Episode 90: Human nature and our Social Contract

Are humans essentially selfish and prone to violating other’s rights — in which case they must be controlled by a strong authoritarian government? Are humans rational — in which case they naturally accept that everyone has the right to life, liberty and property and can come together to elect a government?  Are humans essentially good and compassionate, but potentially corruptible by modern society — in which case they must maintain their sovereignty and work for the common good?

A social contract refers to a common understanding among a group of people on acceptable ways of behaving. It is a way of theorising how and why we have laws, codes of conduct, and social norms. Yet what we believe about our essential human nature has a direct influence on how we imagine our social contract.

This week Clay and Sarah discuss Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau as they envisaged the social contract.


In this episode:

  • what is the original ‘state of nature’ that existed before the social contract & laws?
  • did the state of nature ever really exist?
  • what is the social contract according to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau?
  • what moral rules are we bound to?
  • can we talk about the social ‘contract’ if we never had a chance to agree/sign up? or opt out?
  • what happens when someone transgresses or breaks the law within a social contract
  • human nature — good, bad, or both?
  • possible alternate Buddhist perspective on human nature & social contract


Thomas Hobbes believed that without laws, people existed (or would potentially exist) in a state of “war of all against all”.  In other words, because he believed human nature to be selfish and self-serving, it was assumed that without laws people would simply try to grab, steal and kill in order to get whatever they wanted.  It would be a world of every man for himself.  To escape this dangerous environment, Hobbes claimed that people joined together and formed a social contract, a set of rules that would govern behaviour, control our selfish human nature & create a mutually beneficial social order.


John Locke disagreed.  He believed mankind was generally logical and rational, and that the social contract emerged between individuals to delineate both natural and mutually beneficial codes of conduct.  Out of this perspective was born Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which claimed — “we take these truths too e self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


Jean-Jacques Rousseau took the idea of the social contract in another direction, claiming that mankind lived in an ideal state in nature and was corrupted by civilisation.  Social contracts could be made that were beneficial to all, but equally could corrupt human’s good and compassionate nature. We can trace this line of thinking in today’s environmental and indigenous rights movements as well as in socialism.


It was great to read these philosophers and consider the various social contracts we are a part of in our lives. Check out a great contemporary look at the social contract and the TV show the Walking Dead.

Another interesting part of our discussion this week was around whether we can consider our current laws and codes of conduct as a social ‘contract’ if we were never given a chance to agree or disagree — and if there is no realistic opt-out option?

What do you think? How does your view of human nature influence how you see our need for laws, codes of conduct and the formation of our current social contract?