Silencing the Oracle!!

Atty. Ralph A. Sarmiento's Blogsite!

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Constitution as a Social Contract

In Marcos v. Manglapus,[1] the Supreme Court speaking through Justice Cortes categorically opined that “the Constitution, aside from being an allocation of power is also a social contract whereby the people have surrendered their sovereign powers to the State for the common good.”

The Social Contract Theory is nearly as old as philosophy itself. In general, it is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement between them to form society.[2] As a modern political theory, it has taken its full shape in the writings of the three main social contract theorists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the twentieth century, it gained revival in the works of John Rawls.

In laying down the foundation and basis for this paper, a brief summary of the different versions of the social contract theory is in order, and for this purpose, I reproduce the summaries made by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on the Social Contract Theory[3] with very slight modifications, viz.:
Thomas Hobbes’ Version
According to Thomas Hobbes, the justification for political obligation is this: given that men are naturally self-interested, yet they are rational, they will choose to submit to the authority of a Sovereign in order to be able to live in a civil society, which is conducive to their own interests. Hobbes argues for this by imagining men in their natural state, or in other words, the State of Nature. In the State of Nature, which is purely hypothetical according to Hobbes, men are naturally and exclusively self-interested, they are more or less equal to one another, there are limited resources, and yet there is no power able to force men to cooperate.

Given these conditions in the State of Nature, Hobbes concludes that the State of Nature would be unbearably brutal and he concludes that the State of Nature is the worst possible situation in which men can find themselves. It is the state of perpetual and unavoidable war. The situation is not, however, hopeless. Because men are reasonable, they can see their way out of such a state by recognizing the laws of nature, which show them the means by which to escape the State of Nature and create a civil society.

Being reasonable, and recognizing the rationality of this basic precept of reason, men can be expected to construct a Social Contract that will afford them a life other than that available to them in the State of Nature. This contract is constituted by two distinguishable contracts. First, they must agree to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in the State of Nature. Second, they must imbue some one person or assembly of persons with the authority and power to enforce the initial contract.
After these contracts are established, then society becomes possible, and people can be expected to keep their promises, cooperate with one another, and so on. The Social Contract is the most fundamental source of all that is good and that which we depend upon to live well. Our choice is either to abide by the terms of the contract, or return to the State of Nature, which Hobbes argues no reasonable person could possibly prefer.
John Locke’s Version
In contrast to Hobbes’ concept of the hypothetical State of Nature, Locke considers the State of Nature as a state of perfect and complete liberty to conduct one's life as one best sees fit, free from the interference of others. So, the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests and plans, free from interference, and, because of the Law of Nature and the restrictions that it imposes upon persons, it is relatively peaceful.
However, since in the State of Nature there is no civil power to whom men can appeal, and since the Law of Nature allows them to defend their own lives, they may then kill those who would bring force against them. Since the State of Nature lacks civil authority, once war begins it is likely to continue. And this is one of the strongest reasons that men have to abandon the State of Nature by contracting together to form civil government.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Version

Rousseau for his part, begins with the most oft-quoted line “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”. He argues that humans are essentially free, and were free in the State of Nature, but the “progress” of civilization has substituted subservience to others for that freedom, through dependence, economic and social inequalities, and the extent to which we judge ourselves through comparisons with others. Since a return to the State of Nature is neither feasible nor desirable, the purpose of politics is to restore freedom to us, thereby reconciling who we truly and essentially are with how we live together.[4]
The most basic covenant, the social pact, is the agreement to come together and form a people, a collectivity, which by definition is more than and different from a mere aggregation of individual interests and wills. This act, where individual persons become a people is “the real foundation of society”.[5]
John Rawls’ Version
Like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition. However, Rawls’ social contract takes a slightly different form from that of previous thinkers. Specifically, Rawls posits that a just social contract is that which we would agree upon if we did not know in advance where we ourselves would end up in the society that we are agreeing to. This condition of ignorance is known as the “Original Position”. In the original position, “no-one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like”.[6]
Rawls argues that any rational person inhabiting the original position and placing him or herself behind the veil of ignorance can discover the two principles of justice, Rawls has constructed what is perhaps the most abstract version of a social contract theory. It is highly abstract because rather than demonstrating that we would or even have signed to a contract to establish society, it instead shows us what we must be willing to accept as rational persons in order to be constrained by justice and therefore capable of living in a well ordered society. The principles of justice are more fundamental than the social contract as it has traditionally been conceived. Rather, the principles of justice constrain that contract, and set out the limits of how we can construct society in the first place.[7]
Next in this inquiry is the concept of a Constitution. A Constitution, in the modern sense of the term, may be understood in the light of the British Parliamentary tradition that had no notion that a single document could serve as a Constitution and it may, in contrast, be understood in the light of the American Constitutional tradition that has its foundation in a single codified text, which they aptly named as the Constitution of the United States of America.
Britain has taught America the core tradition of constitutionalism. The ancient Greek notion of politeia, a plan for a way of life, and the Roman concept of constitutio stand as the distant progenitors of the modern construction of the term.[8]
Donald S. Lutz in his book “The Origins of American Constitutionalism”[9] reasons that while the U.S. Constitution stands at the apex of American tradition, it remains simply another political document unless the people choose to use it in a certain way, as the summary of the political commitments and as the standard by which to assess, develop, and run the political system.[10] He regards the Constitution as a document of political founding or refounding and proceeds to discuss that the term “constitution” has to do with making or establishing something, giving it legal status, describing the mode or organization, locating sovereignty, establishing limits, and describing fundamental principles.[11]
Viewed in the light of the Social Contract Theories, the Constitution may be considered as the Social Contract itself in the sense that is the very basis of the decision to constitute a civil society or State, breathing life to its juridical existence, laying down the framework by which it is to be governed, enumerating and limiting its powers, and declaring certain fundamental rights and principles to be inviolable.
On the other hand, the Constitution, as a political document, whether embodied in a single code or scattered in numerous fundamental or organic acts, may be considered as the concrete manifestation or expression of the Social Contract or the decision to abandon the state of nature and organize and found a civil society or State.
However, one clarification is in order to avoid confusion or inaccuracy. A common denominator to all the above treatises on the Social Contract is that the social contract to form a civil society is a contract that is theoretically entered into between and among the people themselves. It does not include the State per se as a party. The social contract precedes the very existence of the State and the government. Having preceded the existence of the State and the government, the social contract could not have had the State or the Government as a party. It is therefore inaccurate or even a mistake to regard the State or the Government as a party to the social contract.
Therefore, the dictum in Marcos v. Manglapus[12] that “the Constitution, aside from being an allocation of power is also a social contract whereby the people have surrendered their sovereign powers to the State for the common good” should not be understood as a social contract between the people and the State or the Government. If it is to be consistent to the original thoughts and conceptions of the great social contract theorists, it must be understood as a social contract between and among the people themselves whereby they have agreed to form a State and surrendered certain powers to the State for the common good.

[1] G.R. No. 88211, September 15, 1989
[2] The Social Contract Theory (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Wikipedia article,
[7] The Social Contract Theory (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
[8] Charles H. McIlwain, Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern, Cambridge, England, 1958, cited in Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Louisiana State University Press, 1988, p. 9
[9] Louisiana State University Press, 1988
[10] Ibid., p. 3
[11] Ibid., p. 21
[12] G.R. No. 88211, September 15, 1989


  • At 8:47 PM, Blogger MAKAMBO said…

    Have read this content severally but each time i re-read it,it doesn't fail to excite me.This is indeed the mother of modern constitutions.

  • At 4:07 PM, Blogger navin said…

    Chanced upon this material whilst researching this very point. succinctly put and makes a crisp and sharp article covering the precise details required. Would appreciate if you can elaborate the concept of 'bargaining' as this will draw out some more relevant pointers to the essence of a social contract...


Post a Comment

<< Home