Social and Political Ethics

Write 4–6 pages in which you assess a law in terms of the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Political philosophy is concerned with the formation and maintenance of civil societies. Its central theme is the need to explain the relationship between individual human beings and their governments.

Competency 1. Explain the nature of ethical issues.By successfully completing this assessment, you will demonstrate your proficiency in the following course competencies and assessment criteria:

    • Explain the ethical basis for the relation of individuals to their government.
  • Competency 2: Critically examine the contributions of key thinkers from the history of ethics.
    • Describe the social contract theories of Hobbes and Rousseau.
  • Competency 3: Engage in ethical debate.
    • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of differing approaches to political theory.
  • Competency 4: Develop a position on a contemporary ethical issue.
    • Apply traditional social contract theories to contemporary political life.
  • Competency 5: Communicate effectively in the context of personal and professional moral discourse.
    • Communicate in a manner that is scholarly, professional, and consistent with expectations for professional communities.

    Why do we choose to join together, and what is the best way to organize ourselves for productive social life?Political philosophers have often approached the issues by asking why and how we join together in the first place. Thinking about what life would be like without any government is one way to see what benefits we expect from its formation. Hobbes, for example, supposed that individual human beings, without the limitations provided by a civil society, would be concerned only with the promotion of their own self-interest, without any respect for other people. Accepting the authority of government, then, is a kind of self-defense, a way of protecting ourselves against the unbridled selfishness of our neighbors.

    Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.On this view, each of us voluntarily agrees to accept limitations on our own freedom so that everyone else will be subject to the same limitations. The provisions of this social contract make governmental authority legitimate and obligate each of us to obey. It would not be fair for a person to expect all others to hold up their part of the bargain while make an exception of himself or herself.The problem with this approach is that it is not always clear when and how we signed up for the program. Sometimes we enter into explicit agreements, of course. As members of the learning community at Capella University, for example, we have all consented to have our interactions governed by the school’s policies. New citizens of a country may make a similar pledge as part of the naturalization process. Most of us, however, simply grow up somewhere, finding ourselves part of the civil society without ever having voluntarily chosen to enter it.History provides us with several alternative ways of organizing a civil society.

    • Authoritarian governments grant absolute power to a monarch, sovereign, or dictator who exercises political authority by coercive power or divine right.
    • In elitist governments, some group within the whole—distinguished from the rest of the population by aristocratic birth, acquired wealth, or inherent ability—is allowed to make decisions on behalf of the entire society.
    • Democratic societies grant political power to their people, though, in practice, the popular will may be unduly influenced by rhetorical manipulation.

    In any form of government, we often find a distinction between the legislative power to establish laws by which people are to be governed and the executive power to enforce them. In modern social democracies, for example, constitutional government often devotes a great deal of attention to the separation and interaction of these powers. As individual citizens, we commonly place our confidence in selected leaders to govern with the interests of the entire society in mind.But that brings us back to our initial question of the proper relationship between the society as a whole and each individual living in it. Suppose that we acknowledge that the welfare of the population at large must sometimes take precedence over private concerns, and that it is the proper function of the government to make sure that selfish individuals do not interfere with the public good. Even so, each of us would like to be free to pursue our own plans and ambitions within the framework of society as a whole.Agreeing to participate in the civil society does not require that we give up all of our private interests. Mill (1859, pp. 91–92) and Rawls (1971, pp. 136–143) both argue that a well-organized society should preserve as much individual liberty as is compatible with the continued existence of the state. Justice requires that each of us be permitted to pursue our lives freely, unless doing so interferes with the freedom of our fellow citizens. This means that we can think and say whatever we want and do anything that will not harm someone else.


    Mill, J. S. (1859). On liberty. London, GBR: Longman.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Questions to consider

To deepen your understanding, you are encouraged to consider the questions below and discuss them with a fellow learner, a work associate, an interested friend, or a member of the business community.

  • Thomas Hobbes argued that a strong government is necessary to ensure peace and security, by preventing citizens from selfishly harming each other. Jean-Jacques Rousseau held instead that government often interferes inappropriately with otherwise healthy motives for individual freedom and self-expression. Which do you believe to be the more accurate approach to the formation and maintenance of civil society?

Assessment instructions

Many states require that motorcyclists wear helmets while operating their vehicles. This is not like forbidding the use of cell phones or intoxicants, which might impair the rider and endanger other people on the roads. The helmet laws impose a governmental regulation that can, at most, be held to protect only the individual citizen whose behavior is being restricted. Why should the government be able to tell individuals what to do while riding their own motorcycles?

Write a paper assessing these helmet laws in terms of the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Support your assessment with research on their social contract theories. You may begin your research with suggested Resources, but you are also expected to conduct your own independent research into the scholarly and professional resources of the field.

Consider the following in your paper:

  • Should the government provide security by overcoming the selfish desires of the individual citizen, or should citizens cooperate voluntarily in service of the general welfare of all?
  • What justifies the imposition of governmental authority on individual citizens?
  • Are individuals always obligated to obey the dictates of their government?
  • Which elements of the traditional theories are relevant to this case?
  • Is it unethical for individual citizens to ignore this governmental requirement?
  • You may also wish to apply other conceptions of the basis for social and political order.

Additional Requirements

  • Written communication: Written communication should be free of errors that detract from the overall message.
  • APA formatting: Include a title page and a references page, formatted according to APA (6th edition) style and formatting.
  • References: A typical paper will include support from a minimum of 3–5 references. You may use some of the materials recommended in the Resources, but you should also include support from your independent research of scholarly or professional materials.
  • Length: A typical paper will be 4–6 typed, double-spaced pages in length.
  • Font and font size: Times New Roman, 12-point.

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