States of Nature and Social Contracts

The Metaphors of the Liberal Order

by Kevin Dooley (Author)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 152 Pages


This book examines the most significant metaphors of modern political philosophy: the state of nature and the social contract. Each of the main chapters is dedicated to the political theory of the different social contract thinkers and the ways they articulated the uniquely liberal view of equality and freedom. The last chapter, unique to most books that explore the social contract, highlights the recent challenges to these views. It is this balance between accepted contractarian ideas and their critiques that makes this book a unique contribution to the field of political philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Thomas Hobbes: The State of Nature as a State of War: The Actor and the Authors
  • Chapter Two: John Locke: The Fiduciary Trust
  • Chapter Three: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Breaking the Chains: The Noble Savage and the General Will
  • Chapter Four: Immanuel Kant: Green Lenses, Objective Truth, and Perpetual Peace
  • Chapter Five: John Rawls: The Veil of Ignorance
  • Chapter Six: The Critiques: Conservatism, Feminism, and Critical Race Theory
  • Index


This book would have been quite different had I written it 10 years ago. It still would have included the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls, but it would not have included their critiques. It would have addressed the theories and the ways that they challenged each other’s viewpoints, but it would not have had an entire chapter dedicated to their main flaws. While I am proud of this work, I am most proud of its final chapter. Without taking into consideration the claims of those who disagree with the dominant voices in our discipline, we would be committing gross negligence. And for many years, we were. Without critiquing their premises or worst, hearing the voices of those who were deliberately left out of the social contracts, we would be endorsing a system that is not only not representative, but discriminatory.

This book is therefore an artifact of the evolution in my thinking, teaching, and of course, writing. The past several years was dedicated to understanding the political traditions of all of those who have come to aid in the establishment and protection of democracy. Quite often, time tricks us into thinking that those who lived centuries ago, are more important than those who currently live amongst us. But with this logic, we would not have the ability to see the flaws of our past in the flaws of our present. The development of this book allowed me to see not only the wisdom of Hobbes and Locke but also the outcomes of their beliefs. They are great thinkers, but so are Cornel West, Patrick Deneen, and Carole Pateman; three ←xi | xii→thinkers who challenged the main assumptions of the social contract thinkers and have created ideas that have reinforced our overall commitment to inquiry and academic freedom. We must remember that just because one critiques another, she/he is not necessarily condemning it to the dustbin of history but placing it in our collective consciousness. Critiques ask questions, and ultimately allow us the opportunity to delve deeper into both their works and the work of those they criticize.

Up until the start of this book, I was a political theorist who believed that political philosophy is guided by a certain canon. What I have learned is that it is not. While one must always understand the classical social contract thinkers and their contributions to the field, one must also be conscious of those who push boundaries and challenge dogma. If the social contract was used as the basis of establishing a constitution, isn’t it important that we ask questions about those who were ignored in its establishment? Are Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau really interested in “universal rights,” even if they were unwilling to include women or people of color in any active role? Once again, I must add, that this is not intended to disparage the works of the social contract theorists, but merely add to a greater understanding of their significance.

The state of nature and the social contract are the two dominant metaphors of the modern age. They created the terms by which citizens and their leaders articulate equality, freedom, individualism, and rights. Without such an articulation we would still be tied to the state in a way reminiscent of the medieval period. We would lack the ability to challenge the status quo and the protection of our most basic possessions, including of course our lives. These are not small achievements. They set the terms by which we live and have the flexibility to include all persons regardless of age, class, gender, race, or religion. This is the strength of their arguments and always will be.


This book would not have been possible without the support of my colleagues at Monmouth University, who allowed me to receive a sabbatical in the Spring of 2020. I would like to personally thank the leadership of the Provost of Monmouth University, Dr. Rekha Datta who has served as a mentor and friend for my entire academic career. Dr. Datta’s guidance and support has inspired me to become a better researcher and teacher. I am forever indebted to her for all of her help.

I must also thank my department colleagues, Ken Mitchell, Joe Patten, Saliba Sarsar, Steve Chapman, Johanna Foster, Jennifer McGovern, Melissa Alvare, Nancy Mezey, Sam Maynard, and Randall Abate. They are a constant source of inspiration and of course, collegiality. I am blessed to serve in such a great department.

Third, I would like to thank my students, who over the years, helped in the development of this book. It has been an honor to serve as your professor. The in-class discussions always serve as fodder for future ideas. I truly could not have done this project with them.

Fourth, I must thank my friends and family. Special thanks to Professor Robert Scott, as well as the aforementioned Professors Ken Mitchell and Joe Patten. Your humor and friendship made the development of a book during a global pandemic seem somewhat normal. I am glad to count you as friends and colleagues. I must also thank the members of my family whose love has made this project a little easier. My wife, Lauren and our two children, Jack and Megan are always a source ←xiii | xiv→of happiness and remind me to always be grateful. In addition, I must thank Jean and Gerry Murray, the best in-laws a person could have. Thank you for providing me with a sounding board for ideas and of course, a happy setting for our family.

Finally, I would like to thank my parents. My mother Joan who always provided me with a strong example of how to live an intellectual life. Your work ethic and concern for your students made me a better teacher and learner. And thanks must also go to my father Larry and stepmother Inger. I am truly blessed to be around such wonderful people who have taught me how to love unconditionally. Your support makes every venture that much easier.


In this collection, I will be examining a variety of metaphors that emerged from two interrelated concepts. The first, a thought experiment known as the ‘state of nature.’ The second, the agreement that has served as the basis for liberal democracy, the ‘social contract.’ Both concepts have defined how modern thinkers conceive of human nature and the role that this understanding played in the development of the modern state. Both concepts also articulated a vision of equality and freedom that was revolutionary for their time. Before Thomas Hobbes determined that all humans were born equal and free, there was a general agreement that the state’s authority came from familial and/or theological conceptions of power. The family structure and the hierarchy of the Church reflected the medieval notion of God as the ultimate ruler of the world. To reject this structure and to place human equality and freedom as the basis of political rule was something uniquely modern.

Historically, human nature was determined within a political context that either motivated or stifled human excellence. The “best” or “just” states were those that witnessed the development of citizens into fully-formed, virtuous human beings; exemplars of the human condition. The types of citizens that Aristotle and Plato referred to as those that were capable of achieving what is natural to human excellence. The worst states on the other hand, were those that saw its citizens suffer like beasts, unable to acquire those things that best define our humanness. What many of the philosophers in this collection did was to rethink human nature ←1 | 2→and to use this reformulation to offer a new relationship between “ruler and ruled” in the form of a contract. Allegiance to a sovereign or to a parliament did not change the notion of human rationality. Since humans were rational, they must be equally rational. For the social contract thinkers, human rationality cannot differ from person to person. Circumstances and contexts change the way people perceive right and wrong, but not their ability to understand right from wrong. Individuals will disagree on what constitutes justice, but they never stop pursuing it. It is in this light that the social contract thinkers began. They determined that what was essential was the creation of a political blank slate; a time before the creation of laws and institutions capable of enforcing said laws. If one could remove the context of modern life, one could distill human rationality and therefore apply this new science of politics to properly construct the state.

State of Nature and the Social Contract

The idea that human nature could be distilled or broken down into a set of identifiable, universal beliefs is a modern proposition because it assumes that human nature is connected to the principles of the natural sciences. In the same way that we can use the natural sciences to explain the functioning of the natural world, so too can we use it to explain human nature. The grand irony of such a method is that it seeks to create a scenario in which one is forced to remove all that which makes humans, “human.” Hobbes’ logic was simple: Create an environment that is devoid of civilization, culture, language, religion, or anything else that has been made by humans. This way, we can remove these impediments that have only served to obscure the natural tendencies of the human animal. Once the slate has been wiped clean, human nature will present itself in its purest, most unadulterated form and therefore create the rationale for the most appropriate form of government. The chosen government would be linked to human nature since the former must justify the latter. Take for example the following deduction. If one’s logic determined that life in the state of nature were peaceful and cooperative, he/she would have a difficult time justifying anything other than a limited form of representative government. However, if one deduced that the state of nature was combative and warlike, then perhaps a more restrictive society is justified.

This thought experiment was also used as a way to determine human nature and the role that law must play in the lives of those it governs. It attempted to match the type of government with humanity in its most basic condition and ask the most basic, yet fundamental questions: Do laws emerge after or before the creation of government? If they emerge before, from where do they come? If they ←2 | 3→emerge after, who creates them and subsequently enforces and adjudicates them? Each thinker in this collection addressed these issues and argued that their preferred government is based on the true nature of humanity.

In this collection, you will be exposed to a variety of thinkers whose unique metaphors helped to critique or justify the status quo. Their assessments of human nature revolutionized the ways in which societies are treated and governments are legitimized. The preliminary vehicle—the state of nature—changed the way people conceive of human nature by creating a series of behavioral assumptions about what life would be like in the absence of any external authority. What makes this approach fascinating is that each thinker was compelled to try and convince the reader that human nature is determinable only through a method of reductionism. As has already been noted, the only way that we can truly understand human nature is by imagining human behavior in the absence of everything that which has historically been associated with it: culture, laws, norms, civilization, etc. Once this is done, (the thinking goes) one should be able to articulate certain baselines that all humans are believed to share: freedom, equality, security, etc.


XIV, 152
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 152 pp.

Biographical notes

Kevin Dooley (Author)

Kevin Dooley is the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Monmouth University where he teaches courses in political theory and international relations. He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University and is the author of four books.


Title: States of Nature and Social Contracts
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168 pages