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social contract

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A social contract is an agreement, either implicit or explicit, governing the behavior of individuals and organizations within a certain context such as a workplace, a culture, a nation or a social media site.

The purpose of the social contract is serving the common or greater good to ensure the sustainability of the system in question and protect the individuals within it. As such, the social contract generally guides moral behavior. According to our implicit agreement, for example, it is wrong to perform acts that harm others such as stealing, cheating, assaulting or bearing false witness.

The basic assumption of social contract theory is the idea that societies and cultures develop based on a usually implicit agreement among individuals about what kind of environment they want to live in. Following from that assumption, individuals are obligated to behave in accordance with the rules governing the societies and cultures in which they live.

The social contract is an essential component of democracy. In a democratic nation, it is assumed that the government is organized to serve the will of its citizens and, as a corollary, citizens are obliged to follow the laws and mores of the nation, as long as the government is seen to fulfill its mandate and legislation is seen to be in accordance with the social contract.

Elements of the social contract are often codified in legislation, even if they are implicitly and almost globally understood. In the United States, for example, there are laws against homicide that further categorize the crime according to seriousness: first and second-degree murder, felony murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Within an organization, similarly, it may be helpful to create an explicit policy to specify the types of behavior that are to be encouraged or discouraged. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Christine M. Riordan and Kevin O'Brien provide suggestions: “Be honest and transparent with no hidden agendas; help each other and do not hesitate to ask for help; have forums to discuss tough issues; cooperate rather than compete with team members.“

Concepts behind social contract theory originated with the ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates employed an argument similar to the theory to explain to Crito why, in accordance with the law, he must submit to prison and the death sentence. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes expanded social contract theory during the Enlightenment; since that time, philosophers of various perspectives have contributed to our understanding of the theory.

This was last updated in August 2018

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