What is Contractualism?

Meaning of Contractualism

Contractualism is a set of philosophical currents that try to explain the origin and importance of the construction of societies and social orders for the human being.

In general, the social contract or contractualism consists of the idea of ​​an agreement signed between the different members of a society, who come together to obtain the guaranteed advantages of the social order.


Therefore, individuals abdicate certain rights or freedoms in order to organize a government, led by a greater power or a group of authorities.

According to most theoretical currents of contractualism , the fear, insecurity and instability of human nature ensured that individuals could grant powers to specific people so that order in their lives could be organized, guaranteeing stability and security, mainly .

In this sense, there is a collective commitment to obey and comply with the rules established by the government.

The government must also be aware of its obligations to ensure the welfare of the people.

Theories of Contractualism

Theories that attempt to explain contractualism emerged during the 16th and 18th centuries, with the main contractual representatives and philosophers in history: Thomas Hobbe, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Types of Contractualism


For Thomas Hobbe (1588-1679), the social contract originated from man’s need to control himself.

According to the philosopher and political theorist, the human “ state of nature ” is one of domination over others. Being able to destroy his companions to achieve his personal desires.

This state causes a constant feeling of insecurity and fear among people. They also want to abandon the condition of ” eternal war ” and achieve peace.

Taking this into account, according to Hobbes, individuals will seek to strengthen themselves in groups and follow social norms. That ended up restricting the absolute freedom of people and guaranteeing general security.

Hobbes was the first modern philosopher to explain contractualism in more depth.


For John Locke (1632 – 1704), the social contract arose from the need to create a method of partial judgment of people’s interests.

Locke was a staunch critic of dictatorial or monarchical government regimes. He defended a more democratic system, where “ free men ” had the right to elect their representatives and the decisions made should be based on common deliberation, and not just on the will of a sovereign.


Contrary to the assumptions of the “ state of nature ” described by Hobber and Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) defends the idea that the human being is essentially good, but society is responsible for his corruption.

Rousseau believes that all power is formed from the people and must be governed by them. Therefore, the people must elect their representatives to govern, people who must exercise power in the name of the general interests of the population.

In this context, free citizens give up their own will in favor of the common will (general will).

Contractualism and Jusnaturalism

Even before the idea of ​​contractualism , that is, the formation of the State as mediator of the lives of individuals in society, there was the idea of ​​a “ natural right ”.

Natural law consists of the philosophical doctrine that before the norms defined by the social order, there was a model of natural human rights.

This right can be granted from a revelation made by God to humans (theological natural law). From the idea of ​​the existence of natural laws of the universe (cosmological natural law) or natural laws of life that the human being tends to discover only through reason (rational natural law).

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