PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

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The Social Contract Theory is a philosophical concept that delves into individuals’ moral and political obligations regarding their agreement or contract with society. 

According to this theory, individuals willingly surrender a portion of their freedom in exchange for protection and security provided by society or the government. In the case of motorcycle helmet laws, this theory prompts us to question the delicate balance between personal freedoms and the collective well-being of society.

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

Thomas Hobbes, a prominent philosopher who subscribed to the Social Contract Theory, held a rather pessimistic view of human nature. When left to their own devices, he believed that people would act solely in their self-interests to ensure their survival. 

In his eyes, the state of nature was characterized by chaos and fear, as individuals could not protect themselves from harm. Hobbes argued that people needed a stable and all-powerful government with strict laws and regulations to maintain order and protect them from their inherently destructive tendencies. 

Given Hobbes’ perspective, it is likely that he would have supported current motorcycle helmet laws. From his viewpoint, these laws would be seen as necessary government interventions to safeguard individuals’ well-being.

On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another influential thinker who advocated for the Social Contract Theory, held a more optimistic view of human nature. Rousseau believed that individuals were born as blank slates, inherently good and innocent, and a society corrupted them over time. 

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

He emphasized the natural inclination of people to work together and cooperate rather than engage in conflict and aggression toward one another. Rousseau was highly critical of governments and believed that political institutions caused violence and strife. 

He argued that society should strive to live in harmony with our innate instincts and the laws of nature. According to Rousseau, the purpose of government should be to represent the people’s will and create a harmonious society. 

He advocated for a form of democracy in which the desires and preferences of the majority would guide governmental actions for the betterment of the people. Given Rousseau’s perspective, it is likely that he would have been against motorcycle helmet laws. 

He would argue that individuals should be free to make decisions regarding their bodies and personal safety without government interference.

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

The fundamental difference between Hobbes and Rousseau lies in their views on human nature. Hobbes saw people as inherently dangerous without the control of a government, while Rousseau believed that individuals were inherently good until corrupted by societal influences. These differing views on human nature shape their perspectives on society and the role of government.

When considering the issue of motorcycle helmet laws, it is essential to examine the prevalence of these laws across the United States. Currently, only three states—Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire—have no specific rules regarding helmet use. 

In contrast, 19 states and the District of Columbia mandate that all motorcyclists wear helmets. Many other states, including Wisconsin, where the author resides, require helmet use for motorcyclists and passengers under 18. These laws are designed to protect minors who may not fully comprehend the potential consequences of not wearing a helmet.

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that wearing motorcycle helmets can significantly reduce the likelihood of traumatic brain injuries by 41-69 percent. 

Furthermore, helmet use has been shown to decrease fatalities in motorcycle accidents by 22-42 percent. Despite these compelling statistics, numerous motorcycle accidents still result in deaths due to the inherent lack of protection for riders compared to individuals traveling in enclosed vehicles.

According to the federal government’s data, motorcycle deaths occur approximately 29 times more frequently than car deaths per mile traveled.

Motorcycle helmet laws are comparable to seatbelt laws, as both aim to protect individuals from injury. They are legislative measures developed for the greater good and the safety of society as a whole. 

In the Social Contract Theory context, several questions arise regarding the justification, support, and potential infringement upon individual liberties posed by helmet laws. 

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

Do these laws truly protect enough people to warrant their implementation? Are they generally supported by the individuals they aim to protect? Do these laws overstep the boundaries of personal freedoms?

Considering the divergent laws across states in the United States, one could argue, from Rousseau’s perspective, that the people’s will might not generally support helmet laws. 

Consequently, such laws might lack legitimacy. On the contrary, Hobbes’ viewpoint could justify helmet laws, as they aim to promote the greater good and necessitate specific individuals sacrificing their freedoms for public safety.

I align myself more with Rousseau’s perspective regarding government and motorcycle helmet laws. Although these laws may offer protection to a specific group of people, I believe this group is relatively small compared to the broader scope of seatbelt laws, for instance. 

Regarding helmet laws, the primary individual at risk is the motorcyclist themselves, as helmet usage does not significantly impact the safety of other road users. 

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

The benefits of wearing a helmet in terms of protecting the individual rider are relatively minor compared to the potential infringement on personal freedoms. Motorcyclists often seek the sense of freedom and unique experience that riding without a helmet provides. 

For the government to impose mandatory helmet-wearing, which offers limited additional protection, goes against our freedoms and, in my view, raises ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, as members of society, we have a social contract with one another and an obligation to adhere to the laws enacted by our government, similar to Hobbes’ viewpoint. Disagreeing with a law does not exempt one from the responsibility to follow it. 

The act of disregarding or disobeying the law violates the principles of the social contract. If one disagrees with a law, other avenues, such as voting and advocating for change, are available to work towards amending or abolishing the law through legal means.

PHI 2000 Unit 9 Social Ethics in Action

In conclusion, the debate surrounding motorcycle helmet laws brings to the forefront the conflicting perspectives of Hobbes and Rousseau within the framework of the Social Contract Theory. 

While Hobbes’ view emphasizes the role of government in protecting individuals and maintaining social order, Rousseau’s perspective emphasizes personal freedoms and individual choices. Striking a balance between these perspectives requires carefully examining the potential benefits to society and the possible infringement upon personal liberties.


Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) & Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). (May 2018). Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws: Map. Retrieved from

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2015). The Elements of Moral Philosophy (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Universal Motorcycle Helmet Laws. Retrieved from