IR & Politics

A critique of the views of the “Social Contract”, referring to the views of Hobbes and Rousseau

The concept of contract, mutual benefit and common interests is a concept that has existed at any time in history and has not changed its function. Although it has existed at any time in history, concepts such as contract, mutual benefit and common interests have always been a concept based on the common interests of two or more people. In today’s world, when we think of a contract, we immediately think of any business-oriented or commercial relationship between two people based on mutual benefit. Namely, when people come into contact with each other economically, politically and socially, they will inevitably build and implement these relations on the principle of some common interest. Therefore, many modern academics, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, claim that common interests, mutual interests, and social contractual concepts (a social contract is an act that is concluded voluntarily between people and, as a result, creates an organized society, that is, a state), which are an integral part of our lives, have also influenced the way we are built as a society. (Hobbes, Thomas 1988 [1651]. Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). That is, their claim is that all societies are signed and formed on the basis of common interests, contracts and interests. This essay mainly explains and criticizes the views of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who put forward the concept of social contract.

First, both academics try to explain the pre-state period hypothetically, calling it the state of nature. In addition, both writers state for a different reason that people want to go beyond nature and build a state, and this is possible only by a common social agreement. (The Social Contract (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), pp. 2–3.). Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the absence of the state and the system of government, there was a lot of unrest among the people. These riots created misery and poverty among the people. In this system of poverty and misery, people had to fight for their survival. Hobbes called this struggle “the war of all against all.” (Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan,” chapter 15, p. 91.). In order to get rid of this chaos and the poor system, Hobbes thought that people should give up all their powers by nature and unite under a system based on the rules of a manager without any questioning. In addition, he thought that people could continue these traditional acts in the state system, as they were constantly struggling with each other in nature and trying to survive.

Therefore, this ruler must be given power so that people are afraid of him and do not violate the rules of the system. Therefore, he was also against the principle of separation of powers, and believed that the principle of separation of powers means the destruction of sovereign power. Therefore, he interpreted the destruction of my sovereign power as the return of human beings to nature (A. Haywood, chapter 3, p. 107). Thomas Hobbes’ first criticism was that he noted that human nature was profitable and prone to violence, and that in nature, too, people fought for profit. To end this struggle, he was in favor of giving power and power to only one person and not dividing power. Hobbes’s first criticism here is that if people who act in a natural way are for-profit, giving absolute power to a person who exists in that state will not end the state of nature. On the contrary, it will continue to do so within the state system. For example, this situation proves itself in our modern world. There is no social welfare or stability in countries where power is concentrated in the hands of one person and there is no principle of separation of powers. The state of nature is inevitable as these countries fall into crisis and conflict. The current processes in a number of the Middle Easts themselves prove that the concentration of power in the hands of a single person removes it from the state system and returns it to the war of nature against all. Hobbes’ second criticism was that he was a supporter of undemocratic state systems. Unlike Rousseau, the state models he envisions are the Eastern (non-democratic) models of the modern world. If Rousseau put forward (democratic) approaches to the Western state systems of our modern world, Hobbes analyzed it on the basis of the Eastern systems operating in our modern world. For example, he claimed that the principle of separation of powers was a very unnecessary act. (“Leviathan”, chapter 11, p.75.). Hobbes, who sees the principle of separation of powers as the destruction of sovereign power, has forgotten that in our modern world, the separation of powers is a tool that democratically controls and monitors the state. Today, the concentration of power in the hands of one person leads to the destruction of political institutions in that state and the weakening of the welfare and power of the state. The weakening and decline of the state causes people to return to nature. However, on the contrary, the separation of powers and the control of each other by the mechanisms of the state lead to the protection of democratic values ​​and political values ​​in that state.

In addition to Hobbes, Rousseau thought very differently. He believed that human nature was merciful and compassionate, and claimed that in the absence of a system of government, there was no competition between people, and they lived only to protect their lives, so there was no conflict between them. In addition, Russo claimed that as people began to marry and own property, competition and inequality arose. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse on Inequality”). This forced them to establish a state. Although Russo believed that nature was better, he said that with the development of civilization, it was impossible to return to it. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract,” chapter 3, p.30.). Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau was known to be a supporter of democracy. He advocated the existence of people’s protest and political rights in a post-natural state and their participation in the establishment of civil society and political society. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau’s views have many positive aspects, but there are also critical ones. First of all, regardless of the conditions in which they live, human nature has a tendency to power and violence. Man always wants to be strong and inviolable. This is a natural human instinct. However, it is not ideal to bring a manager to the state system in a democratic way who defends any common interests. For example, in our modern world, the Mussolini government and some fascists came to power in a democratic way, committed to democratic values, and were placed at the head of the state to protect common interests. However, these people, who were later democratically elected by the free will of the people, have caused considerable damage to humanity. In general, although Rousseau did not like the state and considered the state of nature more ideal (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract”, 3, p. 30), he could not ideally form the existing state system of his dreams. Because the ideal for him was life in nature.

As a result, I can say that both writers have different approaches and criticisms of “Social Contract”, but at the same time they present their own criticisms and views. For example, in their claims, they form their own views, such as how to manage people and what mechanisms and tools to put them in a leading position in the state. However, in addition to all this, one of the claims I agree with is that perhaps the theory of social contract is generally wrong. Namely, in fact, there is no such thing as the state of nature claimed by Hobbes and Rousseau. Perhaps, just when people want to live in safety and expand their interests, a common system has emerged in agreement with other people, and this common system is also called the state. However,  in addition to all these possibilities, we have the views of Hobbes, Rousseau, and other social contract theorists. Maybe in the future there will be new claims, and we will be able to see that what we call the state of nature is something we did not expect.


  • (Hobbes, Thomas 1988 [1651]. Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • (The Social Contract (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), pp. 2–3.)
  • (Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan,” chapter 15, p. 91.)
  • (A. Haywood, chapter 3, p. 107)
  • (“Leviathan”, chapter 11, p.75.)
  • (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse on Inequality”)
  • (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract”, 3, p. 30)

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Ali Mirzazada

Ali Mirzazada is a Research Fellow at the Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Azerbaijan
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