Discuss the relevance of Social Contract theories in the making of ideas of Human Rights

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Discuss the relevance of Social Contract theories in the making of ideas of Human Rights


At the beginning of civilization, people used to live as how they wanted to live; they used to ignore the disturbance of others and would focus on how to survive. The term “human rights” would not be entertained them and they didn’t even bother the principal that a man has to follow to maintain a balanced society. With the passing of time civilization started to come to the people. They started to practice it and blend it with their behavior, culture, attitude and norms. Civilization taught people to respect others, to respect others right and not harming or disturb to obtain their rights. From this point of view the “human rights” was established. Human rights have been contributing the peace keeping of the world. It has been ensuring the rights of everybody. No matter it’s about a poor or rich, human rights play in the same flow for everybody. Social contractual theory shaped the human rights in a more meaningful manner. It gave a systematic application of human rights process. The process includes the confirmation by the government to protect human rights of everybody.

Human Rights

Human rights refer to the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Basically the fundamental rights that human have by the fact of being human, and those are neither created nor can be abrogated by any government.

Yet, when we are asked to name our rights, we will list only freedom of speech and belief and perhaps one or two others. There is no question these are important rights, but the full scope of human rights is very broad. They mean choice and opportunity. They mean the freedom to obtain a job, adopt a career, select a partner of one’s choice and raise children. They include the right to travel widely and the right to work gainfully without harassment, abuse and threat of arbitrary dismissal. They even embrace the right to leisure. According to United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Human rights include the civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.

The relevance of social contract theory in making the idea of human rights

Human rights not only emphasize an individual’s rights which he/she is supposed to obtain from others for being a human inherently, but also explain to ensure the rights of others by not harming them. This is of course that we have unlimited natural freedoms, but freedoms should be explored to that extent which will not disturb the rights of others. To maintain the practicing of freedom in a proper extent, we must have to be abode by some rules and laws so that the rights of all human beings have been protected properly. To ensure this, there is need to introduce a governmental system which will impose laws regarding the protection of the rights of all human beings and people will respect the laws. The governmental system will be entitled to some returns for maintain this though it will be overthrown by the people if it fails to protect the rights of all human beings properly. This is what the social contractual theory talks about.

The base of Social Contract Theory is:

· Without society, we would live in a state of nature, where we each have unlimited natural freedoms.

· The downside of this general autonomy is that it includes the freedom to harm and be harmed.

· There are no positive rights, only natural rights and an endless war of all against all.

· To avoid this, we jointly agree to an implicit social contract by which we each gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to honor the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so.

To enrich the idea of Human Rights, social contract can be the convention between men that aims to discard the state of nature. Under state of nature people live without government or written laws. People live under principles of justice that all normal people can see through reason, they include right to life, liberty and estates. Most people seek to follow these principles but the problem is lack of explicit written laws that leads to uncertainty and difficulty to resolve disputes. And a solution to the problems under state of nature becomes a social contract where people agree to obey the state, let the state make and enforce laws and people pay the state for its services. The state sets up legislatures, impartial judges and enforcers. The government’s duty is to protect everyone’s rights and if the government violates the social contract, people may overthrow it. Social contract theory expresses two fundamental ideas to which the human mind always clings the value of liberty; the idea that “will” and not “force” is the basis of government; and the value of justice or the idea that “right” and not “might” is the basis of all political society and of every system of political order. The theory seeks to explain the formation of societies and governments. Despite the great variations on some points, the social contract theory mainly focuses on the voluntary consent that people give to the formation of the government. Moreover, the theory denotes an implicit agreement within a State regarding the rights and responsibilities of the State, i.e. the affairs should not just be a State, but rather, the formation of a type of society in which the affairs of the State are integrated into affairs of ordinary citizens government and its citizens. It is an explicit or implicit agreement and it emphasizes the rights of citizens in their relationship to their government. The theory posits that rights of citizens are prior to and more fundamental than the organization of society under the government. The governed, in essence, should be the governors. The idea of self-government is posited as an end in itself.

It might be marked that, human rights are not legal fictions conferred by governments but are inherent features of our nature as human beings and while it is clear that our knowledge and understanding of human rights are relatively modern, human rights themselves are as old as humanity. But there are so many strong points to apply social contract theory to build the idea of human rights in a wise manner. Such as:

· If the rights are not conferred by governments then the rights may not be practiced logically and lawfully by each and every individual.

· All societies have rules or laws and require their members to obey them for the peace and good order of that society.

· In this regard, the society is “a more or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part act in accordance with them.”

But still the question can be raised that why should any free and independent person consciously and willingly choose to obey any chieftain or the laws of a society? To answer this question, we need to understand that there are essentially two sources for the duty to obey such laws.

1. Authority

2. Mutual Consent

Thus, when obedience is either enforced through conquest or slavery, or is simply the result of blind and unthinking compliance with the law, there is no free, intelligent, and conscious choice involved; there is no consent. To yield to the strong is an act of prudence, not an act of respect for the law. Only when submission to the authority of a society is learned and accepted as a thoughtful, deliberate choice does acceptance of this duty become an ethical act.

We imagine a gathering of human beings who have been stripped of their accidental characteristics: sex, age, race, nationality or tribe, social status, wealth or poverty, good health or disability. They are left with only the essential characteristics of their human nature. Thus each is an animal that is a predator with needs and appetites for food, clothing, and shelter. Each needs and wants a mate and territory. And each has basic instincts to protect oneself and one’s offspring. Furthermore, each is rational, able to think at a very abstract and symbolic level, and each has the s the power to remember that action or inaction has consequences and that planning is possible. These humans can make free choices about what is in their own self-interest and they understand their enlightened self-interest sometimes values long-term goals over short-term satisfactions. Above all, they are social animals that know how to cooperate with each other. What has been described here is what the law refers to as “the reasonable person.” Each of these human beings becomes that hypothetical or abstract person who will act reasonably under any circumstance. We then add to this condition the situation that these reasonable people will now come together and make rules for the commonweal, and they will do so behind “the veil at ignorance” that is, they are without knowledge of who or what they will become when they return to society. They are ignorant of what sex, age, or race they will be; what nationality or tribe they will belong to; what social status or wealth they will possess; what state of health or disability they will find themselves in. They are thus unaware of how the rules they make will affect each of them. Under these circumstances, these reasonable people, completely equal in bargaining power and absolutely impartial, will make rules that are both reasonable and that is, they will make rules that burden and benefit each person equally. This is the ideal social contract which can help to enrich the idea of human rights.

On the other hand, basic duties are natural duties since they arise from our nature as human beings. However, these natural duties are not perfected until we form ourselves into social groups, since duties are relationships. For example, the duty not to kill each other becomes a duty only with the formation of the social contract. Before that, it is an inchoate duty. Basic or natural duties are the substantive and necessary provisions of the social contract, but not all the duties in our society are basic. Thus, a duty is a basic duty and a substantive provision of the social contract if reasonable people with equal bargaining power and no knowledge of how the duty will affect them will unanimously agree to it everywhere and at all times. Human rights, or natural rights, are the flip side of the natural duties of the social contract. They are the quid pro quo of the social contract. Human rights are the benefits negotiated by our theoretical reasonable persons and received by each of them as a result of their agreement to accept the natural duties imposed by the social contract. Human rights are the consideration for the obligations assumed under that fundamental agreement. For example, when parties enter into a contract each becomes obligated to the other and each reciprocally acquires a right to what is promised by the other. So when we say that you have a right to life, we mean that there is a corresponding duty imposed upon all other persons in our society, and upon the society itself, not to kill you. Therefore each person within that society is entitled to the enforcement of these rights by the government against offending members of that society and against an abusive government itself, not only on behalf of the society as a whole but on behalf of each victimized individual member. And when the mutual consent emerges as the basis for such an obligation, and when self-government of an adult society becomes a reality, then the existence of individual human rights is revealed quite clearly.

In accordance with the social contract theory, human rights are unalienable; they cannot be taken away or even abridged. Therefore no ethical government can deny these basic rights to its citizens since the people don’t receive them from government. Basic rights precede the formation of government, and it is the duty of government to preserve, protect, and defend these rights equally for all its citizens. Moreover, government has the obligation to protect the rights of visitors, travelers, and resident aliens within its jurisdiction and to respect the human rights of the entire human family. Offensive war is immoral and unethical; defensive war is tolerated only when reasonably necessary for the self-defense of one’s own country or another innocent country victimized by aggressive war. Thus the social contract theory included the term to ensure the human rights of all corners of the world.


To conclude, human rights describes the rights of an individual that he is entitled to obtain for being human inherently and social contract theory helps the human rights to be ensured in a harmonious manner. Social contract theory gives the shape of the human rights to all the parties included in the theory. From the two separate individuals to the governments or the lawful body, everyone’s job is assigned to ensure the human rights by the social contract theory. Lastly, social contract theory can be called as the blood of human rights by which it can breathe and survive peacefully.


1. Evolution of the Social Contract – Brian Skyrms

2. John Locke’s Social Contract Theory

3. http://www.humanrights.com/

4.”Social Contract Theory [Encyclopedia of Philosophy]”

5. The Social Contract Fron Hobbes to Rawls

6.Alston, Philip (August 2005). “Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human Rights and Development Debate seen through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals”.Human Rights Quarterly 27 (3): 755–829