The Social Contract

Philosophical Reflections XVI

As rational beings, all that we do is the product of choice, which means it is the product of thought, of the judgment of a mind. Even if our only judgment is a decision live by rote, that is a choice: and someone, sometime, had to think of the actions we copy. But for those choices and judgments to have meaning and effect, we must then be able to act accordingly.

Thus speaking positively, the fundamental prerequisite for our survival is reason: the wellspring of valid judgments. And speaking negatively, it is freedom from coercion: from another person forcing us to act contrary to our judgment. Reality itself can always make us fail, of course, but reality whether in the form of laws of nature, falling rocks or ravening beasts is neither good nor evil, in the moral sense. Indeed, it is the tension between reality and our aims as conscious beings a tension arising from the fact that reality is objective and not plasticine moulded by our wishes that is the origin of values and the virtues needed to gain them. Good and evil pertain only to volition: to the actions of human beings.

Thus, as rationality is the highest virtue, so is the initiation of force the lowest vice: being the one action you can impose on another which can fundamentally stand between reason and reality, that can stand between a man’s judgment and how he acts in the world to achieve his values.

That is the origin of our need for government.

Forcing the Issue

People have a primary moral right to defend themselves against force with force. However, the need to be free from coercion means just that: freedom from coercion. That cannot be achieved if everyone has to go around armed, never knowing when some enemy or random thug might decide to see who is quickest on the draw, always vulnerable to a bigger gang deciding to kill or rob them. People cannot live as free men and women as traders, free to deal with each other according to their own judgment without fear of physical coercion unless some external system is in place to protect that freedom and to remove that fear.

While men exist who wish to live as predators on other men, force is unavoidable: because if no hand is raised to stop them, their reign of force is instated by default. And if individual people or groups must defend themselves, then nothing can ensue but the rule of force, a competition won by the most violent strongman or the most ruthless gang.

Even were the predators to become extinct, while men are fallible force is unavoidable. The disputes between people that arise from trade, whether disputes between honest men or disputes resulting from fraud, cannot be left to private settlement. That may be, and often should be, the first recourse. But if agreement cannot be reached (an agreement would include agreeing to disagree, i.e., calling it quits), then a just solution has to be imposed. Otherwise an unjust solution, comprising direct or indirect initiation of force, will happen by default (the taking or withholding of someone else’s property in the absence of mutual agreement necessarily requires force by at least one party). Whatever private means people use to resolve their disputes, they need a final court of appeal with the power to enforce its decisions when voluntary agreement cannot be reached.

Because that court exists to prevent the initiation of force and to ensure justice, it must be founded upon the principles of reason and justice. Because the citizens are entrusting it with their delegated right of self-defence, it must earn that trust. From this derives the true prescription that the courts must be both just and seen to be just. Which means, they must operate by objective principles and rules, enforcing objective laws.

In summary, a valid society cannot leave force (except in emergencies) to individual whim. Such a society would fall into the hands of the first thug with ambition and a gun, or degenerate into gang warfare. For humans to live together according to our nature as rational beings, we need an external system to control the application of force, whether it be direct force or the indirect force of property disputes: and to control that force accountably and according to the principle of justice. That is, a society of free people requires that they give up force: but they cannot do that unless a system is set up to protect them from force initiated by others.

That external system is the government.

The Consent of the Governed

Since the moral validation of government is the delegation of its citizens’ right to self-defence, a valid government can only exist and operate by the consent of the governed.

That is a necessary but not sufficient criterion. The mere fact of consent does not validate a government. The support of the Mongol hordes did not validate Genghis Khan’s rule of blood and looting. One of the vital tasks of philosophy is to determine what kind of government is valid, based on ethics what is the proper behaviour for man; which is based on metaphysics the nature of man and what he needs to live.

This issue is very important, because of the nature of government and the nature of man. Government is an institution based on and existing for the application of physical force; and we have seen that force is the one thing most inimical to reason, which means: the most inimical to human life. Thus it is critical to correctly determine what comprises a valid government: how to ensure that its application of force is moral and just.

Some basic considerations are readily deduced.

The need for government stems from the need to be free from coercion. Therefore, governments cannot properly initiate force against their citizens. The need for governments arises from the requirement to protect people’s rights. Therefore, a government cannot properly violate its citizens’ rights. Any such government is a monster which has violated and contradicted its own reason for being.

Governments do result from a “social contract” by, with and for the governed. But no such social contract can properly or morally involve the sacrifice of its citizens’ rights. Especially, no such contract can allow any person or group to sacrifice someone else’s rights, no matter how many people think it may or should. Only one right can validly be delegated to government: the right of self-defence, which is the right to use retaliatory force.

A Rights Issue

A more detailed examination of “rights” is needed here.

“Rights” are a political concept, that is, they have meaning only in the context of relationships between people. Rights are not a primary concept, but a derived one. They are the political recognition of your fundamental nature as a rational being, which means: your need to live by the judgment of your mind. Which means: your need to be free from coercion. Thus, rights are the political recognition of reality as it pertains to the nature of human beings (and any other rational life that might be encountered, for that matter).

Rights are not a moral sanction. Rights prevent others from initiating force to stop you, but that does not mean they can’t censure you. The right to do something does not give you the right to force other people to accept, approve or finance your actions. Nor does that right stop others from punishing you by methods other than force, notably by refusing to trade with you in personal or economic values.

Rights are not a balancing act between your interests and the interests of others. There can be no “conflicting” rights that need such balancing. Since rights are founded on reality, which by its nature is always self-consistent, there can be no such contradictions. Any conflict, any supposed contradiction between “my rights” and “your rights”, simply indicates an error in my, your or our concept of rights.

There can be only one fundamental right, a shield against the one fundamental evil. That right is to be free from the initiation of force, or to put it another way: the right to be let be. The necessary and sufficient way to earn that right is to refrain from initiating force against others. Since there is no such thing as a right to initiate force, no rights are given up in order to obtain rights: the trade is purely positive. Even the right to self-defence is not given up, merely delegated to ensure that it is used objectively and justly.

Of course there are other, derivative rights. The most obvious is the right to property (see Philosophical Reflections XIII). Freedom of speech and belief are others. However these rights, like the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are merely the detailed specifications of the right to be free from force, just as virtues are the detailed specifications of rationality. All follow automatically from your fundamental right: to be left free to pursue your good as you see fit, provided you honour the same right of others. Thus, derivative rights explain and extend your fundamental right, and cannot contradict it. Any such contradiction proves that the claimed right isn’t. And especially, any claimed right which depends on the initiation of force against another person is invalid at the root.


Now we have reached the most crucial point in the philosophy of politics. Just as reality exists is the foundation of philosophy as the supreme value of your own life is the foundation of ethics as rationality is the foundation of virtue: so the prescription no man may initiate force against anotheris the foundation of politics. This principle is derived from the others, as a consequence of the nature of reality and of man. As such it must stand at the base of any rational philosophy of politics.

Thus the fundamental principle that the purpose of government is to prevent the initiation of force against people is the touchstone by which to decide the validity or otherwise of political ideas, systems and policies. Where this leads us, I’ll examine in future Reflections.

© 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.