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States of Nature and Social Contracts

The Metaphors of the Liberal Order

Kevin Dooley

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.

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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...

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