Social Contract Theory

War of All Against All


So it finally happened. The build-up of an entire season, the tension, and every drop of sweat that came with it, all pointed to the moment where we would meet him: Negan, the man, the legend. The one with a pentient for words, ascots, and bats wrapped in barbed wire who possibly share a name with your grandmother.

Of course some people hated the cliffhanger. Someone was going to die, and God forbid Americans get denied their vicarious bloodshed. But, that’s beside the point. When Negan pointed Lucille at the camera after his pee pee pants city version of eeny meeny miney moe, he did something more than pick which actor was not getting their contract renewed. He was going to murder your very idea of morality with a handful of Hobbesian swings to its head.


Ok, so it’s possible that the writers weren’t thinking about any deep moral implications when they wrote any of it, but they are certainly there at a base level. Negan’s character was, by Robert Kirkman’s admission, supposed to present a kind of moral ambiguity:

Negan is kind. Negan is respectful. Negan is psychotic. Negan is ruthless. This is a very nuanced character that has a lot of different shades to him.

As Rick and Co. were trying to get Maggie to the Hilltop to potentially save her unborn child, most people recoiled and watched in horror as Negan’s Saviors slowly showed their size, cunning, and as Kirkman put it, ruthlessness. These are really, really bad people. I mean sure, Rick murdered a bunch of people in their sleep, but Negan is awful.

Look at Negan’s Saviors, though. Look at how many of them there are. Never before have we seen a group of survivors so large. He has assembled a large group of people under the same flag, and he seems to be able to take care of them all. Isn’t that good and noble? Arguably, up to this point, no one person in the entire show has “saved” as many people as Negan obviously has. If the end goal of a zombie apocalypse is to restart the human race, Negan seems to be fairing much better than anyone else.

So therein lies the greater questions. Is Negan truly bad? How can you tell? How do you know? Really, ask yourself if Negan is bad or wrong. It’s important because the interaction between the Saviors and Rick’s group are not only putting social contract theory on full display, but also because it’s calling into question the very origins of morality.


So, I’ve written a lot about The Walking Dead for the past month or so, and arguably that’s because this season has done for us what it has done for the characters: given us time to think. The viewers were in survival mode as much as the survivors as we watched them being funneled into what seemed like a whole lot of forced choices. Recently, the story has focused on the characters being able to catch their breath for stretches (between Wolves, hordes, and other assorted things) and actually think about what’s going on, allowing us to ponder some of the same things.

In those other musings, I discussed the family being the building block of society and how our fledgling Ricktatorship made its first societal decision to go to war. Inevitably, we now have societies interacting and not just individuals, but how are these societies forming? What is the glue that keeps these societies together that are starting to spring up all over the countryside?

While not explicit, we have seen the manifestation of social contract theory. Social contract theory has been around for a long time in one form or another, but they generally share the idea that societies are created when individuals, upon interacting with other individuals, cede some of their freedom to an authority in exchange for protection of their other freedoms. In essence, theories generally start off with an individual in nature, by himself or herself, and then try to describe why they would enter into society with other individuals. There has to be an original state of man before we can figure out why one would want to join with others.

Even though the roots are deep, the Enlightenment really brought social contract theory into its own, particularly through the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.


Thomas Hobbes was influential on social contract theory through his book, Leviathan.

Dude needs an ascot and some barbed wire around that scepter-thing.

Dude needs an ascot and some barbed wire around that scepter-thing.

In the writing, Hobbes tried to imagine man in his original state, or “state of nature” for the individual, with no government or controlling entity over him. To Hobbes, a person in the state of nature had the right to everything and anything in the world. While that might sound fantastic, it truly isn’t for Hobbes, considering that you probably aren’t alone. If others are out there in the state of nature, they, too, have a right to everything in the world. This ultimately leads to, as Hobbes put it, bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of all against all. It led to his famous description of life in this state:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

An individual, by himself, has no one to answer to but himself, but he is driven by the constant fear of being killed by others who likewise don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. At some point, to remove the most fundamental fear of the individual, two or more people are driven to decide that they will accept not being killed in exchange for their ability to kill others. Society starts off, then, as a form of cold war through mutually assured destruction. Joe gives up his right to kill others without consequence if John also gives up his right to do the same. So, no one kills anyone else not because it is inherently wrong, but rather because they don’t want to be killed. The only way to make sure this rule stays in place is to have some form of governing body to monitor it, and voila, society is born.

Of course it gets more complicated once we get past not murdering each other, but we have to start somewhere. This actually evolved into the theory of realism in international politics, where societies then become like individuals in the state of nature when interacting with other societies in the infinite struggle of maintaining oneself in exchange for not offing your neighbor.


John Locke’s work, although still social contract theory, differed pretty substantially from Hobbes. Whereas they both agreed that people are inclined to form societies out of the state of nature, Locke essentially argued that there was morality to human action prior to the social contract as opposed to evolving from the social contract. To Locke, there was the Law of Nature that dictated action, and what people lacked was the power to protect their own rights from others who violated the Law of Nature. The State, then, would be mutually agreed upon by individuals seeking to protect themselves from those that would seek to injure them.

Natural Law is central to much of Western thought, from the ancient Greeks to Catholic theology. In discussing Natural Law, Cicero put it succinctly (as quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church):

For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense… To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.

In essence, there is an inherent order to nature that is universal and unbreakable. This law exists above and beyond man and, although we may violate the law (and hence why we would want protection from its violation by forming society), it can never be legislated away. As I’ve written before, the idea of Natural Law is actually central to the very foundation of the United States of America.


Why social contract theory is so interesting when held up to The Walking Dead is because we have been witnessing man in the state of nature throughout most of the series. Think about it, if you were a lone survivor wandering through the wilderness (a la Enid eating a turtle), what possibly guides your actions? How can any modern notion of action apply to a situation where there is no actor but yourself? How can modern moral relativism, where we define morality simply by whether or not it hurts others, matter at all when there are no others to hurt?

This is the state that most all survivors are found in, and whether they started as a small group or they were an individual found by others, at some point they gave up a little bit of their freedom of action in that state of being in exchange for greater protection as a member of the group. In Negan’s case, he brokered this exchange under his own authority, as opposed to Rick’s more organic form of coming into a leadership role. Still, each new cast member on the show had, at some point, their social contract moment.

We are seeing, then, the most basic functional society possible in terms of being ostensibly one step removed from individuals in a state of nature. However, now we have the Hobbesian realism where we are simply trading single celled organisms in a state of nature for multi-celled organisms in a state of nature. Conflict may be averted between individuals, but now we have conflicts with societies. So, in a state of nature such as this, how is Negan the “bad guy” of the story?

What the conflict between the Saviors and our survivors is doing is putting the very root of our morality to the test by laying it bare. If morality is relative, if morality has no basis other than being a result of mutually assured destruction via social contract, then you cannot possibly argue that Negan is, in fact, bad. His Saviors are the new collective individual in the state of nature, and with their size, he has no reason to enter into a social contract with Rick’s group. Rick tried, he asked to talk it out, but why should Negan talk anything out? Rick had no power. The tables had turned from when Rick had the upper hand and refused to talk it out while he killed a few Saviors in their sleep. What Negan is showing you is the ultimate end of moral relativity, as this is exactly what it looks like. There is no authority higher than mankind and its social contracts, and Negan has no one to answer to but himself because he controls all of the contracts.

Does that sit well with you? Or do you still feel like Negan is bad, evil, wrong, or all of the above? To argue that individuals in the state of nature still have guiding principles, you would have to acknowledge that there is some authority higher than man. There would have to be some law than man could not alter. Like Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke, you would have to acknowledge a universal constant above our control. In essence, is murder wrong because it violates someone else’s right to life, or is it wrong because we’ve collectively agreed to not murder each other for fear of punishment from our mutually established authority above us? Is there a greater authority above someone like Negan, or is Negan the authority because there is no one higher than him? This is the very internal struggle Carol is now going through on the show as she begins to view her own actions through a different lens. For so long, she killed because there was no higher authority than her own survival. Now, she’s not so sure, and perhaps there is a morality above her own power that she has been flaunting for so long.

We are lucky that most of us already live in a fully functioning society. We don’t have to necessarily worry ourselves with how or why it formed and we can simply enjoy the protection it offers. However, we should never be immune from having to think about any of our actions, and whatever moral code we ascribe to our actions should hold true from the beginning and beyond. Hobbes was often accused of being an atheist for his theories, which he denied, but one can see why that label would hold weight. In a state of nature with free action, there is no right or wrong, and right and wrong are simply societal constructs to protect ourselves from others. For Locke, though, right and wrong are inherent and universal in nature itself, and you can certainly imply divinity there if you felt so inclined.

I won’t guide anyone one way or another, but Negan and the Saviors certainly are the most perfect demonstration of social contract theory and the very foundation of morality. So, is Negan wrong in his actions because his actions are inherently wrong, or is Negan right because there is no one to tell him he’s wrong? In our base state, is it truly a war of all against all, or are we called to be defenders of all against some? Whatever the answer, kudos to Robert Kirkman and The Walking Dead for providing us such a thought provoking character and story.