Home > Vol 7, No 13 (2018): 45-62 > Krasnoff

More than Consent: Kant on the Function of the Social Contract

Larry Krasnoff


What is the point of appealing to a social contract? An intuitively plausible answer is that the metaphor functions as a justification for the obligation to obey the law. If I have made a contract to establish a political authority, then I am bound to obey the commands of that authority. In a contract, my agreement creates an obligation to perform. Then only remaining question is what reasons I have to make the agreement in the first place. It would then seem that classical social contract theory is divided between those who understand our reasons to agree as prudential (Hobbes and Locke) and those who take our reasons to be moral (Rousseau and Kant). But this kind of interpretation fails to make sense of Kant’s political theory, which understands our obligation to enter into a civil condition as prior to the appeal to the social contract. The original contract enters into Kant’s theory at a crucially later point, after the creation of specific political institutions. It functions as a way of reconciling these institutions with the idea of rightful coercion, by imposing normative requirements on the political reasoning of legislators and citizens. For Kant, the distinctive feature of normative political reasoning is the notion of a unified will, an idea that was already present at the start of social contract theory in Hobbes, but had yet to be properly clarified. Kant appeals to the original contract not to ground our political obligations, but to explain both the coherence and the necessity of the idea of a common will for political argument.


Social Contract; Consent; United Will; Kant; Hobbes.


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Las Torres de Lucca. Revista Internacional de Filosofía Política © 2018.
ISSN-e 2255-3827