1. Religion & Spirituality
social contract
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Definition:
The idea of a "social contract" has been used at various times (by philosophers like Plato, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes) as an explanation for the origins of society, as a justification for the current social structures, and as a justification for the current nature of society as opposed to other possible social systems. At its most basic, the concept is that humans, living completely independently, freely choose to bind themselves to each other in a social system. In principle, each person gives up some of the things they could do while independent in order to benefit from the protection of the group.

Typically, the idea of a "social contract" is used to justify the idea that a community or a government should have very little in the way of powers over members and citizens. Because each person starts out in a "natural" state of total freedom, government is "unnatural" and should be kept in check. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the "social contract" to be used as anything more than an ideological prop in this case because no such original, "natural" state of independence has existed for humans - we have evolved as social animals and have always existed as a part of social groups.

Some take such a story literally, but many regard it as a "useful fiction" - not something which is literally true, but rather a helpful way to understand how society works and how individuals in society should be treated. However, if there was never a literal social contract, the usefulness of this fiction may be very limited.

Some theorists have used the concept of a "social contract" to justify greater government involvement in people's lives, for example John Rawls. According to Rawls, we should construct our social arrangements from behind a "veil of ignorance." We should imagine that we will join society without knowing what class, race, or other social group we will belong to. In this way, the "social contract" we create will be the most equitable possible.

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Related Resources:

What are Political and Legal Philosophy
The Philosophy of Politics and the Philosophy of Law are often studied separately, but they are presented here jointly because they both come back to the same thing: the study of force. Politics is the study of political force in the general community, while jurisprudence is the study of how laws can and should be used to achieve political and social goals.

What is Philosophy?
What is philosophy? Is there any point in studying philosophy, or is it a useless subject? What are the different branches of philosophy - what's the difference between aestheitcs and ethics? What's the difference between metaphysics and epistemology?

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