Philosophy30 Jun 2007 12:58 pm
Social contract theory is most often associated with the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and, especially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose major work was titled The Social Contract. But while the 17th and 18th-centuries were the hey-day of the theory, original work on “the social contract” is still being written in the 21st.
Perhaps the most prominent modern social contract theorist was the late Harvard professor John Rawls.* His most famous work is the 1971 book A Theory of Justice. In it, Rawls devised the famous thought experiment involving the “veil of ignorance.” Ask yourself, Rawls proposed, what you think the best political system would look like. Should there be “big government” or a decentralized state? Large welfare programs or pure market capitalism? Then, ask the same question again. But this time imagine that you have no idea what your social standing, income or talent level are going to be in the new state. What do you think should be done now?
This was certainly original, but what sets it apart most clearly from earlier theories is how abstract it is. When Hobbes wrote that the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” he was experiencing something very similar: the English Civil War, which was raging while he wrote the Leviathan. For Hobbes, then, nature was very much “red in tooth and claw,” as the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in the 1850 poem “In Memoriam.” This is why his social contract theory is founded on the inevitability of violence and struggle. For Rawls, looking out on the greenery of Harvard Square, the social contract is founded on open discussion and honest self-reflection. Even in the purest works of philosophy, it seems, circumstances matter.
Read A Theory of Justice here.
* For more on John Rawls’ theories, and responses to them, see the entry for Week 48, Day 6.
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