- Major Global Relations Essay -
5. Compare and contrast Hobbes and Locke’s social contract theories…


Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were both social contract theorists. Social Contract Theory is the hypothesis that one’s moral obligations are dependent upon an implicit agreement between individuals to form a society (Friend, 2004). Both Hobbes and Locke use a social contract theory as a means of explaining the origin of government. Hobbes and Locke are mainly renowned for their masterpieces on political philosophy; Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatise of Government. Each contains very different conceptions of a social contract however, both retain the central notion that people in a State of Nature would be willing to renounce their liberty for state protection (Kelly, 2004, p. 202). While both assume the State of Nature to be to some extent chaotic, Locke’s State of Nature is far more positive showing his faith in natural law. In contrast Hobbes describes an unbearable environment where the egoistic nature of its inhabitants will generate a state of war. Similarly Hobbes and Locke’s social contracts were constructed primarily to protect citizen’s rights although, their views on who would protect them differed greatly. Hobbes claims society is not sustainable without one central sovereign who holds all power, whereas, Locke argues that this is unreasonable (Adjuct, 2009). Locke believes that power should be separated into specific branches and that those in positions of power should still be beneath the law. Locke’s thesis that government should be separated and consented to essentially inspired Thomas Jefferson’s American Declaration of Independence (McCarthy, 2008).


Both Hobbes and Locke express their main ideas regarding the basis of civilisation on a fictitious ‘State of Nature’. The State of Nature is a term used in political philosophy to describe a hypothetical condition of mankind before the formation of a legitimate government (Mansour, 2006). Hobbes gives a bleak account of what life would be like without the benefits of a social contract. He describes the State of Nature as brutal, where, without the rule of law “man lives in continual fear and danger of violent death” (Hobbes 2008, p. 86) and the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 2008, p. 86). Hobbes also claims that there is no right to property in the State of Nature because no one affords another that right. Hobbes states that in the State of Nature property and possessions would inevitably cause men to become enemies. Hobbes’ State of Nature is in a constant state of war, or fear of war, without a strong common sovereign.
Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. (Hobbes 2008, p. 86)
Hobbes believes that people have equal physical and mental ability to harm, and that people will do so for three reasons… “So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory” (Hobbes 2008, p. 85). This state of constant fear leaves no room for society, because without safety, no one takes steps to improve their lives, only expend all their energy on protecting them. “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain” (Hobbes 2008, p. 86).

Hobbes’ negative view of the State of Nature is derived from his “Psychological Egoism” (Friend, 2004). Hobbes, radically for his time, rejects that obligation is moral but is instead purely based on individual self-interest (Friend, 2004). Hobbes’ rejection of natural law is associated with his agnosticism and inspired by the Scientific Revolution. As people considered the formation of the world without God, Hobbes developed a parallel theory of human nature. His theory was based on the idea that human behaviour is mechanistic, in that it occurs in response to stimuli and interaction, rather than in response to a God’s decree (Friend 2004).


In contrast, Locke is optimistic and conservative, writing of a far more habitable State of Nature where humans act rationally and live in a peaceful, social and moral manner (Landry, 1997). He suggests that our moral duties and rights to life, liberty, and property still exist before a legitimate government is agreed to (Adjunct, 2009). Hobbes and Locke’s opinions therefore differ greatly regarding ‘property’ in the State of Nature. Locke argues that when people use labour to add value to natural resources, private property is created and property rights are respected (Friend, 2004). In Locke’s State of Nature there are restrictions, even without a sovereign, as in his opinion the State of Nature is governed by the “law of nature, which is the law of reason,” (Locke 1824, p.80). Natural law exists independently, similar to Devine Law, and is “a body of unchanging moral principals regarded as a basis for human conduct” (New Oxford American Dictionary online).
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: 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: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker (Locke 1824, p.133).
Unlike Hobbes, Locke believes in the existence of God and argues that the law of nature or a “wise maker” governs the State of Nature. Despite Locke’s trust in natural justice, he still promotes government to better guard natural rights (Landry, 1997). While Hobbes believes humans are motivated by self-interest, he also believes they are rational and will adhere to a sovereign. Once conflict begins in each State of Nature it is most likely to continue without a common authority. For both Hobbes and Locke, this is the primary reason that people abandon the State of Nature and contract together to form a state (Friend, 2004).


In both Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contract theories the population of each State of
Nature will choose to bargain liberty for security, because a more fulfilled life will follow. Hobbes’ social contract theory is based on the notion of a state of social order preventing a decline into the State of Nature (Stokes 2006). In contrast Locke deems a social contract necessary to protect our natural or god-given rights. Both Hobbes and Locke agree that an important function of government is to defend the property rights of its citizens (Kelly, 2004, p.194). Locke is of the view that a significant reason for government and law is to ensure fair policies and punishments. Hobbes, however, believes that the ultimate purpose of law is to establish and explain expectations concerning both the individual and the sovereign (Kelly, 2004, p.193). Hobbes and Locke view violations of the contract differently. In Hobbes’ opinion the sovereign can do no wrong and therefore there is absolutely no right to rebel (D. James). He argues for unconditional obedience to the sovereign because to do otherwise would result in the return of the dangerous State of Nature. Locke however speculates the right of rebellion in case the contract is heading towards tyranny (Adjunct 2009). Locke sees the government’s responsibility to concern itself with the best interest of the public and when this does not seem the case those affected have the right to rebel against the contract and the sovereign. He argues that under no circumstances is a leader rightfully allowed to change the law to suit primarily their own purposes whereas Hobbes condones this form of dictatorship.


A sovereign can be one man or an assembly and is the supreme power (Russell, 2005, p. 505). Hobbes and Locke both reject the concept of ‘divine right’. Despite this Hobbes still maintains the conservative view of absolute monarchy. Hobbes, an agnostic, justifies this as being in the best interest of the contracting parties. Hobbes argues that a social contract is ineffective without a strong cohesive sovereign with absolute authority to enforce it (Friend 2004). Because Hobbes subscribes to a mechanistic account of human psychology where people are all equally capable of causing each other harm, having more than one sovereign will only cause conflict. This is outlined in Hobbes’ Leviathan, which responds directly to ‘dangerous’ political struggles of his day (Kelly, 2004, p. 189). Hobbes believes that the English Civil War arose because power was divided between King, Lords and commons (Russell, 2005, p.505). Consequently, Hobbes deems that to divide power will result in a decline back to the brutal state of war. This is the exact antithesis to Locke’s argument for constitutional monarchy, where rulers are subject to law and have limited power (Adjunct 2009). Locke radically for his time decries Hobbes’ dictum that sovereignty must not be divided (Kelly, 2004, p. 195). Locke advocates that a legitimate government’s power is best limited by dividing government into sections, with each branch having only as much power as necessary for its proper function (Landry 1997). Locke enlightens, through observations of previous political successes, that to create peace, government must be consented to by a vote of the “people” even if the term “people” at that time only included men.

And thus much may suffice to show, that, as far as we have any light from history, we have reason to conclude, that all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in the consent of the people (Locke, 1824, p. 197).


Hobbes and Locke both wrote significant pieces of political philosophy, each displaying their ideas of how and why society should be governed. They expressed their theories by first examining the State of Nature. Both Hobbes and Locke describe the hypothetical condition of mankind prior to the formation of government very differently, but to some extent view it as chaotic. Therefore they agree that a social contract is desirable, particularly for protection. Hobbes maintains that to ensure the social contract’s effectiveness one sovereign must hold all power. Locke disagrees, promoting constitutional monarchy. In Leviathan Hobbes supports his refusal of moral objectivity by referring to past disastrous political decisions and draws from relevant scientific discoveries. Hobbes’ agnostic and mechanistic account of human nature is more relevant than Locke’s claim of natural law. However, the religious subtext of Locke’s Two Treatise of Government would be far more applicable at the time it was written than nowadays. Despite Hobbes’ and Locke’s radical political concepts being considered as revolutionary at the time, it seems that Locke’s views have has greater influence over time and up to the present. Given Hobbes’ description of our egoistic behavior, it would seem possible that an unrestricted dictator could potentially be a much larger threat to society’s safety than the State of Nature. Hence it is no surprise that it was Locke’s - what now seems logical but at the time was radical - theory of limited and consented government, that inspired the American Declaration of Independence and democracy as we now know it.

Word count (excluding quotes):
1317 words

By Sarzi









-Bibliography -

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