expressions of affection, and degrees of commitment we hope to obtain. Only by having these clear ideas, can we evaluate if the social contract suits us, works in our favor, and if we’re willing to get involved in it.

It’s also essential that we know other peoples’ agendas and what they expect and want to obtain from us. Although in a job, these conditions may be clearer, in personal relationships, expectations are often implicit and aren’t verbalized. This means we can often find ourselves in the kinds of situations when others ask us for things we’re unable to deliver.

Finally, before making the conscious decision to adhere to the social contract, we must know what it consists of, and what rights and obligations it implies. If we don’t reflect and analyze rigorously enough, we might end up finding ourselves in extremely unsatisfactory situations. Therefore, bearing in mind that any social benefit will require certain sacrifices, it’s up to us to decide to what degree we want to participate in the social contract.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Jaramillo Marín, J. (2012). Significado e impacto de la noción de contrato social en Rousseau y Kant. Alcances y limitaciones en la teoría democrática. Civilizar: Ciencias Sociales Y Humanas12(23), 111-123.
  • Thompson, J. A., & Hart, D. W. (2006). Psychological contracts: A nano-level perspective on social contract theory. Journal of Business Ethics68, 229-241.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.