The Instigator
Con (against)
0 Points
The Contender
Pro (for)
21 Points

This House Believes that the Social Contract is a viable political theory

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Voting Style: Open with Elo Restrictions Point System: Select Winner
Started: 4/27/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,635 times Debate No: 53452
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (6)
Votes (4)




The debate is as simple as it stands. My opponent should spell out the social contract theory in his first round (instead of using it solely for acceptance). The social contract I refer to is the one used in political philosophy - the concept of the social contract as a form of legitimizing the state.

I look forward to whoever accepts this debate for a rigorous competition. Note the debate has a smaller character limit than most - 4000 characters maximum. Moreover, the voting system is "select winner" instead of the normal 7-point system. With that in mind, I look forward to challengers.


Many thanks to Stephen for what I'm sure will be another interesting exercise, and of course, l accept.

While I'm sure that PRO doesn't expect a perfectly sufficient exposition of social contract theory in such a limited space (especially where even a Ph.D. dissertation could hardly accomplish that task), I'll seek to outline in this round -more or less sketchily- the basics of what social contract theory is.

In political philosophy, social contract theory accounts for society's origins as well as power relations between individuals and society. Social contract arguments posit that the legitimacy of society's exercising power over the individual stems from individual's tacit or explicit consent "to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights." (1) Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and later Rawls are among the best known proponents of social contract theory. (2)

I'll await Stephen's outlining his framework for what constitutes "viability" as it applies to political philosophy in the next round, as well as his arguments against social contract theory as such.

Debate Round No. 1


I will address the social contract theory as incorrect, based on my opponent’s explanation of it. Specifically, I shall focus on one particular point: “social contract theory accounts for society's origins”. Like all theories, the social contract makes metaphysical, as well as normative, claims. I will ignore for the purposes of this debate about whether the social contract is a nice or nasty idea. Instead, I will focus on whether its testable claims are in fact accurate. The claim in question is whether the contract is a correct account of society’s origins.

Beginning with basic biology, all humans came from parents. Secondly, to repeat the social contract theory, everyone signs individually to the contract of society to form authority (authority, distinct from power, is the ability to get others to do as you want willingly). However, as Filmer pointed out, the first authority was the father[1]. The state of nature lacks is entirely indivdiuals devoid of family. Filmer aptly notes: “I cannot understand how this right of nature can be conceived without imagining a company of men at the very first to have been all created together without any dependency one of another, or as mushrooms they all on a sudden were sprung out of the earth without any obligation one to another”[2]. Aristotle similarly pointed out how societies are formed by the grouping of families, not individuals[3]. Society is formed from families coming together, not individuals. Before the contract, authority still exists within families. Plemenatz summarises this: “men are born of women and into families, whose members have obligations towards one another; and children owe obedience to their parents.”[4] Obligation exists before society, yet the social contract requires obligation to be created with the political sphere. Therefore, the individuals needed for the social contract is not the origin of authority, but the parent.

Hume continued to explain that, if it was a contract, then the ruler must have consented to this contract himself. Yet “We find everywhere princes who claim their subjects as their property and assert their independent right of sovereignty, from conquest or succession”[5]. Rulers constantly rule because they see God choosing them, they inherited the country as property, or they conquered the land and people. Social contract theorists want to say they are part of the contract, but when they explicitly reject it, how can they be the originator of society? The contract cannot be the origin of society, because many leaders – and subjects – reject the contract.

Finally, I want to return to Filmer’s argument against Locke. While “he lives in our memories because he was Locke’s victim”[6], he makes many arguments that “Locke, when he comes to ‘demolish’ Filmer, never troubles to answer”6. The strongest argument is that of who consents. Of course, children do not consent – they cannot conceive of the notion. Indeed, most do not understand the social contract theory. So how can they consent to that which they have never encountered nor understood? Yet this is the precise people who are said to consent to the government. Similarly, unless we want to argue that those who have not studied the intricacies of political philosophy are immune from legitimate punishment from law, then we must conclude that they are not participants to the social contract. And if so, there must lie a different explanation for the origins of authority.

With these three points in mind, I wait for my friend’s response. I look forward to hearing it.

[1] Filmer, ‘Patriarcha’ in Political Works, p1-132

[2] Filmer, ‘Observations on Mr Hobbes’ in Political Works,

[3] Aristotle, Politics

[4] Plamenatz, Man and Society Vol. 1

[5] Hume, On the Original Contract

[6] Plamenatz, Man and Society Vol. 1



Thanks to CON for this. It should be interesting as always...

There are three basic problems with CON's argument. The first is that he's under the impression that political theory could be accurate or inaccurate -it can't, because social contract theory (hence forward referred to as SCT), as a political theory, is a normative theory, not an empirical one. The second is his assumption that even if social contract theory could be accurate or inaccurate, that inaccuracy is sufficient to render SCT not viable as a political theory. The third is that his argument doesn't actually even speak to SCT's viability as a social contract theory, but instead posits three clever but insufficient normative arguments against SCT which do not render SCT not viable as a political theory.

Let's notice CON's absence of a framework for what makes a political theory viable. The impact is simple: he doesn't give me a way to know what "makes" a political theory viable. So, I'll offer my own, from Princeton: "Political theory is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from two different perspectives: the history of political thought, and contemporary political philosophy." (1) While political theory can build on empirics, it's not necessarily based on empirics -but what 'should' have happened for things to get the way they are. (2) That doesn't mean that political theory has to describe, with perfect accuracy, what happened -but rather to normatively account for how or why political events and institutions should have developed, how they presently develop or how they might develop in the future.

Political theory, then, is epistemologically not much different from a well thought out opinion. Insofar as it occupies the intellectual terrain of 'opinion' (and not fact) we can't say that it's accurate or inaccurate. But, we also don't expect that of any individual political theory -meaning that we can't expect it of SCT, because SCT is not empirical theory. Said another way, this is the stuff of philosophy, not hard science. For example, SCT doesn't work quite the same way as, for example, evolution. It's not based on evidence but contemplation. It's not based on empirics, but reflection on the conventions and institutions that govern our lives. SCT is just one of many accounts of how the process of structuring society works.

But to move forward in this debate, I've got to know what makes a political theory viable. So, let's define "viable." Oxford tells us that to be viable is to be "capable of working successfully" or "feasible." Referring earlier to our understanding of what political theory is, we can deduce a standard for any political theory's viability and conclude that a political theory is viable -which is to say it 'works' as a political theory- if it accounts for the "concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions." And SCT does that, because SCT "addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual" by positing "that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights." (4) Though certainly a simplified explanation, it demonstrates that SCT meets the standard for what makes a political theory viable.

I hope to explain in more detail in subsequent rounds...

Debate Round No. 2


Firstly, I want to thank my friend for his opening round. I will address two main points by my opponent: firstly, that political theory cannot rest on empirical facts, and secondly his discussion of viability. I wish to have addressed his third point, but it simply was not brought up, and so I won’t have the ability to respond. However, keep in mind that, no matter how nice an idea is, that does not make an idea true.

To respond to my opponent defining viability, of course I accept viable as being synonymous with feasible - I never knew the word was so contentious! The debate arises when he says that ‘empirics’, or evidence, is irrelevant to political theory. As someone in the field, I can promise you this is simply not the case. Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Hegel, Augustine, Nietzsche, Bakunin, and more all discuss psychology – they discuss human nature. Locke, Hobbes, Grotius, Bodin, Rousseau, Hooker, Filmer – they all discuss the origins of society – history. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Marsilius – they all discuss natural law, using biology to inform their political opinions. These are all points which can be factually analysed. Hobbes for example says people without ties are naturally prone to selfish short-termed decision making. Aristotle says people are prone to forming political societies. Augustine says people are prone to form societies yet are selfish short-termed decision-makers. Filmer says people are born within society. These are all able to be tested.

To give an example, suppose we meet Augustine who says human naturally do only evil without God. We can test this claim, by seeing atheists do good. This concept was alien to Augustine, yet his entire political philosophy is based on this empirical fact. Similarly, Hobbes based his political philosophy on the claim that humans are ruled by passions, and use reason to pursue their passions. And in that respect, we have animalistic desires, and a lack of care for forming society willingly. However, by contending that reasoned creatures have different ‘passions’ than reasonless creatures – in other words, reason changes our passions – we can contend Hobbes’ claim that we are just made up of animalistic desires. To Social Contract Theory: if it wishes to claim that society was originally made up of individuals, we can point to (as Filmer does) how people are born naturally in families with authority already existing. So it can be shown factually erroneous to say that authority stems from the contract only, when families indeed are the primary generator of authority. Hume further notes that the contract requires either tacit or explicit consent. Yet those who have not conceived of the contract in this way – either by being too young, or not educated in the social contract theory, or not believing in the contract – cannot possibly be argued to have consented. How does one consent when one cannot conceive of consenting? Both Filmer and Hume object persuasively to the contract’s factual basis.

These facts can of course be debated: Rousseau contends that children in a state of nature (i.e. before the contract) leave their parents forever as soon as they are able, and the parent had no authority over them. Yet this seems extremely unlikely – Rousseau even noted this was a fictional understanding. However, simply denying facts their place in this debate is an unreasonable claim. My opponent’s only burden would be to show the contract is a nice idea. Whether it is nice or not though is irrelevant – the question, as always, is whether something is true. Utopianism is a nice idea, but we live in the world of reality, not fiction. Social contract’s factual claims on the origin of authority is dubious at best, ludicrous at worst, and with that I urge against the resolution. Vote CON.



Awkward as this may be, it is at this point necessary to highlight the basic errors Stephen's refutation of my previous round. I did not say that political theory "cannot" rest on empirical facts, for indeed it can. Rather, I distinguished normative theory from empirical theory. Normative theory may very well be drawn from observations of the material world, and indeed it is -as would (loosely) be the case with Hobbes' social contract. But, normative theory is not ONLY drawn from empirical fact -as is demonstrated by John Rawls' original position which, insofar as it, the veil of ignorance, etc. are all hypothetical, illustrates that normative theory may be drawn from both. (1) In both cases, however, social contract theory -and normative theory generally- do not occupy the same intellectual space as scientific theory. That is not to devalue or elevate either normative or empirical theory, however. It is only to draw the epistemological difference between them. So, Stephen's refutation at once misrepresents my argument (albeit probably unintentionally), and similarly conflates the distention between normative and empirical theory. Most basically, he's trying to test normative theory with science's rules which, to draw an analogy to board games, is like trying to play chess by the rules of checkers.

It's also important to note, here, that for lack of character space I was not able to specifically 'mention' Stephen's third point -even though I negated it by implication. Let's return to that, now. Donning Filmer's -normative- critique of Locke, Stephen claims that Locke's social contract doesn't quite 'work' because it doesn't account for familial structure's being prior to society and it overlooks consent. Like Filmer, Stephen erroneously assumes that consent in SCT works the same sort of way that consent to a legal contract or to sexual relations might work among individuals. And yet, even if the family were prior to society, that is not to say that SCT is not viable as a political theory because SCT distinguishes between the family and general society. Likewise, as I mentioned in Rd. 1, consent may be either tacit or explicit -and in that as the our own social order is always prior to ourselves (meaning it existed before we were born), our consent is assumed in our not choosing to leave it. Like Filmer, Stephen is muddying between two distinct 'kinds' of consent, and his argument is insufficient to indicate that SCT is not 'viable' as political theory because even if you bought his/Filmer's criticism, it only impact's "Locke's" social contract. It says nothing of Hobbes, Rawls, Rousseau, etc. After all, SCT is far more than Locke.

Regretfully, I'm quite low on character space -but equally regretfully, Stephen's argument against my framework for viability still falls by the same token as his first point in the third round. I didn't say that "empirics" were irrelevant to political theory. I said that empirics weren't all that was relevant. His rebuttal presupposes that if the empirics on which some SCT writers based their postulations on could be shown to be not the case, that SCT falls. That's simply not the case, because while Locke may draw on observations of the world, even Locke didn't base his SCT only on empirical observations of the world. And indeed, some SCTs originate not from the physical world, but from hypotheticals of how the world should be to decide what's just -Rawls, for example. Stephen's final point in the last round takes issue with what he perceives my limited BOP to be. Indeed, I've got an easier time here than he does -but that's because of the way he (the instigator) articulated the resolution and not because of any choice I made. I've framed what viability means for normative theory, and shown that SCT is, in fact, viable. He has not even remotely demonstrated that SCT is not viable. I've met my burden, he has not. Do vote PRO.

Many thanks.

Debate Round No. 3
6 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 6 records.
Posted by YYW 3 years ago
Many thanks, Blade.
Posted by bladerunner060 3 years ago
RFD 1/3:

A quick note: I was asked to vote on this debate by Pro. That did not factor into my decision. It never does in general, but particularly not so here, where I have such respect for both debaters. And it's always nice to see a reasoned discourse on a subject from two folks capable of discussing rationally and with a strong foundation.

I don't have to go into various points, because all that matters here is arguments (And, indeed, even if other points were available, both sides had fine S&G, excellent conduct, and sourced themselves appropriately). And so:

This debate was hampered a bit by the lack of definition for "viable". In R1, Pro asked Con for a definition to work from. Unfortunately, Con did not provide one. Con's R2 focused on the idea of SCT as failing to account for the *actual origin* of social authority, and attacked the idea of explicit consent. Pro, in R2, gives a definition of viable which Con accepts in the final round. This definition is important, since it's what the debate hinges on--the question is whether SCT is viable, so we have to know how to measure viability. Pro proposes that ""Political theory is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from two different perspectives: the history of political thought, and contemporary political philosophy."

This is critical: It clearly shows that SCT can be a philosophical position as much as or, as Pro argues, more so, than it is a scientific one. While some political theories are empirical in nature, and Pro doesn't argue against the inclusion of empirical evidence, Pro argues that SCT is a normative position, and Con doesn't spend any time really refuting that (particularly when part of his attempt to do so includes a proposition from Pro that Pro clearly did not make (that political theory CANNOT rest on empirical facts
Posted by bladerunner060 3 years ago
RFD 2/3:

While I think Pro's stance that a political theory cannot be accurate or inaccurate is a bit too sweeping, he does make the claim that "SCT, as a political theory, is a normative theory, not an empirical one". Con never rebuts this. Pro's case is that SCT is a viable theory for how societies SHOULD operate. It doesn't mean that's how they do empirically, which washes out the "rejection" argument of Con in R2. That some might reject (or *breach*) that contract, doesn't mean the contract does not or *should not* exist.

To accept that argument from Con is to completely destroy the concept of the contract itself--it is to argue that breaching a contract is the same as making it not exist in the first place, and that's a clear absurdity. Particularly when it is not Con's point that the ENTIRE "contract" is breached, but only the parts that, for example, the ruler doesn't want to have to follow, in much the same way as a merchant who accepts goods and services but doesn't want to pay for them--these rulers aren't giving up their power, they just aren't "paying" for it.

That specific point was not brought up by Pro, of course, and so doesn't factor into my decision to award points, but it most certainly is a paraphrase of what Con is (inadvertently, I'm sure) proposing with that point. Society clearly exists, and SCT is an explanation of the *normative* justification for its existence--why societies *should* exist, to oversimplify Pro's point.

SCT gives grounds to find fault with a ruler's decision--exactly those decisions that Con argues are explicit rejections of the contract, on the same grounds that we fault *any* breach of contract. As Pro notes, Con seems to conflate "the distention [sic] between normative and empirical theory" in his attempts to argue against the definite historicity of SCT as a true explanation of the origins of society. Pro makes the relatively uncontested claim throughout that SCT, specifically, is normative.
Posted by bladerunner060 3 years ago
RFD 3/3:

When trying to argue against the factuality of SCT, Con definitely seems to have, when discussing the "consent" point, ignored the "implicit" side of the coin, focusing on a perceived lack of explicit consent, but as Pro notes: "our consent is assumed in our not choosing to leave [the society]".

Con closes his R3 with the statement "Social contract"s factual claims on the origin of authority is dubious at best, ludicrous at worst, and with that I urge against the resolution." But, by not defining viable and allowing his opponent to do it, Con has already lost the ability to argue what "viable" means. And "viable", per Pro's definition, does not mean "factually accurate account of the origin of society". It means "the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, **and evaluate** political events and institutions" (emphasis, such as it is, mine). It's clear from THAT definition, that SCT may fail the test of viability as a historically accurate account, but it does NOT fail the test of viability as a principle to "evaluate political events", which was Pro's case. Con's arguments about consent fail for having ignored the "implicit" side of the coin and, overall, he did not make a strong normative case against SCT, in part I think because he devoted so many of his precious few characters to the historical argument that Pro sidestepped.

As such, arguments to Pro.

As always, happy to clarify this RFD.
Posted by wrichcirw 3 years ago
Forgot disclosure...

I was asked by SH to leave an RFD for this debate.
Posted by wrichcirw 3 years ago


This was a well-articulated debate by both parties. Unfortunately, it seems the foundation of PRO"s arguments is that all political theories are normative in nature, and this was disproved by PRO"s own sources that contrasted empirical/normative political theories. That means that PRO did not begin to achieve BoP.

CON"s BoP seemed to rest upon proving that certain empirical observations made by various SCT philosophers were inaccurate, thus making their empirical theories on the origins of society unviable, and I bought this particular line of reasoning and thus recognize CON as establishing BoP.

Had I scored this debate on a 7 point system, args/sources CON. Conduct was exceptional on both sides, so I will refrain from scoring in general.
4 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Vote Placed by Enji 3 years ago
Who won the debate:-Vote Checkmark
Reasons for voting decision: Con had convincing arguments against empirical claims made by social contract theory and the factual basis of the social contract as the origin of authority; however, he didn't convincingly argue the viability of the social contract. Pro distinguishes between normative and empirical theories, argues that the social contract is a normative theory, and that to be a viable normative theory the social contract should normatively account for political events and institutions. Con doesn't argue that social contract theory doesn't adequately explain social developments, thus he fails to argue against its viability. Pro establishes that the social contract is viable and wins the debate.
Vote Placed by bladerunner060 3 years ago
Who won the debate:-Vote Checkmark
Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments.
Vote Placed by wrichcirw 3 years ago
Who won the debate:--
Reasons for voting decision: See comments. Had I scored this debate on a 7 point system, args/sources CON. Conduct was exceptional on both sides, so I will refrain from scoring in general.
Vote Placed by bsh1 3 years ago
Who won the debate:-Vote Checkmark
Reasons for voting decision: I think both sides were debating separate resolutions here. Con was discussing, primarily, whether or not the Social Contract is "true." Frankly, whether or not the theory is "true," it can still be "viable," as Pro assiduously observed. Pro also successfully contrasted normative and empirical theories, illustrating that SCT is more so normative. Therefore, I accept that SCT does not require "empirics" to be viable, it merely needs to offer a sufficient framework to explain how society could have arisen. This was where Con struggled the most. He attempted to force Pro into the box of empirics, and I think he could've been more successful at this. Instead of just listing names, he should've gone into greater depth in his analysis. Pro is quite right to offer the counter example of Rawls's Theory of Justice, esp. the VOI. Ultimately though, Con showed that it was possible that the Social Contract was untrue; but that was not the resolution up for debate. SCT is "feasible" so I vote Pro.