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), 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).
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).
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Contractarianism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Contractualism
- 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