Social vs. Legal Contracts: Unraveling the Differences

Social Contracts vs. Legal Contracts: Understanding the Differences

Social Contracts vs. Legal Contracts: Understanding the Differences


In the realm of human interactions, social contracts and legal contracts play crucial roles in defining rights, obligations, and expectations. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties that sets out the terms and conditions of their relationship. It establishes rights and obligations for each party and provides a framework for resolving disputes.

There are two types of contracts that are often discussed: social contracts and legal contracts. Understanding the distinctions between these two types of agreements is vital to navigating the complexities of society.  This article delves into the difference between social contracts and legal contracts, exploring their definitions, examples, and key provisions.

Understanding Social Contracts

Social contracts are informal agreements that exist within societies and govern relationships and expectations among individuals. These contracts are not legally binding but are based on moral and social norms. They encompass a wide range of interactions, from political arrangements to societal customs.

A social contract is an implicit agreement among members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, such as peace, security, and mutual protection. It is not a written document, but rather a tacit understanding between members of a community. The concept of a social contract dates back to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that individuals in a society agree to surrender some of their individual rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and security provided by the state.

The social contract is not enforceable by law, but it is essential for the functioning of a society. The social contract is the basis for the moral and ethical principles that govern social behavior. It is the foundation of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. The social contract is an unwritten understanding that forms the basis of the relationship between individuals and their government.

Definition of Social Contract:

According to "The Social Contract" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

"The social contract is an agreement among individuals that forms the basis of their moral and political rights and obligations towards each other and towards the society they live in. It is a mutual agreement where individuals willingly give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for the protection and benefits provided by society as a whole."

Key Features and Characteristics of Social Contracts:

Social contracts are characterized by their voluntary nature, collective scope, and reciprocity. They are based on mutual trust and shared expectations. While not enforceable by law, social contracts rely on the cooperation and consensus of the individuals involved.

Scope of Social Contracts:

The scope of a social contract is broader than that of a legal contract. The social contract governs the relationship between individuals and the state, and it establishes the moral and ethical principles that govern social behavior. The social contract is the basis for the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.

Kinds of social contracts

There are various kinds of social contracts that exist in society. While the term "social contract" can have different interpretations, here are some common examples:

Political Social Contract:

This refers to the implicit agreement between the citizens and the government in a society. It establishes the rights and responsibilities of both parties, such as the government's duty to protect citizens' rights and the citizens' obligation to follow laws and contribute to society.

Constitutional Social Contract:

This type of social contract involves the relationship between the government and its citizens as defined by a constitution. It outlines the powers and limitations of the government, as well as the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens.

Economic Social Contract:

This refers to the understanding and expectations related to economic interactions within a society. It involves agreements and expectations regarding labor rights, fair wages, consumer protection, and the redistribution of wealth.

Professional or Occupational Social Contract:

This type of social contract exists within specific professions or occupational groups. It establishes the expectations, duties, and ethical standards for professionals in a particular field, such as doctors, lawyers, or teachers.

Is marriage a social contract?

it can be considered a form of social contract. Marriage is a culturally and legally recognized union between individuals that establishes rights, obligations, and expectations. While the specific terms and conditions of marriage can vary across cultures and legal systems, it generally involves a commitment to love, support, and share life with one another.

Marriage often involves legal implications, such as property rights, inheritance, and spousal support. Additionally, it carries social and cultural expectations regarding fidelity, partnership, and family-building. While marriage can be seen as a social contract, it is important to note that it is often accompanied by emotional and personal dimensions that go beyond the legal and social aspects.

Examples of Social contracts:

A social contract is an implicit understanding among members of a community. Here are some examples of social contracts:


The social contract between citizens and their government is a fundamental example. Citizens agree to follow laws, pay taxes, and abide by societal norms, while the government agrees to protect citizens' rights, provide essential services, and maintain order and security.

Social Welfare:

The social contract between the state and its citizens often includes provisions for social welfare. Citizens contribute through taxes to support programs such as healthcare, education, unemployment benefits, and social assistance. In return, the state aims to ensure the well-being and quality of life for its citizens.

Public Safety:

The social contract related to public safety involves citizens agreeing to obey laws, respecting the rights and well-being of others, and cooperating with law enforcement agencies. In turn, the government is responsible for maintaining law and order, protecting citizens from crime, and providing a fair justice system.

Environmental Stewardship:

The social contract regarding the environment entails an understanding that individuals have a responsibility to preserve and protect the environment for future generations. This can involve commitments to sustainable practices, conservation efforts, and reducing pollution and waste.

Workplace Expectations:

The social contract within the workplace is an agreement between employers and employees. Employees agree to perform their job responsibilities, follow workplace rules, and contribute to the success of the organization. Employers, in turn, agree to provide fair compensation, safe working conditions, and opportunities for professional growth.

Academic Institutions:

The social contract within academic institutions, such as schools and universities, involves students, teachers, and administrators. Students agree to attend classes, complete assignments, and follow academic regulations, while teachers and institutions commit to providing quality education, guidance, and a conducive learning environment.

Community Engagement:

The social contract within communities involves members agreeing to be good neighbors, participate in community activities, and contribute to collective well-being. This can include volunteering, respecting common spaces, and fostering social cohesion.

Case Laws on Social Contracts:

Constitution as a social contract:

Constitution in essence was a social contract amongst the people to politically organize themselves into a State identifying the relationship between the citizens and the State and the rights retained by the people and guaranteed unto them. Constitution created and identified the State institutions upon which the State sovereignty was distributed and the mode and limitation for the exercise thereof. [2015 PLD  401 Supreme Court]

Constitution is a social contract with regard, to the four pillars of the society: Legislature; Executive; Judiciary, and the People of Pakistan. [2005  PLD  381 LAHORE]

Right of life:

"Right of life" as contemplated in Art. 9 of the Constitution, would include right to live with basic human dignity and all that goes with it i.e., bare necessities of life. The constitution itself being a document of social contract , to seek justice was the right of the weakest. [1998  CLC 1099 Lahore]

Persons with Different Abilities (PWDs): Duty of State to protect rights of PWDs:

When the State fails to protect the rights of PWDs, it amounts to defiance and failure from its pledge made through a social contract with the citizens. The state must distinguish and address the abilities and inabilities of citizens to obliterate the challenges which hamper their meaningful exercise of Fundamental Rights as provided and guaranteed to them by the Constitution. The state being the provider, the Government being an executor and the Judicature being the custodian of the Fundamental Rights cannot absolve themselves of their responsibilities towards the PWDs. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2008, Arts. 9, 13. [2022  PLD  346 LAHORE]

Non-refund of the fee

Non-refund of fees to any student who left the institution at the very initial stage was harsh and against the principles of natural justice. One of the features of the social contract i.e. Constitution of Pakistan was to eliminate exploitation. Non-refund of the fee of the candidate is tantamount to exploitation, resulting in an infringement of constitutionally guaranteed rights to citizens of Pakistan. [2012  MLD  1289 Islamabad]

Duty of care:

Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) - United Kingdom: This case established the legal principle of duty of care in negligence. It emphasized the social contract between manufacturers and consumers, holding that manufacturers have a responsibility to produce safe products that do not cause harm to consumers.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) - United States:

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case. This significant case ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. It was one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement and helped establish the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all. It demonstrated the evolving nature of the social contract, emphasizing equality and non-discrimination as core principles within society.

R v. Oakes (1986) - Canada:

This case established the "Oakes test," a legal framework for determining the constitutionality of infringements on fundamental rights and freedoms. It demonstrated the importance of a justifiable and proportionate balance between individual rights and the interests of society within the social contract

Understanding Legal Contracts

Legal contracts, on the other hand, are formal agreements recognized and enforceable by law. They involve specific parties, clear terms and conditions, and legal remedies in case of a breach. Legal contracts provide certainty, stability, and legal protection for the parties involved.

A legal contract is a written or oral agreement between two or more parties that is legally binding. The agreement establishes the rights and obligations of the parties and provides a mechanism for resolving disputes. Legal contracts can be enforced by law, and failure to comply with the terms of a contract can result in legal action.

A legal contract must meet certain requirements to be enforceable by law. It must be entered into voluntarily by all parties, without coercion or duress. The terms of the contract must be clear and specific, and all parties must agree to them. The contract must also be supported by consideration, which is something of value that is exchanged between the parties.

Scope of a legal contract:

The scope of a legal contract is limited to the terms of the agreement between the parties. It establishes the rights and obligations of the parties and provides a mechanism for resolving disputes. Legal contracts can be enforced by law, but they do not govern the broader social relationship between individuals and the state.

Elements and Requirements of Legal Contracts:

For a contract to be legally binding, it must meet certain requirements, including:

  • Offer: One party must make a clear and unequivocal offer.
  • Acceptance: The other party must accept the offer without any conditions or modifications.
  • Consideration: There must be an exchange of something valuable between the parties.
  • Capacity: The parties entering into the contract must have the legal capacity to do so.
  • Intention: Both parties must have the intention to create a legal relationship.

Examples of Legal contracts:

A legal contract is a written or oral agreement between two or more parties that is legally binding.  Here are some examples of legal contracts:

Purchase Agreement:

A purchase agreement is a legal contract between a buyer and a seller that outlines the terms and conditions of the purchase or sale of goods or services. It includes details such as the parties involved, the price, payment terms, delivery arrangements, warranties, and any other relevant terms.

Employment Contract:

An employment contract is a legal agreement between an employer and an employee that governs the terms of their employment relationship. It typically includes details such as job responsibilities, compensation, working hours, benefits, termination provisions, and other employment-related terms.

Lease Agreement:

A lease agreement is a contract between a landlord and a tenant that establishes the terms and conditions of renting a property. It specifies the duration of the lease, rental payments, maintenance responsibilities, terms of renewal or termination, and any additional terms or restrictions.

Loan Agreement:

A loan agreement is a contract between a lender and a borrower that outlines the terms of a loan, including the principal amount, interest rate, repayment terms, collateral, and any other provisions related to the loan.

Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA):

An NDA is a contract that establishes a confidential relationship between parties and protects sensitive information from being disclosed to third parties. It sets forth the terms and conditions regarding the sharing and use of confidential information, as well as the consequences of any unauthorized disclosure.

Service Agreement:

A service agreement is a contract between a service provider and a client that defines the terms of the services to be provided. It covers aspects such as scope of work, payment terms, deliverables, timelines, intellectual property rights, and any other relevant terms specific to the services being rendered.

Partnership Agreement:

A partnership agreement is a contract between two or more individuals or entities who agree to operate a business together as partners. It outlines the rights, responsibilities, profit-sharing arrangements, decision-making processes, and other important terms governing the partnership.

Franchise Agreement:

A franchise agreement is a contract between a franchisor and a franchisee that allows the franchisee to operate a business using the franchisor's established brand, business model, and intellectual property. It covers aspects such as fees, territorial rights, obligations of both parties, marketing support, and quality control requirements.

Differences between Social Contracts and Legal Contracts

While both social contracts and legal contracts involve agreements between parties, there are notable differences between them::

Scope and Enforceability:

Social contracts: Social contracts are based on moral and social norms and are not legally enforceable. They rely on the voluntary compliance and cooperation of individuals within a society.

Legal contracts: Legal contracts are enforceable by law and provide legal remedies in case of a breach. They offer a higher level of certainty and protection due to their binding nature.

Formation and Requirements:

Social contracts: Social contracts are typically formed through mutual understanding, collective consensus, and adherence to societal customs and norms. They do not require formalities or specific legal elements.

Legal contracts: Legal contracts require certain elements to be valid and enforceable, such as offer, acceptance, consideration, capacity, and intention. They often require formalities like written documentation, signatures, and compliance with specific legal requirements.

Parties and Obligations:

Social contracts: Social contracts involve collective obligations and expectations within a community or society. The parties involved are typically the members of that community, and the obligations are based on shared values and norms.

Legal contracts: Legal contracts involve specific parties with defined roles and responsibilities. The obligations and rights of each party are clearly outlined in the contract, and they are legally binding upon the parties involved.

Remedies and Dispute Resolution:

Social contracts: In the event of a breach of a social contract, resolution often relies on informal mechanisms, such as social pressure, reputation, or informal mediation. There may not be specific legal remedies available.

Legal contracts: Legal contracts provide a range of legal remedies and mechanisms for dispute resolution, such as mediation, arbitration, or litigation. The courts can enforce the terms of a legal contract and provide remedies for non-compliance.


In conclusion, social contracts and legal contracts serve distinct purposes in society, shaping human interactions and governing relationships. While social contracts are based on moral and social norms, legal contracts are formal agreements enforceable by law. Social contracts operate through collective understanding and voluntary compliance, while legal contracts provide legal remedies and legal protection.

Understanding the difference between social contracts and legal contracts is essential for navigating various aspects of life, from citizenship and community engagement to business transactions and employment relationships. By recognizing the scope, formation, parties, obligations, and remedies associated with each type of contract, individuals can effectively navigate their rights and responsibilities in society. Whether it's the implicit agreements between citizens and their government, the commitments to social welfare and environmental stewardship, or the formal contracts governing business transactions and employment relationships, social contracts and legal contracts are fundamental to the functioning of societies worldwide.

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