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

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What do you understand by Human Rights? Discuss the relevance of Social Contract theories in the making of ideas of Human Rights.


Human rights are the basic rights that every human being has. For example freedom of speech, equality, liberty and political rights are human rights. These rights are recognized also in the social contract theories. Many philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, John Locke, and Hobbes have discussed in detail about this. They told that sovereign authority was the highest authority. This sovereign authority was responsible for the protection of the rights of general people. If they failed to do so, then people could overthrow them out of power. Human rights concept is a new idea, but human rights are as old as the humanity. Human rights concept has been a burning issue for the mankind. United Nations has been created to protect these rights. In today’s world, we can see that UN has failed to do so. But, we believe that it will be more useful in the future.


Human rights issues have been discussed very often. It has become important matter for all the countries. Human rights are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being. Human rights are thus conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and egalitarian (the [1]same for everyone). These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in local, regional, national, and international law. The doctrine of human rights in international practice, within international law, global and regional institutions, in the policies of states and in the activities of non-governmental organizations, has been a cornerstone of public policy around the world. The idea of human rights states, “if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights.” Despite this, the strong claims made by the doctrine of human rights continue to provoke considerable skepticism and debates about the content, nature and justifications of human rights to this day. Indeed, the question of what is meant by a “right” is itself controversial and the subject of continued philosophical debate.

Many of the basic ideas that animated the human rights movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atrocities of The Holocaust, culminating in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The ancient world did not possess the concept of universal human rights. The true forerunner of human rights discourse was the concept of natural rights which appeared as part of the medieval Natural law tradition that became prominent during the Enlightenment with such philosophers as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, and featured prominently in the political discourse of the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

From this foundation, the modern human rights arguments emerged over the latter half of the twentieth century. (Human Rights,n.d.)

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is an agreement among the members of an organized society or between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each. Social contract theory is an old theory. It tells us that Government is in the position to serve the people. But, they can choose not to serve the people. People elect the Government and Government protects the freedom of people.

According to social contract theory,

“Morality consists in the set of rules governing behavior that rational people would accept, on the condition that others accept them as well.”

Social contract theories follow that-

1. There must be guarantees that people will not harm one another.

2. People must be able to rely on one another to keep their agreements.

Social contract theory tells us that people have some basic rights, because they live in a society. This theory is found in Greek and Stoic philosophy and Roman and Canon law. This theory came in to place in the mid 17th to early 19th century. It became a global phenomenon at that time. Hugo Grotius , Thomas Hobbes , Samuel Pufendorf , John Locke , Jean-Jacques Rousseau , and Immanuel Kant have talked about social contract theory in a great deal. They also told that democracy is the best way to provide support to the people.

The social contract theory holds that in earliest history man lived in a “state of nature”. No government existed. Each man was only as secure as his own power and mental awareness could make him.

By agreeing with one another to make a state by contract, men within a given area joined together, each surrendering personal freedom as necessary to promote the safety and well being of all. By this contract the members created a government. The social contract gives rights and responsibilities to both the citizenry and the government.

For example, in The United States, citizens yield the powers of prosecution of, and punishment for, criminal offenses to the judicial branch of government. The government, for its part, bears the responsibilities of maintaining public safety for the citizens through the police, court systems, correctional facilities, and all supporting structures.

Social contract theory based on philosophers:

Many different philosophers wrote about social contract theory.

1. Thomas Hobbes: Thomas Hobbes first wrote about this theory in 1651 in his book “Leviathan”. He told that people always wanted protection. So, they created leader who will protect their rights and freedom. Subjects had no right against the absolute power. It can be said that Hobbes was a supporter of absolutism. Civil law is the real law because it enforced by the sovereign. Humans by nature are self interested. They like things to be done by their own way. Humans are rational, so they use their rational capacity to achieve their goals. People surrender their will and freedom to the sovereign authority or highest power. And, law depended on the sovereign. They control and imply the law. They enforce law so that any people can’t hurt others by any means. So, individualism, materialism, utilitarianism and absolutions are the concept of Hobbes.

2. John Locke: The idea of John Locke about social contract is different from that of Hobbes. For some, his idea of social contract theory was better and more logical than Hobbes. According to him, human has all the rights which nature provided them with. In the state of nature, humans can enjoy every possible thing in the world. They can lead their life on their own. But, it does not mean you can harm others. You can do whatever you want as long as it does not raise conflict. According to him, people can’t have all the things they want. They can only have certain amount of property. Government was there to protect the rights of people. As long as the government fulfilled it, they could stay in power. Otherwise, they would be thrown out of power.

Jean Jacques Rousseau: He is a French philosopher and the author of the books named “The Social contract” and “Emile”. According to him, there was peace and equality among the people. As, time changed, divisions of labor were introduced. And private property term came into place. He favored people’s sovereignty. His principle was “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”.

Relevance of Social Contract theories in the making of ideas of Human rights:

According to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, we need social contract to have minimum security, freedom and economic advantage. So, they elect a sovereign authority to fulfill their demands and enforce law. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle also talked about natural or human rights. Hobbes said that people submit themselves to a sovereign authority to protect them. Any people can hurt each other. So, law must be maintained. Locke argued that people could overthrow the ruler if he failed to protect the life, liberty and prosperity. Our understanding about human rights is modern, but human rights are as old as humanity. All societies have rules and regulation. People must follow them. So, people act accordingly. In Europe, kings were like God. People had to follow them blindly, because they thought that those kings’ authorities were derived from highest authority of God.

From the social contract theories, we derived the idea of human rights. Both of these tell us the same thing that people have some rights, because they live in a society. Sovereign authority is there for the purpose of saving people from discrimination. And, the sovereign makes rules disregard of race, color gender or status. Sometimes, people become biased. This is when discrimination arises.

Every member of a society is bound by social contract, because every person’s acceptance is needed. So, this universally assumed consent is the basis for political duty. Natural duties are not recognized until social contract is formed. We form social contract to avoid killing each other. So it becomes a duty.

Human rights are just the other side of social contract. Human rights are universal and followed by everyone. But, these rights can be changed from time to time. But, the underlying principle will remain same. No Government can deny these rights, because every Government is elected to preserve, protect and defend these rights. Government also has to protect the visitors.

So, it can be said that human rights have been derived from social contract theories. Government can’t abolish these rights, but these rights can only be recognized.

Human Rights and Environment

Environmental rights mean access to food, shelter, land water and air. According to the researchers, the temperature of the world will rise to 2° C. The reason behind this is the green house effect and industrial gas emission. Even if we able to reduce green house effect to 50%, the temperature will rise to 2° C – 2.4° C. It will have a negative impact on our eco system. According to our discussion, we found that people have the right to have safe and healthy environment. So, United Nations human rights body is trying to take appropriate measures to reduce this environmental hazard. Environmental rights are important because they have a huge impact on the quality and the surrounding of the environment.

Human Rights and Democracy

Democracy is a big part of human rights. People have some political rights. Voting is one of those rights. By voting, people elect their preferred people to control the Government. There will be periodic and genuine election.

Here are some of the political rights of the people-

· Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms

· Freedom of association

· Freedom of expression and opinion[2]

· Access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law

· The holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people

· A pluralistic system of political parties and organizations

· The separation of powers

· The independence of the judiciary

· Transparency and accountability in public administration

· Free, independent and pluralistic media

In some countries, democracy has been a big issue, because there was no democracy in those countries. United Nations should take proper measure to help those countries.

Human Rights and Privacy

There is a new concept in human rights is privacy. According to the human rights act 1998, people have the right to have their privacy. Privacy can be recognized as a fundamental right of people. It has been a burning issue in recent times. Because of technological advancement, people’s privacy is in danger. There are cameras, email and internet which have made our life beautiful. But, the downside is that many people can harm our privacy using that.

Now a day, we can see cameras everywhere even on the streets. Where ever you go, you are observed by someone. We can also see that cameras are also taking place in the work place, because of security and to avoid uncertainty.

Sometimes, the Government needs to interfere in the lives of the people and their privacies so that we can live peacefully. Criminals need to be monitored all the time. And, Government should also monitor people to avoid future crime. So, it can be said that the situation is really controversial. We have to choose whether to ignore it or support it.

Human Rights and Religion

The relationship between religion and human rights is both complex and inextricable. While most of the world’s religions have supported violence, repression, and prejudice, each has also played a crucial role in the modern struggle for universal human rights. Most importantly, religions provide the essential sources and scales of dignity and responsibility, shame and respect, restraint and regret, restitution and reconciliation that a human rights regime needs to survive and flourish in any culture.

With contributions by a score of leading experts, Religion and Human Rights provides authoritative and accessible assessments of the contributions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Indigenous religions to the development of the ideas and institutions of human rights. It also probes the major human rights issues that confront religious individuals and communities around the world today, and the main challenges that the world’s religions will pose to the human rights regime in the future.

In 2012, EU made a commitment that all the religions like Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and etc. should be treated equally. People will be able to do their religious activities freely and independently. We also believe that religion is a fundamental right of the people. So, it can’t be ignored.

Human Rights and Equality

Equality is one of the fundamental human rights. It tells us that people all around the world are same. No one should differentiate themselves from others. Age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and gender reassignment should not matter for us. There should not be any discrimination between people. There were incidents when equality was not delivered. So, people protested against it. For example- Gay and lesbian rights were not recognized before. Because of immense protest from them, some Government made it legal.

To maintain equality among people of United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales, Equality and Human Rights commission was created in October 1, 2007. We need this kind of commission to have equality all around the world.


Although, the Government is trying their best to protect the rights of the general people, but there are other rights which are still in doubt. These rights are still not being considered as rights. Those are lesbian, gay and bisexual rights. People are still fighting for these rights. But, granting these rights will only create controversy. So, the Government is ignoring these rights. In some countries, Governments accepted these rights. But, the number is very few. There are some other rights like freedom of expression and education are considered to be very important rights. Freedom of expression is accepted in countries like USA and UK. On the other hand, education is one of the basic rights which is needed for everyone to develop them. In present condition, only the developed countries are having higher literacy rates. In countries like Bangladesh, the literacy rate is below 50% which is really shameful for us. So, the Government needs to take necessary steps to protect these rights.

Human rights violation occurs when anyone violates the international human rights law. United Nations control this. They set human rights rule for all and every country must follow this. Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Costa Rica violate very few human rights law than most other countries.


Human rights are one of the most important topics in recent times. Without it, the existence of existence of humans would be impossible. So, people created Government to protect their rights. If the Government can’t fulfill their wishes, then people can overthrow that Government. In some countries, human rights are being violated which is not good for us. United Nations should be more strict regarding this matter. If they can use their power well, then the world will be a much better place. We talked about human rights and its relationship with religion, environment, and democracy, privacy, education, freedom etc. United Nations and other organizations are working hard to solve these issues. These issues are very sensitive and should not be ignored.


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Selloum, C. (2009, February 28). Human rights as a social contract [Web log post]. Retrieved

from http://chanezportfolio.blogspot.com/2009/02/human-rights-as-social-contract.html

United Nations. (n.d.). Democracy. Democracy and Human Rights. Retrieved from


Human Rights. (n.d.). Retrieved from June 18,2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights

United Nations. (n.d.). Democracy. Democracy and Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/democracy/human_rights.shtml