7.2 The social contract

For Hobbes, as for other advocates of Social Contract Theory, the big problem of a life without binding moral rules is that cooperation between individuals is impossible. If I have no reason to keep my promises to you, then, should I be tempted to not deliver what I have promised to deliver, I won’t bother. If I have no reason not to respect your property when I am in a position to take it for myself, I will just take it. If there is no reason why I should avoid endangering your well-being, when it is to my advantage to do so, I won’t pay any attention to whether or not my actions hurt or even kill you. Since, however, it is just these failings that would make life in a state of nature unbearable to all of us, it seems like these are the kind of things we’d all be willing to create rules against. Since not keeping promises, stealing and recklessly endangering others are what we’d most like to escape from in a state of nature, then these are the kinds of things that our moral rules should forbid. Entering into a social contract is then just agreeing to abide by a certain set of rules that we can all accept such as agreeing to keep our promises, to tell the truth to each other, not to steal from each other, or endanger each others’ lives for no good reason. These are all of the things each of us wants, so these are the kinds of rules we would all accept. And we should all be willing to give up our freedom to violate these rules, because otherwise life would be unbearable for us all. This suggests an argument for Social Contract Theory.

Life would be unbearable without moral rules.
So we have a strong interest in developing and following a set of moral rules.

Hence moral rules are a product of human choices and are grounded in our common self-interest in creating and preserving social order.

Social rules, according this argument, are thus thoroughly conventional rules that are based on mutual self-interest. They are not based on human nature, God’s commands or the dictates of some cultural tradition or other. Instead they are put in place in order to allow us to live together, to engage in cooperative tasks, to own property, and to be assured that others will not infringe on our basic needs. The rules, once enacted, create legally enforceable rights and duties and enable us to depart from the chaos of the state of nature once and for all. Or so it seems at least.