Social contract theory (or contractarianism) is a concept used in philosophy, political science and sociology to denote an implicit agreement within a state regarding the rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens, or more generally a similar concord between a group and its members, or between individuals. All members within a society are assumed to agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society without violating the contract; such violation would signify a problematic attempt to return to the state of nature. It has been often noted, indeed, that social contract theories relied on a specific anthropological conception of man as either "good" or "evil". Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) are the most famous philosophers of contractarianism, which is the theoretical groundwork of democracy. It is also one of a few competing theoretical groundworks of liberalism, but Rousseau's social contract is often seen as conflicting with classical liberalism which stresses individualism and rejects subordination of individual liberty to the "general will" of the community.
State of nature & social contract
The social contract, as a political theory, explains the justification and purpose of the state and of human rights. According to Hobbes' canonical theory, the essence is as follows: Without society, we would live in a state of nature, where we each have unlimited natural freedoms. The downside of this general autonomy is that it includes the freedom to harm and be harmed; there are no positive rights, only natural rights and an endless "war of all against all" (Bellum omnium contra omnes, Hobbes 1651). To avoid this, we jointly agree to an implicit social contract by which we each gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to honor the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so. The figurehead of the society we create, representing our joint interests as members and formed by the delegation of our power, is the sovereign state.
A fictional state of nature?
The emergence of the social contract from the state of nature is often explained in terms of just-so stories whose goal is to show the logical basis of rights rather than attempting historical accuracy. Rousseau's 1754 Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men is more a fictional account of what has passed than a realistic description of what happened. However, it is also true that the ambiguity persists, and that Hobbes' polemic conception of the state of nature (opposed to Rousseau's irenical conception of it) approach it from the realist description of civil war - the Leviathan may be read as an attempt to solve the problems raised by the English Civil War (1642-1651).
Violations of the contract
The social contract and the civil rights it gives us are neither "natural" nor permanently fixed. Rather, the contract itself is the means towards an end — the benefit of all — and, according to some philosophers such as Locke or Rousseau, is only legitimate to the extent that it satisfies our goals. Therefore, when failings are found in the contract, we renegotiate to change the terms, using methods such as elections and legislature; Locke theorized the right of rebellion in case of the contract leading to tyranny. Since rights come from agreeing to the contract, those who simply choose not to fulfill their contractual obligations, such as by committing crimes, risk losing some of their rights, and the rest of society can be expected to protect itself against the actions of such outlaws. To be a member of society is to accept responsibility for following its rules, along with the threat of punishment for violating them. Most of us are comfortable with laws punishing behavior that harms people because we are concerned about others harming us and don't plan on harming others. In this way, society works...