The Social Contract and Rawls' Principles of Justice

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Throughout history and in modern society, the relationship between law and justice has been examined and debated resulting in the creation of various theories attempting to outline systems of a just society. Some of these theories revolve around a central notion of a ‘social contract’ in which society is formed through a theoretical agreement between a group of people about their moral and political obligations. This concept has been used by theorists such as Mill and Rousseau, to explain why the law is justified in its right to constrain the behaviour of individuals and organisations in society. Later in the twentieth century, John Rawls took a novel stance on the concept of the social contract, in which principles of justice were defined for an ‘ideal society’. As such, these principles may offer good moral reasons to comply willingly with the law. However, more recently there have been criticisms by feminists that the social contract does not paint a complete picture of our moral and political lives and instead has, in some ways, assisted in giving more power over certain classes of people (Friend, 2006). In this essay I will evaluate the original notions of the social contract in order to demonstrate how the social contract regulates behaviour and has also, in its conceptualisation, subjugated some aspects of society through its unequal representation. I will then explore John Rawls’ ‘Principle’s of Justice’ and discuss whether, if Rawls hypothetical situation could be implemented, it would provide good moral reason to comply with the law.

The development of the social contract arose out of a ‘state of nature’ in which the need for an arrangement of societal order evolved when humanity faced changes in which the population increased and so society’s mechanisms for survival were also increased. An introduction of a division of labour became present that bought about new inventions developing an easier lifestyle with more leisure time (Friend, 2006). In particular, Rousseau placed an emphasis on the invention of private property, which saw a change from a simple pure state to one characterised by greed, competition, vanity and inequality (Friend, 2006). As the rich had property, others were forced to work for them, and the development of social classes began (Friend, 2006). As the idea of the social contract continued to evolve, Rousseau developed an idea which is commonly known as the ‘general will’.

For Rousseau, the social contract contains a ‘general will theory’ which revolves around the idea of a ‘good’ agreement, which in turn facilitates real civil liberty and a legal and moral equality that transcends all natural disadvantages found in the state of nature (Coole, 1993: 79). Rousseau connects his idea of the general will to the concept that the social contract is a legitimate principle of political organisation by emphasising that the purpose of politics is to restore freedom to all (Coole, 1993: 80). Therefore the most essential philosophical problem that the social contract intends to address is; how can we live together without succumbing to the force and coercion of others? (Friend, 2006). Rousseau’s response to this indicates that by submitting our individual wills to the general will created by an agreement from equal people, we can be free and live together (Friend, 2006). Furthermore, philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, present before Rousseau, put forward that all men are made to be equal, therefore giving no man the right to govern others, the only justified authority is that generated from agreements, such as the social contract (Friend, 2006). Thus these agreements justify the right of the law to constrain the acts and wills of individuals.

Yet, the wills of individuals are not represented equally throughout the social contract. The theory has based its premises upon the idea that citizens are male and the model of a person who enters into the social contract is male, denying the fact...
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