Hume Studies

Volume 47, Issue 1, April 2022

Sebastian Bender
Pages 103-129

Hume’s Deep Anti-Contractarianism

Hume is an avowed critic of contractarianism. He opposes the idea that a le­gitimate government is based on an “original contract” or on the consent of those who are governed. Most scholars assume, though, that his criticisms apply only to a limited range of contractarian theories, namely to theories according to which actual contractors reach an actual agreement. Theories on which the agreement in question is understood in hypothetical or counterfactual terms, however, are oftentimes seen as being compatible with Hume’s views. Against such interpretations, this paper shows that Hume rejects all contractarian theories, including hypothetical ones. It argues, first, that Hume employs a so far unacknowledged empiricist debunking strategy against contractarianism; if successful, this strategy undermines all variants of contractarianism. Second, it shows that the Humean conception of the state of nature (a topic that has received virtually no scholarly attention) is incompatible with hypothetical contractarianism. Finally, it argues that Hume rejects contractarianism in part because he anticipates a line of criticism which nowadays is often leveled against so-called ideal theory. On Hume’s view, the agreements reached by highly idealized contractors are of little relevance to the non-ideal individuals in the actual world.