Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Loren E. Lomaskya1

a1 Philosophy, University of Virginia


Contract is the dominant model for political philosophy's understanding of government grounded on the consent of the governed. However, there are at least five disabilities attached to classical social contract theory: (1) the grounding contract never actually occurred; (2) its provisions are vague and contestable; (3) the stringency of the obligation thereby established is dubious; (4) trans-generational consent is questionable; (5) interpretive methods for giving effect to the contract are ill-specified. By contrast, the biblical story of the covenant Israel embraces at Sinai is shown to be more adequately attentive to each of these five desiderata. The essay then focuses on the U.S. Constitution, arguing that in many ways it is more reflective of covenantal legitimating themes than those of social contract. The result is a promisingly different mode of understanding government by the consent of the governed.

Loren E. Lomasky is Cory Professor of Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law Program. He previously taught at Bowling Green State University and the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and has held visiting positions at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Australian National University, the Australian Defence Force Academy, and the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (1987), for which he was awarded the 1990 Matchette Prize. His other books include Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (coauthored with Geoffrey Brennan, 1993), and Politics and Process: New Essays in Democratic Theory (coedited with Geoffrey Brennan, 1989).


I am indebted to Stewart Braun, Noah Greenfield, and Louis Lomasky for critiques of a previous draft. They are not, of course, responsible for errors of fact or interpretation offered herein. Ellen Paul's nonpareil editorial services have once again gently guided me across the compositional Red Sea and into the Promised Land of a finished manuscript. To her I owe thanks and probably also a few sets of tennis.