An anthropological approach to the social contract

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The social contract tradition relies on idealised or hypothetical stories of cultural and social evolution, which are used to justify agreement on political and moral issues. Hobbes starts from a pre-social state of human interaction to argue for a social contract that regulates political and moral behaviour. He used a plausible story because he could not have used anthropological evidence or sources. However, today we can consider evidence from both History and Anthropology to examine the evolution and development of social contracts and argue about the evolution of morality and politics. Binmore used anthropological evidence to argue for a social contract that revolves around egalitarian ideals. A closer examination of such anthropological evidence with special focus on social contracts established in different cultures and times can help us better understand and evaluate the mainstream social contract tradition from Hobbes to Rawls. Subsequently, we can gain a better and deeper understanding of contemporary ideals of morality and justice. Anthropology allows us to consider social contracts over time and distance; there have been societies living in isolation that have developed their own social contracts. A comparative analysis of real-life social contracts that have evolved independently, in conjunction with the theoretical tradition of contractarianism can offer unique insights into individual agency and social structure, and ultimately the evolution of social and moral norms.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • social contract
  • anthropology
  • social evolution


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