Instead of starting with some imagined state of nature, I want to start with evolutionary theory and anthropology. From evolutionary theory humans have evolved from some common ancestor with chimps. And since chimps are social so were our ancestors. Moreover, human languages are social products and reflect — to use Wittgenstein’S phrase — a form of life.
Reflecting on anthropological findings, it is reasonable to generalize that humans are tribal animals. As such, they have always lived in a rule-guided manner, which are called customs and mores. And from an external perspective tribal life can be characterized by conformity. If we wish, we can characterize this conformity as tacit or implicit consent. Karl Popper called this state of affairs “tribalism” in a disparaging manner because this form of life, he thought, did not allow for pluralism and criticism. This may very well be true about particular matters, such as religion. But I am sure that there must have been some disagreements about where to go foraging or modes of hunting and with which tools or weapons, and which person was worthy of consultation, or even about which plants to avoid as poisonous or unhealthy.
John Locke, as everyone else, agrees that the primary concern of a normal human being is self-preservation. And self-preservation is better secured within a group. And what preserves life is air, water, food, temperature, and shelter. And as Rousseau put it, whoever wills an end; wills the means. And the means to satisfy the above needs is access to subsistence territory. So, if we wish to use such language, there is a tacit agreement that everyone in the tribe is allowed (is permitted, has a right) to access this subsistence territory. John Locke also stresses the rule that everyone is permitted to take from nature whatever one needs as long as there is as much left for everyone else. But, appealing to anthropological finding, not only is this permitted (a right), but there also prevail customs of gift giving and sharing (or, as Kropotkin put it: “mutual aid.”)
As to interpersonal conduct or morals, intratribal conduct can be summarized by the Christian rule: do unto others as you would them do unto you. Tribes live not merely by a negative rule: No person x is allowed to harm another person y (except for self-defense or the defense of others), but also by a positive rule to be of help to others.
What I have said above captures the meaning of what Rousseau means by a General Will. If the people of a tribe were asked to vote whether all the above is acceptable, they would agree. And such a vote would be the Will of All. The General Will is the set of necessary conditions for the preservation of human life in a social context. But this necessity is a factual matter; not a matter of choice and voting.
In summary, in a previous blog, I described primitive tribes by three characteristics: Anarchism, Socialism, and Communism.
The historical purpose of an appeal to a Social Contract is to justify or legitimize a State. Here the matter was muddled by an ambiguous use of the word “government.” In the sense of appealing to authorities for guidance and decision making, tribes resort to different procedures and persons. So, in this sense they are governed.
But States have a different form of government which is historically, for the most part, centralized in a single individual — though Rome and Sparta vested power in two individuals. So, historically, the Social Contract was a juridical fiction for justifying monarchy.
So, we can view a social contract theory in the following manner. If a State of any sort is to be justified then it would have to arise from the common consent of all the members.
But, in fact, all States are illegitimate because none of them arose by a Social Contract, as David Hume pointed out. States arose by conquest, by force; not by free consent. This is the sociological theory of the State as argued for by Franz Oppenheimer in his book, The State.