The Instigator
Con (against)
3 Points
The Contender
Pro (for)
6 Points

Social Contract Theory

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Post Voting Period
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after 3 votes the winner is...
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 4/5/2011 Category: Politics
Updated: 6 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 23,886 times Debate No: 15802
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (1)
Votes (3)




Social contract theory, I will argue, is an illogical concept that cannot be the basis of states. I will define this as the idea that a state is based, in some way, on consent of the governed with an explicit or implicit contract. My opponent will seek to argue that such a contract exists, or could at least in theory.

Contract has been defined in this debate to be any voluntary agreement, whether explicit or implicit, between parties that can understand and consent, that neither is coerced into, with consideration of an exchange for their mutual benefit.

I will begin with the following arguments against social contract theory:

1: There is no actual historical example of such a contract existing.

2: A social contract is not possible, since all states by their nature impose this upon third parties that have not agreed to it, or alter its terms without permission. In addition there is no clear way to redress breaches of such agreements, when one party, by its nature, is the power monopoly, except by intervention from another state, that leaves them at equal disadvantage.

3: That such a contract, even assuming it were to exist, would be quickly violated because of this and cease to bind people.

In conclusion, social contract theory is simply a legitimating myth of states. I look forward to my opponent's response, and hope this debate will be fruitful.

More information:


Greetings one and all, welcome to the debate! I, affirming, will defend two main contentions:
  1. That all laws are an exercise of the mutual forfeiture of rights
  2. That people consent to laws
Let me first say a few words in defense of each of those statements. Then I will link them back to the moot and offer some rebuttals to the points that have already been raised.

1. Laws are an exercise of the mutual forfeiture of rights
A law is a limit on what you may do. Tax law limits how you may spend money, Criminal law limits how you may act, Constitutional law limits how you may deal with those in power (and they with you). Under the rule of law doctrine, followed by almost every country presently and historically, only law can remove your rights. Therefore without law, you would have unlimited rights. Laws are thus mutual forfeitures of rights - I give up my right to murder you if you give up your right to murder me. I accept that sometimes they are not mutual, for instance, in cases of pro-slavery legislation. Where they are not mutual, that constitutes an exclusion of a group from a contract and thus establishes a separate, subordinate jurisdiction within which there is a mutual forfeiture of rights. Thus even these laws are covered by the idea of mutual forfeiture of rights.

2. That people consent to laws
Almost everyone reaps the benefits of living in a state. From footpaths to social welfare, people accept the help of government. By doing so, despite having the opportunity not to, people accept law. This is an argument first made by Socrates. When about to be executed, some of his followers offered to free him. He rebuked them, saying that he had enjoyed the benefits of living in Athens, and by doing so, accepted that he was a part of Athens, a member of their society, and therefore subject to their laws. Now, I know this is an argument from an idealized jurisdiction. In reality, mental patients (who cannot consent), infants, very recent laws and other problem complicate matters. But in general, people do consent to laws implicitly.

3. Social contract theory
So far what I have established is two facts. Put together they show this: that people agree to the mutual forfeiture of rights. Every time they do this, social contract theory is right. Why? A contract has been defined by my opponent as "any voluntary agreement ... with consideration of an exchange for their mutual benefit." The provisos are that there must be consent without coercion. I have already argued consent, so all I must do is show that every time a law is passed, nobody is holding a gun to your head forcing you to stay in your country. In the US where you live, and in NZ where I do, we have freedom of movement. Thus nobody is holding guns to our heads forcing us to remain. If NZ ever goes nuclear, or we institute capital punishment, then no doubt I'll leave. Why? I don't have a lot of stake in the social contract, so there is no great problem with me breaking it. Until then let me just agree to forfeit my rights as you forfeit yours. This is the social contract.

4. Con's Objections
4.1 No history of it existing
So what? Please explain how this proves anything. I think it's a red herring.

4.2 Contracts not imposed
It's not in the nature of states to impose. You're making exactly the argument Jean-Jacques Rousseau made in his famous book "The Social Contract," which advocated a natural democracy. This and some other political systems never "impose" contracts, which allows a social contract to "work." Even so, I argue above that people generally accept contracts.

4.3 No redress
Yes there is. It's called civil law. Look it up. In most jurisdictions, you can sue the government, and even use their legal aid funds to pay for it. Besides which a contract does not have to offer redress. Them breaking their terms, of course, allows you to break yours as well. That's the point behind Malcolm X's famous "Ballot or the Bullet" speech.

4.4 Quick violation
Then I guess you're writing this from jail, huh? Actually, because people offer consent to social contracts, they are rarely broken. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions not rules.

I look forward to the next round, and hearing con elaborate on his arguments in more detail. Thanks for the debate!
Debate Round No. 1


Thank you for accepting larz.

I will address your arguments in turn.

1. Laws are an exercise of the mutual forfeiture of rights

I agree that law is a limit on what you may do, that seems elementary. However, your argument that law (and only law) can remove your rights, let alone that you have unlimited rights, is unproven. I am equally skeptical that law is a mutual forfeiture. You accept in some cases this is not the case, but argue that even here there is a mutual forfeiture of rights. I do fail to see how this can be the case. With your example of a law recognizing slavery, how can this mutual forfeiture possibly exist?

2. That people consent to laws

I must point out that "society" does not equal the state. Footpaths and social welfare are both possible without having a power monopoly which controls them. In addition, people have no option except to accept government "help"-there is certainly no way to opt out. How exactly do they have an opportunity not to? Your example of Socrates is a perfect illustration, for although he accepted laws even at the point of death, it did not matter. If there were a legal option to free him, it was at the state's pleasure. Conversely, if prison break was discussed, clearly it would be illegal. As you note, infants and others cannot consent. However, we all start as infants, so are born into a system of state laws without consent. At the point we can actually consent, those laws have already been imposed. People consent implicitly to laws because force or the threat thereof is used to enforce them. Some things most people will generally not do, such as kill, steal or cheat. This does not rely on law though, indeed laws make numerous exceptions in favor of such behavior by the law-makers and enforcers themselves. Other laws which do not enjoy such customary approval require more coercion.

3. Social contract theory

Every time a law is passed, force or the threat of force must be used to enforce it. Otherwise this law is a dead letter. Though I will point out that some countries do not allow people to leave, in any case this argument amounts to "love it or leave it." Greater freedom of movement exists with our countries, true, however between them is another story, which makes going somewhere else problematic at best.

4.1 No history of it existing

The reason it matters is assuming social contracts have never existed, then how do your arguments that they exist make any sense, or have persuasive value? The social contract in this case remains a purely theoretical idea.

4.2 Contracts not imposed.

"It's not in the nature of states to impose." This is flat-out wrong. Every law must be imposed as I have said, or it would have no weight and be freely ignored. People who freely accept the laws may have no issue, however my point was that anybody who does not must be coerced to. A threat of force makes people act in ways they otherwise will not. It would not be hard to think of laws people deeply oppose, but obey due to penalties for violations.

4.3 No redress.

Such redresses are of course granted by the state itself. I am fully aware of them. Are you familiar with the concept of sovereign immunity? The state cannot be sued without its consent and in many cases reserves this immunity, all power to sue it being given or taken away as it pleases. A contract does not have to offer redress true, but there must be a way to counter breach, which is what I meant. In the case of social contract breaches, there is no state that will allow you to "breach" it in retaliation. For instance, the Declaration of Independence states "whenever government becomes destructive to these ends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it." However, no government will accept this in practice, including the very one that declared independence from another state, Great Britain, soon after putting down opposition by force. Your reference to Malcolm X's speech is striking in that Black Nationalists did seek to "break" the social contract in turn. The state response need not be stated.

4.4 I am not writing this from jail only because of my obedience to current laws. As stated, fear of coercion is not an indicator of voluntary consent. In your view, social contracts are rarely broken, while of course their very existence is the subject of this debate. However, assuming for this point only that they exist, I must disagree and say they are constantly broken.

I'm enjoying this debate thoroughly, anticipating your next points.


I'd like to thank my opponent for substantiating much of his case. I must admit I'm a bit spooked by the notion that he's anticipating what I'm about to write. I wonder if his crystal ball has any accuracy...

I said I would argue two points, which together hold that people agree to the mutual forfeiture of rights. The reciprocity and agreement points of this argument have been contested by my opponent. However, before I go on to that, there are a few other, minor points I want to dismiss.

First, that there is no history of it. As I suspected this is a red herring, as all I need to show is that it could exist. However, I have argued already that virtually all states operate on the basis of social contract theory.

Second, the imposition of contract. As I said, if people ARE the state then there is no need for state imposition, as is the case in a natural democracy as advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As my opponent is arguing against a specific implementation of the theory, rather than the theory itself, my case is not harmed at all.

Third, no redress. This little section is important, so read it carefully. Of course you can counter-breach. No state will allow breaches, but then neither will any individual. All contracts work on the principle of good faith. Sovereign immunity exists, but that doesn't stop a remedy. The power to sue is limited to its own court system. The power to convince others and lead a coup rests with every individual on this planet. Without a society backing them and having abandoned their contract, a state loses all power.

Cool. So let's move on to our two main points, shall we? I shall list your objections and my responses, by argument.

1. Reciprocity
a) Explain the slavery thingy
Very well. When slaves are enslaved, they are removed from the common jurisdiction and have their own set of laws apply to them. Thus they have a separate relationship with the state from the rest of society. Between them and the state is therefore a distinct forfeiture of rights. It isn't mutual, and it definitely isn't a contract. The point is that the existence of such cases does not break the social contract because slaves are not included in the contract, as they are beyond the contract's jurisdiction.

b) OK, well, what about the Socrates thingy?
Socrates had already accepted the contract before the trial. He reaped the benefits, he was convicted of a crime under his own contract, found guilty, and about to be punished. It does not matter that he no longer agreed to the contract. Once it's signed, a contract cannot usually be revoked on a change of mind. The same applies for social contracts.

c) States need to rule by fear (various variations on this theme)
My opponent articulates the school of legal theory known as positivism, and I articulate that known as naturalism. According to his theory, it was right of ordinary people in NAZI Germany to hate on Jews because that's what the state wanted. According to mine, the government had broken the old contract and built a new one, that the people had the right to reject (as many who fled NAZI Germany did). I am of the conviction that we are able to exercise our own discretion in interpreting the law. A police state has no social contract, but we are not police states. We are states with police, not by police. Laws can be applied without fear. In New Zealand we recently had a law passed which restricted parent's ability to punish children. Despite widespread opposition to the law, the law was applied and two years later, there have been no convictions under the law. Why? According to positivism, the only way that effect could have been achieved is a policeman in every household. I claim the social contract was extended, and therefore accepted. The facts support my conclusion, simply on the basis that police numbers decreased over this period relative to the number of kids.

2. Agreement
a) Prove only law can remove rights
Doctrines of Rule of Law, and Parliamentary sovereignty. Basically both have the same message - only law has power to forfeit rights. Other removals are not recognised by the law and thus not relevant to the social contract.

b) You don't need a power monopoly
To create public goods, according to basic economics, you need a government with a monopoly on taxation to raise money for these goods.

c) Laws are applied to infants

So if an infant murders another, does the baby go to jail? No. The infant has not yet surrendered to the social contract. Laws are imposed at the point where they are able to be understood. That supports the social contract model.

d) Morality does not rely on law
Then why is it in the law? The answer is that morality is an application of the law. It is a manifestation of a mutual forfeiture of rights. Morality is part of the law because law is social contract - mutual forfeitures of rights built by society.

I think that's all of my opponent's objections to my model dealt with. I look forward to the final round of this debate!
Debate Round No. 2


Sorry lol, I meant anticipating as in looking forward to them...

My argument per the historical social contract has been and remains that, given no example, this remains a theoretical concept. In addition, your contention that all states operate this way is weakened by this.

I would dispute the people "being" the state. The idea "we are the government" remains appealing, for obvious reasons, but does is not convincing. I am in fact arguing that the theory is entirely wrong, not merely in some cases.

Yes, an individual can counter-breach, but the idea that they will not "allow" breaches does not follow. The individual has little power in relation to the state in terms of retaliating after breaches. Contracts do work on the principle of good faith, but also that both parties have some way to enforce them. When the state "breaches the contract" the individual has little recourse. If the individual attempts to "counter-breach" the full power of the state will be used on them. Convincing others to revolt is outlawed by every state in the world of course. While it is true that were society to abandon them, a state will lose power, this is difficult and rare, not least because the state shall impose itself even more harshly in most cases when people go against it. As well, the majority are dependent upon it and conditioned to obedience, making revolt more difficult.

1. Reciprocity

a) So the existence of groups not party to the social contract is not a strike against this? Do the slaves or other groups not included have any duty to the state in such a case? I suspect that you will say no. However, this lack of duty is easily extended to other people, as this contract remains unproven.

b) Yes, contracts remain binding even if people have a change of heart, true, but most do not give to one party the power this alleged social contract is. There is such a thing as an "unconscionable" contract, that is void due to its egregious nature, even if both parties have agreed. In Thomas Hobbes' original concept of social contract, the subjects relinquished all rights to the sovereign. While the social contract theories do not always go this far, the relationship stays completely unequal, with one party (the state) as judge in its own case for any violations. Ironically John Locke, another social contract theorist used this idea in support of the state, to prevent parties being judge in their own case, but the state necessarily does this, contradicting his argument. Thomas Hobbes' formulation amounts to a slavery contract, where one party not only has no way to remedy breaches but counter-breach (which the state naturally will not accept lying down) and Locke's has one party being the judge in its own case, an open conflict of interest.

c) I have never denied that states vary regarding how much the threat of force is used. If the laws being imposed have less support, or none, the rights violations more severe, threat and open force itself must be used more generally. I reject the idea of legal positivism-in fact my argument is against that, since this amounts to what all states at bottom must be. In no way do I think what happened with Nazi Germany or any other such dictatorship was acceptable. The example proves my contention, as the opposition was suppressed by force, when the state ceased its benevolence of allowing people some input (or "democracy") and took absolute power. The remedy of "fleeing" does not work for those unable or unwilling to, and brings us back to odious "love it or leave it" ideas. In addition, by what possible standard could the Nazi regime be said to create a new social contract, as their ideas by definition excluded large amounts of Germans from all protection and rights under it? I fully agree the law can be interpreted at discretion, which included rejecting it or parts thereof entirely. I also agree that police states have no social contract, since my argument is against them existing. While our countries are certainly not in the state of Nazi Germany, coercion must necessarily be used to enforce laws (force or the threat thereof). Although our societies do not have widespread, constant fear of their states, it does not disprove my contention. The states which allow some input from their subjects are more likely to engender loyalty and acceptance of laws that otherwise will not be, this is obvious. Your example in New Zealand is perfectly fitting with this. While rejecting positivism, the law does not require "a policeman in every household" rather the assurance that violations will draw visits from said policemen.

2. Agreement

a) So if someone is killed extra-legally, that person's rights are intact? If the law does not recognize them, that means they do not occur? (That reminds me of a tree falling in the forest and whether it makes a sound...)

b) I would dispute this further, but public goods could be a whole debate itself. I will leave it at the assertion that such goods have been provided outside states and move on.

c) True, an infant is not held legally responsible. By that very fact though, how can an infant consent to this presumed social contract simply by virtue of its birth? They cannot understand. Indeed laws will be imposed at the point of them understanding, but there has been no consent to begin with.

d) I am not arguing that law has no moral content. Rather, I am arguing that morality can exist separate from laws, and indeed in contradiction to it. I am also not arguing against all laws but rather state law. Customary law requires no government enforcement, predates this, and is often opposed to state laws, being the expression of common morals. This does not apply to the state, rather the opposite. The basic morals are generally agreed-do not kill, do not steal, etc.-but the state makes exceptions for itself, and draws upon these to impose other moral strictures which the people did not hold to start with. Such customs have been slowly overridden, eroded or twisted in order to support this power monopoly. The actively coercive state law is necessary to uphold power monopoly, and resulting social inequality, while customs often are enforced without coercion entirely.

This has been an interesting debate, and it seems to over too soon.


From my original two contentions, I think this debate has come down to three key areas of clash. The first two are the issues I identified last round - the reciprocity and consent of social contracts. The third is whether individuals have recourse. What has NOT been an issue of clash in this debate is the meta-narrative of social contractism - whether it has existed. This is irrelevant. As my opponent said in round one, all I need to prove is that it "could exist in theory." I have cited theories under which social contracts could exist, for instance, the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. My opponent did not engage with this analysis, so despite repeating himself over and over, he has in fact dropped the point.

1. Reciprocity
First my opponent brought up slaves, and I showed how that does not affect social contracts between the state and it's citizens. While social contract theory may not hold for slaves, frankly they do not matter. Social contract theory explains citizen's interactions with the state. If you are a citizen, social contract theory applies to you. Therefore slaves are not an exception, for they are not citizens. Slaves are, as I explained in round one, outside of the jurisdiction of the social contract.

Secondly my opponent has brought up the Hobbes and Locke conceptions of how the contract would be ideal. I thought both theories would be irrelevant to the debate, because they both presuppose the social contract rather than argue for it. Nonetheless, relinquishing rights, be it to the self or a judge, is a central part of the social contract. Does that mean there is an imbalance of power? Not if everyone else relinquishes their rights too! Remember that states are non-human institutions. The humans who operate their constructs have relinquished their rights. Therefore by both formulations there is no power imbalance. Further still, even if both of these formulations of the social contract have a power imbalance, that does not mean that every formulation of the social contract has a power imbalance.

Then there is the whole issue of whether the "love it or leave it" ideology of social contracts is reciprocal. I have used naturalism to show that it is. There is the whole NAZI issue, which I would love to discuss in another debate but I feel it is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The point is that "love it or leave it" is how all contracts work. You can either accept them or decline them. You can accept to live in the USA, or you can decline and come join us in New Zealand. My New Zealand example, incidentally, my opponent missed the point of. The law is practically unenforcable. You cannot stop parents giving their kids corrective smacks. Parents need have no fear. What has changed is not the terror of police, but the culture of parenting. Ultimately you have the burden of proof to exclude this alternative possibility, and you have not done so.

Finally, that the state creates exceptions for itself in customary law. On a more basic level, my opponent is arguing against the whole body of law contained private acts. First, such laws can decrease social inequality as much as they can increase it. It is not the role of social contract theory to dictate an ideal level of inequality. Finally, even where states do not bind themselves by their own rules (which is rare - as I have stated in most countries you can sue the government) they still bind themselves to society, without which they are nothing. People can choose to reject the change if they do not think it is warranted. If they do, then the condition can hardly be called unfair. After all, the contract is still providing them significant benefit ... so much benefit, in fact, that even you argue that people are reluctant to give it up.

This point falls to me because I have shown a social contract, where it exists, functions in a reciprocal way.

2. Consent
First, a minor issue. You can't kill someone extra-legally. If every country in the world repealed the charge for murder, there would be no social contract implications from murder. However, for moral reasons, I doubt that hypothetical scenario is worth dealing with. Second, a very minor issue, that states need a power monopoly to create consent is not true, but states do need a power monopoly, as I have shown with my pretty-much-uncontested point about public goods. I, too, would love to have a debate about that issue some day.

Third, on infants. Infants are not presumed to have consented to social contracts by virtue of birth. Laws will be imposed when understood, because if they are not consented to when understood, it is rational for an individual to escape the jurisdiction of the law. To accept the contract by taking advantage of the benefits of the law, as Socrates did, is consenting to the body of law in that jurisdiction.

This point falls to me because I have provided a mechanism for consent, despite my opponent's assertions that such a mechanism does not exist.

3. Recourse

What is at stake is whether individuals exclusion from the social contract is in fact a recourse. My opponent snatches the moral high ground with his assertion that earning something forgone in the contract - such as the right to lead a popular revolt - is not a recourse because members party to the contract will, naturally, follow their own contracts to shut you down. First, this proves my sides's theory of social contract, because otherwise the state would be powerless to stop you, as they have no contractual relationship with their citizens. Second, my opponent accepts that the state has a recourse. Therefore it is illogical to say that the individual has no recourse when I have already stated that their recourses are identical. You will find that once a state breaches a critical mass of contracts they are almost always over-thrown, which again supports the theory that recourse is possible.

My opponent also has two minor points - dependence and conditioning. Neither is usually recognised in contractual law. Just because I depend on buying a house, or am conditioned to signing house contracts, doesn't exempt me from the terms of house-buying-contracts I sign. His argument here is as ridiculous as it sounds.

This point falls to me because I have actually shown a clear mechanism for how individuals can have recourse.

Ultimately to prove a social contract, or the possibility thereof, I had to prove my two opening contentions, for reasons that I explained in round one. I did so, and in round two I handled the key objections to these statements my opponent brought up. In this third round, I have summarized why my opponent has failed in each of these objections. I think, therefore, that the social contract theory stands. I would like to thank my opponent for this short yet fun debate and urge all voters to VOTE PRO.
Debate Round No. 3
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by williamqbert 4 years ago
Social Contract Theory begs the question. It proposes that, by living in a territory controlled by a monopoly of ultimate decision making we call government, a person implicitly agrees to the rules set out by this monopoly. However, the social contract assumes that this government's authority to force residents of the territory to follow its rules is legitimate, which is what the social contract is supposed to prove.
3 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Vote Placed by Sieben 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Voted on consent.
Vote Placed by feverish 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Nice debate, Pro the clear winner imo as he refuted Con's points more effectively.
Vote Placed by FREEDO 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Pro substantiated his burden and appropriately negated Con's defenses. What particularly stood out to me in Pro's arguments was when he brought up "Without a society backing them and having abandoned their contract, a state loses all power." It reminds of a quote from TaoDo, "No one rules if no one obeys." And it's absolutely true. Even though, personally, I disagree with having government, I know that society will keep it as long as it has general consensus.