The idea of the social contract has typically been seen in political theory as legitimating the exercise of governmental power and creating the moral basis for political order. Mark Button wants to draw our attention to an equally crucial, but seldom emphasized, role for the social contract: its educative function in cultivating the habits and virtues that citizens need to fulfill the promises that the social contract represents.
In this book, he retells the story of social contract theory as developed by some of its major proponents—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls—highlighting this constructive feature of the theory in order to show that not only do citizens make the social contract, but the social contract also makes citizens.
Button’s interest in recovering this theme from past political theory is not merely historical, however. He means to resurrect our concern for it so that we can better understand the political-institutional and cultural-ethical conditions necessary for balancing individual freedom and common citizenship in our modern world of moral pluralism. Drawing on the history of public reason, Button shows how political justification continues to depend upon an ethics of character formation and why this matters for citizens today.