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Hobbes and Locke Social Contract Theory Essay

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are two of the most influential political philosophers of the modern age. Their ideas on political philosophy, among other ideas, have helped shaped the Western World, as we know it. One of the most important theories that the two have both discussed, and written in detail on, is the idea of the social contract. Social Contract Theory is the view that moral and/or political duties depend on a contract that leads to the formation of a civil society.

Thomas Hobbes was the first person to come up with the idea of a social contract in his text, Leviathan. As with any concept in history, other political philosophers have used Hobbes’ theory as a stepping-stone. One of those men is John Locke, who presents a very different account of how it is civil society is formed. Although both men have very different accounts on the social contract notion, there are some similarities between the two. Before putting pen to paper Hobbes had a front row seat to a quintessential moment in early English history—the English Civil War.

The war was a dispute between King Charles I and his followers, the Monarchists and the Parliamentarians. The Monarchists preferred the traditional authority of the king, while the Parliamentarians demanded more power for Parliament, England’s quasi-democratic institution. Hobbes is somewhere in between the two groups with his own set of views. Hobbes believed that political authority is based on the self-interest of the members of the society, all of who are considered equal. He argued that no single individual had the power to rule over the rest.

He also backed the conservative point of view that the sovereign must have absolute authority in order for society to last without disruption. It is in the rejection of the Monarchist point of view, that Hobbes and Locke find their first similarity. Both authors sought out to refute the positions presented by Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, regarding the issue of the Divine Right of Kings. Filmer believed that God gave absolute authority to the king. Since God gives the power to the king, political society focused on obeying God unconditionally.

Although Hobbes did agree that it was necessary for a king to have absolute authority in order to keep the people in line, he believed that authority came from the people living in the community and not God. Locke’s most influential political writings come from his Two Treatises On Government. His First Treatise is focused almost entirely on rejecting Filmer’s theory. Locke is in line with Hobbes in his belief that political authority comes from the consent of the governed.

Along with this similarity, both men also agree on the idea that those people in a State of Nature will willingly consent to coming together to form a political society. They also agree on the belief that people would live in fear of each other regardless of their ability to use reason. Human nature allows men to be selfish. All people have the natural right to defend their own life, liberty, health and property. This fear is what leads many people to come together and form a state so that there would be a central authority to protect their life, liberty, health and property of all people within society.

Along with creating the outline for the social contract theory, Hobbes was also a major contribution to the idea of the State of Nature, a hypothetical situation used to show how people lived before the establishment of society. In the State of Nature, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” characterized by self-interest and the absence of rights and laws (Hobbes 89). Hobbes believed that man was fundamentally evil and required a central authority to keep them out of the conditions of the state of nature. Locke, on the other hand, saw individuals as exercising moral limits over their actions.

In order to answer the question of why the people should be willing to submit to political authority, Hobbes uses the idea of a State of Nature. This is a completely hypothetical situation through which he imagines what life was like for men before the establishment of civil society. In the State of Nature, men are naturally and entirely self interested, resources are limited and there is no power that forces the people to follow the rules of society. Men are also considered equal to one another in that even the strongest man can be killed in his sleep.

There is no ability for men to ensure the satisfaction of their needs and desires as humans, and no prolonged systems of cooperation among men. The state of nature is a state of constant fear and distrust, or as Hobbes puts it “a state of perpetual and unavoidable war” (Hobbes 90). Based on the previous definition of the State of Nature, it would seem that mankind is doomed for eternity. However, hope is not lost. Using the power of reason, they are able to understand the laws of nature, which lead man out of the state of nature and into civil society.

A Law of Nature, (Lex Naturalis), is a Precept, or generall rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. (Hobbes 91) The first rule of nature is to seek peace when others are also willing to follow in the quest for peace, “That every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre” (Hobbes 92).

In the pages leading up to the natural laws, Hobbes describes what it is that drives us to seek peace. “The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them” (Hobbes 90). These are the things that lead people out of the state of nature and into forming a political society. People want protection of their bodies, property, and commodious living. It is through reason that men are led to the construction of a Social Contract, allowing for a life better then in the State of Nature.

The social contract is formed through the establishment of two other contracts. The first contract is that they must agree to establish society by renouncing the rights that they had in the State of Nature. The second is that they must choose a single person, or an assembly of people, that will have the authority to enforce the various parts of the contract. The sovereign has the power to punish those who violate the social contract, which leads people to adjust themselves to the rules of their society.

In order to understand the purpose of the Social Contract, Hobbes sets forth a definition of a commonwealth, or civil society: And in him consisteth the Essence of the Commonwealth; which (to define it,) is One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence.

(Locke 121) Without a common power to exercise force, society would be the same as it was while in the State of Nature. The Social Contract is considered to be the fundamental source within society for all that is good, along with being the force that allows us to live well. On the opposite side of the spectrum is another major figure in political philosophy, Locke. Locke’s views are very different from that of Hobbes, besides the fact that Locke uses the State of Nature concept created by Hobbes.

For Locke, the State of Nature is a state of complete and perfect liberty to live the best life possible, while being free from interference from others. We must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man. (Locke 5) In this state of equality no person has any power over any one else—everyone is subjectively equal.

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke 5). The state of nature is not a state of license, or a state of authority, in that individuals have the ability to do whatever they want. Although this society is pre-government, morals guide the laws of nature. God gives the natural laws to commands and us that we do not harm others, since we are all equal in the eyes of God.

For Locke, the State of Nature is more like a state of liberty that allows the people to pursue their own interests free from interference. It is considered a peaceful state because of the natural laws and its restrictions on the people. Hobbes saw the State of Nature as being a state of constant war, a drastic change compared to the views presented by Locke. Although Locke’s state is predominantly peaceful, there is potential for a State of War. According to Locke, the State of War starts between two or more people when one person declares war on the other.

This is usually done by stealing something from the other, or trying to make another man a slave. Since there is no central power to mediate the dispute and the laws of nature allow for self-defense, people are allowed to kill anyone that brings force against them. Without a force to mediate, the duration of wars is much longer and more brutal. Political societies form when men come together in the State of Nature, and agree to give up their power to punish those who disobey the laws of nature and give that power to a central authority. It is through this that the people consent to the will of the majority.

Through leaving the state of nature and forming a society, the people create a “one body politic under one government” and are thus subjected to the will of that particular “body” (Locke 55). The only way for one to become part of society is through our own individual consent, meaning we cannot be forced to join the society. By joining a society, people gain a few things that they lacked in the State of Nature. These aspects consist of laws, a judge to settle disputes regarding laws and most importantly an executive power to enforce the law.

The executive power is created for the protection of the people, their property and general well being. It is when this protection is non-existent, or the King becomes a tyrant by acting against the interest of the people, that the contract can be thrown away. It is with this that the process of establishing a social contract can begin once again, and also the power. Both Hobbes and Locke agree on the fact that people living in a state of nature will come together to form a contract amongst themselves, which ultimately leads to the establishment of society.

Both Hobbes and Locke also agreed that people living in a state of nature would be living in a constant state of fear of one another before society is established. Hobbes has a much darker view of Human Nature, seeing them as inherently evil, while Locke viewed man as being guided by “rational self-interest” with the ability to self-govern without the Leviathan watching over you. These two figures have helped shape our modern systems of government among many other things.


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