Any theory basing either moral obligation in general, or the duty of political obedience, or the justice of social institutions, on a contract, usually called a ‘social contract’.

The idea goes back at least as far as Plato’s Crito (c.395 BC), and contractualists (or contractarians) have also included Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), Jean Jacques Rousseau(1712-1778), and various modern writers.

The contract may be an allegedly historical one or a tacitly implied one, or an imaginary one. It may be between people who set up a sovereign, or between the people and the sovereign, or between the individual and society or the state, or between hypothetical beings in a setting making for impartiality.

J Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1972)

Contractualism is a term in philosophy which refers either to a family of political theories in the social contract tradition (when used in this sense, the term is an umbrella term for all social contract theories that include contractarianism),[1] or to the ethical theory developed in recent years by T. M. Scanlon, especially in his book What We Owe to Each Other (published 1998).[2]

Social contract theorists from the history of political thought include Hugo Grotius (1625), Thomas Hobbes (1651), Samuel Pufendorf (1673), John Locke (1689), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), and Immanuel Kant (1797); more recently, John Rawls (1971), David Gauthier (1986) and Philip Pettit (1997).


  1. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Contractarianism
  2. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Contractualism

Further reading

  • Ashford, Elizabeth and Mulgan, Tim. 2007. ‘Contractualism’. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed October 2007).
  • Cudd, Ann. 2007. ‘Contractarianism’. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Summer 2007 Edition).
  • Scanlon, T. M. 1998. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Scanlon, T. M. 2003. The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy. Cambridge University Press

2 thoughts on “Contractualism

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