Behind every man, there is a (wo)MAN and has that always been the case? This piece will examine what the state of nature and the Social Contract Theory actually is and also will critique it from a feminist’s point of view.
The Social Contract Theory is this agreement between the ruler and the ruled. It states that people came to an agreement and decided to live together in a society with rules that decided morality and politics. The existence of a divine being or a God is not required in order for people to live morally provided that they have agreed to a social contract.
Although similar ideas can be traced to the Greek Sophists, social-contract theories saw themselves being propounded in the 17th and 18th centuries by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
According to Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), the state of nature was one in which there was no good or bad, nothing that could differentiate right from wrong. People were selfish and looked out for themselves. The state of nature was therefore a state of war, which could be ended only if individuals agreed (in a social contract) to give their liberty into the hands of a sovereign, in exchange for being looked after and safeguarded by the sovereign power.
John Locke had a slightly different view of this, he believed that the state of nature was not a condition of complete submission but rather a state in which there is a degree of freedom that is exercised by human beings but at the same time they are obliged to respect each other’s rights to life, liberty, and property.
Rousseau held that in the state of nature, human beings were solitary but also healthy, happy, good, and free. He stated that “nascent societies” were formed when humans began to live together as families and neighbours. He also said that this new development led to the rise of negative and destructive emotions like jealousy and pride and that further led to inequalities.
The state of nature, simply put, was whatever came naturally to human beings- Society is everything that was built on top. People came together and agreed to live in a society and that agreement is the social contract. The idea is that humanity’s natural state is freedom and nobody is born having political authority over anybody else. One of Rousseau’s most famous lines is, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”.
The outcome of this is that people gave up some of their natural freedoms in exchange for the benefits of living in a society.
A lot of things are hidden in the fine print here. Who made this agreement? Hobbes said that it was individuals. Locke and Rousseau said it was families.
What exactly did they agree on? Some are of the opinion that it created the rules of morality and some say that it created specific institutions.
In a nutshell, there are three basic ingredients:
- The state of nature where EVERYONE(HEAVILY EMPHASIZED)is free;
- The people who came together and;
- The agreement they made whereby they limited their natural freedom in exchange for civilization.
Now, a level-headed person would think that this is simply not true and that this is all made up and well, David Hume would vehemently agree.
“Were you to preach, in most parts of the world, that political connections are founded altogether on voluntary consent or a mutual promise, the magistrate would soon imprison you, as seditious, for loosening the ties of obedience; if your friends did not before shut you up as delirious, for advancing such absurdities…If the agreement, by which savage men first associated and conjoined their force, be here meant, this is acknowledged to be real; but being so ancient, and being obliterated by a thousand changes of government and princes, it cannot now be supposed to retain any authority. If we would say anything to the purpose, we must assert, that every particular government, which is lawful, and which imposes any duty of allegiance on the subject, was, at first, founded on consent and a voluntary compact. But besides that this supposes the consent of the fathers to bind the children, even to the most remote generations (which republican writers will never allow), besides this, I say, it is not justified by history or experience, in any age or country of the world. Almost all the governments, which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest, or both, without any pretense of a fair consent, or voluntary subjection of the people.”David Hume in the essay “Of the Original Contract”
In other words, David Hume had a problem with the theory and said that there is no consent and there is no sort of agreement between individuals and people in power. Even if our ancestors agreed to live in a society (a claim Hume strongly disagrees with), when YOU were born, was there a government official at the doorstep asking you to sign a contract?
Some philosophers tried to get around this, Rousseau for example said that if one enjoys the benefits of society, they have implied to abide by the rules as well. There is no need for the signing of a literal contract.
Hume rejected this as well and said, “Can we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artizan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives, from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert, that man by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her.”
An agreement is not how society was formed and that certainly is not how it functions now. However, that is not the point (shocking, I know). It is not meant to be an accurate depiction of history. The social contract theory can act as a nice test to evaluate the societies we do live in. We can look at governments or a piece of legislation and think to ourselves- “Is this something free people would come together and decide on?” and if the answer is a curt no, we have good reason to discard it.
This was a very radical idea as the theory stated that human beings were born free and equal.
Robert Filmer (English Philosopher) rejected this and instead, riding the radical wave, stated that people aren’t born free and equal. He also went on to assert that as kids aren’t born equal to their fathers, in the same way THE KING has a natural authority over his people. He wrote a book on his ideas named, “Patriarcha” after reading which the feminism in my body left.
The Social Contract Theory says that governments should be established by agreement and not by force or religion which again was a very revolutionary idea. Rousseau believed that human beings can come together and make progress and he believed that the government should give a free hand to people. His contemporaries talked about mankind being inherently sinful and that the government is supposed to check the people.
NOW, ON TO MY FAVOURITE PART.
“The Sexual Contract” was written by Carole Pateman in 1988- a classic of second-wave feminism. She studied the social contract and has quite a bit to say about it. Her general thesis is that the story of this social contract is, first of all, A LIE and more importantly-it hides the truth about how society really operates.
She says that a lot is buried in the fine print. She says that there is a second hidden contract -The Sexual Contract- hidden rules which give men- the male sex- political control over women- the female sex. This has been really influential in the last 40 years of philosophy, especially in Critical Race theory.
Pateman points out that a lot of the classic theorists made a lot of assumptions about the state of women.
Locke believed that women are natural subjects- born to do what they are told.
Rousseau (oh my sweet, sweet Rousseau, and to think that I liked you *cries*) said that women needed to rely on men for their well-being because they were less rational than men. He argued that men might have desired women but did not need them to survive and women on the other hand both desired men and needed them.
According to the classic theorists, the social contract is decided by MEN, men agree to make society and women cannot because it is their nature and women get to live in it! They get to be their wives and mothers!
Pateman says that this was not an accidental oversight, the reason women are not at the table taking decisions is that they are what is on the menu.
Part of society’s job, Pateman claims, is to regulate men’s access to women’s bodies for sex and reproduction.
The hidden rule is that women exist for men.
She continues that if you assume that women exist for men and they are only suited for domestic roles and not political ones, then marriage is the legal embodiment of that assumption which, as Gen-Z would say, is a very hot take.
Women being given away by their fathers, taking of the last name of their husbands, husbands being legally allowed to rape and beat up their wives, promising to obey, etc.—she says that the institution of marriage is clearly designed to express and reinforce the assumption that women are secondary.
Now, one might state the obvious- NOBODY CAN BEAT UP ANYBODY in today’s age. So is marriage still patriarchal now? Pateman says YES, she says if you strip all of the patriarchal stuff- it is just a contract for sexual exclusivity or cohabitation. She says that marriage would be obsolete without patriarchy.
What if one does it voluntarily? This question that is it empowering to do something if you do it voluntarily is something that women have been asking themselves for centuries now. Pateman says that that is how they get to you. She says that if you do it voluntarily, even then the institution of marriage reflects the idea that this is the only contract you are capable of making. The story of free, equal people agreeing hides the exploitation. Pateman is also against employment contracts for the same reason. Pateman says that labour power cannot be detached from a person and the idea that there can be pieces of us that can be sold is fiction.
She asserts that modern society is not based on free individuals agreeing and it is based on the economic exploitation of everyone and the sexual exploitation of women.
Pateman also has quite a flexible approach when she talks about what a “woman” is- she says that we do not need to obsess over genitals and chromosomes. She says, “To draw out the way in which the meaning of ‘men’ and ‘women’ has helped structure major social institutions is not to fall back on purely natural categories”. Whatever physical sex is- she just wants to talk about how it gets cashed out politically. She also says, “In modern patriarchy, a variety of means are available through which men can uphold the terms of the sexual contract”. So enforcing the sexual contract does not involve actual sex.
However, seeing how society has evolved Pateman fails to address some key issues. Gay marriage? Is that still patriarchal? What about transgender people especially transwomen.
She, despite, having a flexible approach to the definition of a woman and how she is only interested in the political scenario-she assumes the state of nature of “women” and states that there are only two sexes and they cannot be changed. (The last chapter of her book contains some instances of transphobia as well).
She makes the same mistake that she criticizes. She realized that the state of nature was a political construction but then she assumes that her idea of the state of nature of woman is the way things are and has no politics in it.
She writes, “The state of nature is drawn by each theorist in a manner that enables him to reach ‘the desired solution’- the political solution he has already formulated” and that is exactly what she does when she assumes the state of nature of women.
Pateman’s book is a great illustration of the things it is trying to critique. She exposed the hidden rules of subjugation and she has, sadly, made the same mistakes. (THE BOOK IS VERY INTERESTING THOUGH,I have the pdf if anybody wants to give it a read)
A common solution proposed to counter the Social Contract Theory is to just add people to the agreement. Pateman, however, says that this is a futile exercise.
Pateman states that there is no band-aid solution to this. It is very tempting to think that if we include enough people in the social contract and introduce the diversity of opinions and thoughts and values, it will just magically get better but society, in her opinion, will always be built on the exploitation of people who are not at the table because…
They are what is on the menu, ready to be served and gobbled up.
This article is written by Dhruv Khanduri (2nd year).