Evaluating social contract theory in the light of evolutionary social science

Paul Seabright, Jonathan Stieglitz, and Karine Van Der Straeten


Political philosophers have long drawn explicitly or implicitly on claims about the ways in which humanbehaviour is shaped by interactions within society. These claims have usually been based on introspection,anecdotes or casual empiricism, but recent empirical research has informed a number of early views abouthuman nature. We focus here on five components of such views: (1) what motivates human beings; (2)what constraints our natural and social environments impose upon us; (3) what kind of society emerges asa result; (4) what constitutes a fulfilling life; and (5) what collective solutions can improve the outcome.We examine social contract theory as developed by some early influential political philosophers (Hobbes,Locke and Rousseau), who viewed the social contract as a device to compare the‘natural’state of humanswith their behaviour in society. We examine their views in the light of recent cross-cultural empiricalresearch in the evolutionary social sciences. We conclude that social contract theorists severely underes-timated human behavioural complexity in societies lacking formal institutions. Had these theorists beenmore informed about the structure and function of social arrangements in small-scale societies, theymight have significantly altered their views about the design and enforcement of social contracts.


Political philosophy; small-scale societies; social contract; Hobbes; Locke; Rousseau; Darwin;

Published in

Evolutionary Human Sciences, vol. 3, 2021