If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The social contract

AP.GOPO:
LOR‑1.A.1 (EK)
Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and the idea of a social contract.

Want to join the conversation?

  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user B.K.
    What if humans don't have the right to steal in the first place, so we can't delegate that right and the government is actually evil? Is there any legitimacy to this thinking?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user youngkekistani
      That is a valid argument. John lock argued that our rights are inalienable and derive from our humanity. Libertarians, Volunteerist and Anachist believe in the non-aggression principle that the intitisation of force,cohesion or theft against another person is immoral. Since a individuals do not have these rights therefore a group of individuals (called government) can not ligamently hold these rights as well. *
      * Hobbs uses the social contract to legitimize (government)
      (19 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user imcornw1
    but is there really free speech in the U.S.A now days
    (14 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • boggle blue style avatar for user Davin V Jones
      Sure. The government cannot restrict your speech, with some limited exceptions.

      However, that doesn't mean that free speech is consequence free, nor does it mean that you have the expectation of free speech anywhere and from any entity. For example, free speech does not apply on this website. This is a private forum and you must adhere to the rules and guidelines KA sets forth. Another example, while you are free to publicly support or oppose some issue without interference from the government, your employer may also be free to terminate your employment based on your actions.
      (3 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user Loading......
    what will happened if we don't have the social contract?
    (9 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Hypernova Solaris
      Good question! Think of the words "social chaos", and this properly describes life without a social contract. We would be living like animals, with unlimited natural rights, yet seeing a common occurrence of people taking other people's natural rights away, whether it be through stealing, cheating, or even killing them. Worst of all, it would all be normal and LEGAL since there would have been no "law of the land" that a social contract provides. So as you can see, a social contract is relatively important!
      (2 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Is it possible that, under the current US administration, we are seeing a very real breakdown of the social contract? Can a democratic society survive the morally-deprived, ignorance-based actions of a chief executive (5-18) and his minions?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • female robot grace style avatar for user Katrina
      In theory, a well-designed democracy takes into account the possibility of an incompetent, unethical leader by limiting the amount of power a leader can possess. I believe that is one of the principles behind the splitting of legislative, executive and judicial power, as well as office term limits. However, no democracy is infallible and immune to corruption and bad leadership.
      (2 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Wang Xiaomei
    Really amazing to see how the country runs for social problems. So every country has the social contract? And the social contract is always the same or different?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user 144086
      Not every country has a social contract. I think social contract only exists if the people actually trust the government and are willing to sacrifice some of their rights. Otherwise, the citizens won't agree on a social contract.
      (2 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user chaim refael greengart
    arent all those freedoms without a government given to parents without any way of stopping them from abusing those powers
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user malikmahanbuie
    How did they spread the constitution around the US
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky sapling style avatar for user Aviana
      I believe that the US Constitution was spread through use of the newspaper, it was believed that in order for us to fully understand the Constitution we all must read it in a accessible way and at the time that was the newspaper
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 7851193
    What if people voted for no government? Is that even possible?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user astronautia ⚛︎
      It could be! If enough people signed a petition, maybe, or convinced senators to make it a law, people could vote for no government. But the question is... do people WANT no government? Like Sal said at the beginning of the video, people could steal your things, put you in jail for no reason, or really do anything to you, without any consequences.

      I hope this helps!
      (2 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user BroditheAwesom
    But if we are all happy, if we all have the SAME freedom, would others WANT to attack us, or imprison us, as you have suggested?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • sneak peak green style avatar for user G. Tarun
    What was Hobbes' view of human nature?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Instructor] Before we dive deep into our study of government and politics, it's worth asking a fundamental question. And that's whether we even need government, or why do we need government? And I encourage you to pause this video and think about this. Do you think we need government, and why? Or do you think we don't need government, and why? Okay, now let's start to reason through this a little bit and start to think about the benefits or the pitfalls of a government. So let's say that we are in a world without a government. And this is me right over here. And at first, it sounds pretty good. I have unlimited rights here. There's no one infringing on my right. I can say what I want. I have the freest possible speech. There are no laws that I could break. I have the freest possible religion. I have no government telling me what to practice or what I can't practice. I have, I can own what I want. I have property. I can go anywhere, so I have movement. And I also have some freedoms that those of us who live in a government don't typically have. So I would have the freedom to tax others or to take from others, take property. If I'm stronger than them, or if I'm just sneakier, I go in the middle night, I can just take their property from them. I could just settle on their land. I could have the freedom to punish others or imprison others if I don't like 'em. It doesn't even have to be for a reason. This is a freedom that most of us don't have in the world that we live in today. But without a government, I would have this freedom, this freedom to go and take stuff from others and to do physical harm or imprison them or enslave them. Now, this might sound good to you as an individual, but remember everyone in this government-less society would have these same, would have these same freedoms. And I especially like the ability to have my own property and to have my own freedom of movement. But what if this person right over here doesn't like me to have freedom of movement? And so they say they're going to invoke, look, I can punish or imprison you because I don't like you. And so they're going to infringe on my freedom of movement by imprisoning me, or maybe I might do it to someone else. And so even though you have all of these freedoms, because everyone else does, especially these latter few, they might be able to take some of these from you, including your freedom to live, your health, your happiness. And this is well-described in political philosophy. In particular, you have a gentleman by the name of Thomas Hobbes, who's considered one of the fathers of political philosophy. And this is what he had to say about this state of nature. "As long as men live without a common power "to keep them all in awe, "they are in the condition known as war, "and it is a war of every man against every man. "In war, the two chief virtues "are force and fraud." I can do something by physical force, or I could trick you, or I could sneak around you and take something from you, or imprison you. "A further fact about the state of war "of every man against every man, "in it there is no such thing as ownership, "no legal control, no distinction between mine and thine," between mine and yours. "Rather, anything that a man can get is his "for as long as he can keep it. "In such a condition, every man has a right to everything, "even to someone else's body. "As long as this continues, therefore, "that is, as long as every man continues "to have this natural right to everything, "no man, however strong or clever he may be, "can be sure of living out the time "that nature ordinarily allows men to live." This was written in Leviathan, which was published in 1651. So he's framing the same thing. If everyone has a right to everything, well, they can infringe on other people, including their life, their health, their happiness, their freedom to movement. Now some of you might be skeptical of this. You might say, look, humans are fundamentally good. If you give 'em that freedom, they have a conscience. They're not going to try to do this to other people. But some of you might be able to cite times in society where there's more of an anarchy where actually people might devolve. And even if one or two or three, or even if a majority of the people have a conscience and aren't willing to imprison others and punish people arbitrarily, if even a few people are not willing to respect other people's rights, everything might devolve. And it's worth talking about the historical context here because this was near the end of the English Civil War, where there was chaos, where people were asking these questions. Well, what type of government should we have? And when there isn't a strong government, all of this chaos is really all about person versus person. It wasn't this degree of chaos that Hobbes is writing about, this kind of natural state without government, but this was a context where there was a lot of bloodshed, a lot of war, and a lot of chaos. Now, Hobbes had a solution, and this is actually why the book was called Leviathan. He was an advocate of a very strong central government. This keeps people in awe alludes to what he's thinking of. Leviathan comes from the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It's the name of a sea monster. But Hobbes thinks that a government should be a Leviathan to keep everyone in check. He wrote, "When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, "he should be willing, when others are too, "to lay down his right to everything, "and should be contented "with as much liberty against other men "as he would allow other men against himself." Now, this idea that he's talking about, this is today referred to as a social contract. And this term social contract is first formally used by Rousseau, another Enlightenment author, about a hundred years later, talking about this willingness to give up some rights in order to protect the ones that you really, really, really want to have. And you would be giving up those rights to some form of a government. That is the social contract between the people that are governed and the government that governs them. So going back to that previous example where every person was out for themselves, what the social contract is saying is, well, look, certain of these rights, I really want to keep, my freedom of speech, my freedom of property, my freedom to move around, my freedom to have my life, my health, my happiness. In order to protect those freedoms, maybe I'm willing to give some of my other freedoms over to a central authority, as long as everyone is willing to give these up. And this central authority that we give it up to is a government. And the government, because it has this, it uses these rights in order to protect the other rights, the ones that I really want to keep. So the government enforces these other rights, and that's the social contract. I give away these rights in order to protect the ones that I really, really care about. And that makes sense, but it still leaves a very, very big question. What form should this government take? I'm willing to engage in this social contract, but how does this government govern? How are the leaders selected? What are the constraints on that government? And that will be our focus as we study government and politics.