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Social contract theorists: Hobbes vs. Rousseau Essay

Thomas Hobbes believes that all people are naturally evil, hostile, and self-seeking whereas Jean Jacques Rousseau claims that all people are naturally good people and generally happy. I plan to prove that Rousseau has the stronger position of the two contract theorists.

Thomas Hobbes claims all people are hostile and naturally self-seeking. Hobbes’s claims when two people have a desire for the same resource the natural result is war. The state of nature, as deemed by Hobbes, is the “natural condition of mankind” that what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in a never-ending pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In the state of nature, no security is possible and life is full of horror, because of this they want to leave the state of nature. Hobbes defines a “natural man” as an inhabitant of the state of nature who escape from their natural condition by making a contract with each other to create the Leviathan.

Two natural passions enable people to escapes the state of nature: fear and reason. Fear makes the natural man want to escape the state of nature; reason shows him how to escape. Reason provides the natural laws that Hobbes develops; “A natural law” is defined as a general rule discovered by reason that forbids a person from doing anything destructive to her own life and gives her the right of self-preservation. A few of the laws of nature are as follows. 1) the natural man, in order to preserve life, must seek peace. 2) We must mutually give up certain rights (such as the right to take another person’s life) in order to escape the state of horror in nature. 3) it is not enough to simply make contracts, but we are required to keep the contracts we make.

Because the laws of nature state that human beings must strive for peace, this is how the social contract comes into play. In the social contract, people surrender certain rights on the condition that others do likewise i.e. I will agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me. People agreeing to the contract maintain only those rights over others that they are content for everyone else to maintain over them. In exchange for giving up these rights, people now have the protection of the Sovereign from each other and outside forces as well.

When people leave the state of nature they form the social contract and agree to give power over to the Sovereign who is the head of the Leviathan, this is the form of a just political state. This sovereign would be recognized by the people as part of the contract, given the individual powers and wills of all, and authorized to punish anyone who breaks the contract. The sovereign controls with absolute authority. The threat of punishment reinforces the mandates of the laws of nature, and ensures the function of the social contract.

Some of the rights of a sovereign are as follows: 1) Subjects owe him sole loyalty. 2) Subjects cannot be freed from their obligation to him. 3) Dissenters must give in to the majority in declaring a sovereign. 4) The sovereign cannot be unjust or injure any innocent subject. 5) The sovereign cannot be put to death. 6) The sovereign determines what ideas are acceptable and may censor ideas that are offensive to the peace (ideas that may cause conflict within the population). According to Hobbes, there are three kinds of sovereign authority established by agreement: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Of the three possible versions of the Leviathan, Hobbes believes that monarchy is the best choice.

The only way to dissolve of the sovereign is if she is no longer able to fulfill the function of protection, if this happens the commonwealth will collapse and subjects are no longer bound by the contract to the sovereign. At this point people have returned to the state of nature and must create a new contract.

The main problem with the arguments presented by Hobbes is his justification for civil society. If people are truly motivated by self-interest then it would be very improbable that stable societies could form. This is simply because people would be more inclined to break the laws if doing so would be to their advantage. Those whose task it was to enforce the law would do so in a way to benefit themselves not the common good.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that in the state of nature, people are generally happy. He believes that many of the problems facing humanity are caused and perpetuated by society rather then solved by it. While he believes that sometimes it may be sensible to give up some certain rights to the state to maximize one’s gain, he disagrees with a social contract that is favored by Hobbes. Rousseau believes that men in state of nature are driven entirely by instinct and not at all by reason.

Men in the state of nature are characterized by equality, amorality, and absolute freedom to live according to instinct. Rousseau believes that while people are basically happy in the state of nature, he emphasizes that one is heavily influenced by one’s environment. He also believes that in societies people are driven to engage in certain unfavorable behaviors that they would not have been driven to do in the state of nature. People in the state of nature are further characterized by isolation, cooperativeness, a concern with self-preservation, general contentedness, compassion and an absence of greed or ambition.

People only feel the need to leave the state of nature, according to Rousseau, when they begin to desire more then what they need; because of this, societies form. Once societies form, people are faced with new concepts of property, justice/morality and social inequality. With the emergence of these new concepts, people become less rational, less compassionate, jealous, greedy and cruel. With the concept of property, a state of war emerges, and with this state of war, we need a political society to get out of it. In joining a political society, one gives up all of the rights that one had in the state of nature. According to Rousseau there are only two kinds of political societies, one legitimate and one not, and only legitimate societies serve the common good. Rousseau uses several criteria to determine whether a society is legitimate. First, do one’s gains from joining a society outweigh what one loses by giving up the freedoms that one had in the state of nature? Second, in an illegitimate society, the majority loses more by joining society than they gain. Third, illegitimate societies are also the cause of the greatest evils of humanity, wars.

In order to join the society, every person must give their consent, in giving consent, they are allowing the laws of society to be made by general will, determined by majority vote. Rousseau defines two types of will, general will, which is desiring what is best for the common good; and particular will, desiring what is in one’s own self-interest. While Rousseau believes that everyone has a general and a particular will, one’s particular will may or may not be the same as one’s general will. These ideas would then form the laws that would serve the common good rather than any particular good. Rousseau believes that every citizen has a duty to vote in accordance with his general will and not his particular will.

The majority rules in a legitimate society (i.e., express the general will) unless there are powerful factions. The Sovereign for Rousseau is all of the members of a society whose actions represent the general will. In voting for anything in a legitimate society, an individual is actually giving his opinion as to what the general will is. When his vote opposes that of the majority, he has been mistaken about what the general will is. He can be forced to comply with the general will because this makes him more free (i.e., because it’s in his best interest). The main problem with Rousseau’s position is that it is difficult to know what one’s general will is, i.e. it is difficult to know what is truly for common interest.

Rousseau has the stronger position over Hobbes. Hobbes believes that people naturally act out of self-interest, so if this is true, how could civil societies form? People would break the laws if it was beneficial to them, and those entrusted to enforce the laws would do so to help themselves. Yes, people are required to obey the sovereign, however, if it is not in their best interest, why do it? In the state of nature they were truly free with absolutely no suppression. The only benefit of leaving the state of nature was protection from each other, but even in the societies that is not fully guaranteed because if it is in the best interest of someone to kill you, because according to Hobbes people only act out of self-interest, they will do it because at the moment it is in their best interest.

Rousseau, on the other hand, believes that people are generally happy in the state of nature and people are generally good. If this is true, when there is a need for a society, people are generally going to obey the laws and work with one another and there will be no need for a sovereign to rule with an iron fist because people will want to do what’s best for everyone, not simply what’s in their own best interest. One may argue that a collapsed state of government results in mass chaos, looting etc, one may say that these types of situations e.g.

Iraq are examples that Hobbes has the stronger position, however I disagree. People are socialized to function under the rule of government and that is all they know; so when a government collapses people do not know how to act and therefore there is mass chaos. If people were not socialized to only function under government there would be no chaos. Surely, as humans are the most intelligent species on this planet, if animals are capable of natural unhindered compassion for another animal not even of their own kind, human beings are just as capable.

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