The Western Australian Jurist Vol. 1, 2010






Locke and Hobbes both share a vision of the social contract as instrumental in a state’s

political stability. However, their respective philosophies were informed by a starkly

contrasting vision of human nature. This essay explores the historical context of each

philosopher and considers the differences in the social contractual theory that emerged

from their distinct perspectives on the state of nature.


The notion of the social contract has been, quite simply, one of the most important

paradigms of Western philosophical and legal theory in helping to shape our

understanding of justice and social structure.
Sharing some elements of thought, though

differing in many more, 17

century Englishmen Thomas Hobbes and John Locke stand

out as amongst the most significant proponents of social contract theory. Held up

against the light of contemporary scrutiny, analysis may expose flaws and weaknesses

in their arguments. However, even more so it reveals that the sophisticated methods

they employed, the scope and structure in their observations of complex, ubiquitous

principles, and the depth of their impact in modern thinking ascribes them undeniable

stature and demonstrates the enduring value we can still gain from reviewing and

comparing their work on social contract theory.

Hobbes and Locke were not the first to use the social contract model as a tool to explain

the foundations of human society; earlier exponents of the theory can be traced much

further back in history. Arguably, elements of the social contract have existed as long as

ethical theories have been publicly espoused and recorded in writing.
For example, in

Ancient Greece we find Plato‟s Republic describing a friendly communal debate about

the meaning of justice in which Thrasymachus and Glaucon introduce principles of

social contract theory,
and conceptions of human nature,

that have been elaborated

upon by countless thinkers since, not least among them Hobbes and Locke. While the

Completed his LLB/BA (Sustainable Development) in early 2010 and is currently working as a

sustainability and planning practitioner in Sydney, and completing his Honours in Sustainable

Development with a research focus on the establishment of carbon rights in Indonesia.
Robert C Solomon, Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings (Oxford University Press,


ed, 2008) 566.
Montague Brown, The Quest for Moral Foundations: An Introduction to Ethics (Georgetown University

Press, 1996) 36.
Plato, Plato’s Republic (Dent, 1969) 12-46.

J W Gough, The Social Contract Theory: A Critical Study of

John Locke

John Locke was born in 1632, the son of a lawyer of Wrighton. He taught

Greek and rhetoric at Oxford while completing his studies in medicine and

science. His interests turned to moral and political theory thanks to his

father’s enthusiasm for the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War.

The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) stemmed from conflict between

Charles I and Parliament over an Irish insurrection. The first war was

settled with Oliver Cromwell’s victory for Parliamentary forces at the

1645 Battle of Naseby. The second phase ended with Charles’ defeat

at the Battle of Preston and his subsequent execution in 1649 .

John Locke (1632–1704), wrote extensively about two particular ideas:

1. the social contract and

2. natural law.

The social contract was a shorthand way of describing the mutual duties and

responsibilities of the government and the governed. The consent of the

governed, or the citizens, legitimized the authority of the government. This

consent was based on an understanding of what the government would do

for the governed, and, likewise, what the citizens owed in terms of obedience

to the state. This implied contract could be broken if one side failed to live up

to expectations, however; for example, if the citizens agreed to place

themselves under a particular government so it could protect their lives and

property, and in turn it abused the citizens’ rights and property, then the

contract was broken, and the citizens had the right to revolt against the state.

Locke does preserve a distinction between natural right and natural law, the

latter of which is distinguished by its enforceability. But the legitimacy of that

power derives from the right that everyone has to preserve their own basic

rights. No one has the right to invade the rights of others, and “everyone has

the right to punish the transgressors of that Law (of nature) to such a Degree,

as may hinder its Violation.”

Locke wrote Two Treatises of Civil Government appeared in 1690. In the

Second Treatise, Locke posed the question: if individuals naturally are free,

why should they ever choose to cede some of their natural rights to

government? The answer, Locke argued, was that the state was necessary

to protect property and liberty. Where protection ended, he continued, so did

the legitimate authority of government.

John Locke believed that human nature allowed for peaceful, cooperative

relationships between individuals, and the state’s chief responsibility was to

try to maintain the freedom that would allow individuals to recapture this state

of nature again. Thus it can be said the Locke had a more optimistic view of

the state of nature. He believed that a man’s place in society was not

necessarily a struggle against his neighbors in contrast to the views of

Hobbes. He saw human nature as civil, reasonable, tolerant, and industrious,

with its distr

Thomas Hobbes

The British scholar Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was one of history’s most

persuasive champions of authoritarian government. Hobbes lived during

an extremely turbulent time in European history when the authority of the

church, the state, and philosophy were all being challenged. The

Reformation had unleashed religious wars, Spain and England were locked

in conflict. In fact, Hobbes was born in the same year the British defeated

the Spanish Armada and England faced a long civil war that resulted in the

beheading of King Charles I in 1649. He was an unapologetic supporter

of royal power, Hobbes argued for a strong state whose powers could not

be undermined by the people.

He sought to apply logical mathematical and scientific principles to the study

of politics, Hobbes rejected any Platonic or Aristotelian notion that some

people are more virtuous and, therefore, more fit to rule. He dismissed any

appeal to innate reason or religion as reasons for authoritarian rule. But,

instead of weakening a ruler’s authority by removing traditional arguments

supportive of kings or aristocrats, Hobbes greatly strengthened a ruler’s

claim to power.

Theorists such as Plato and Aristotle, had based their defense of strong

government on the unequal intellectual, moral and spiritual capacities if

human beings. Because of this supposed inequality, Plato and Aristotle held

that a gifted or chosen individual (or in some cases a small elite group) had

both a right and an obligation to govern in an autocratic fashion. Hobbes,

however, believed in the near equality of all human beings. Although he

acknowledged that some people were more powerful, more courageous, and

more intelligent, he noted that even the weakest could find ways to kill or rob

the strongest.

For Hobbes, the reality about society was that every person experienced two

closely linked emotions:

1. a desire for power and

2. a fear of death.

The desire for power resulted in a savagery that led everyone to harbor a

justifiable fear of being attacked, robbed, and destroyed. Hobbes described

an imaginary “state of nature” to explain what life would be like if people

were simply left to their own devices. Without the rules and protections of

government, people would be in a perpetual state of war against each other.

As a result, they could not conduct business, develop an intellectual or

artistic life, organize society, or ever feel safe. Life would be “solitary, nasty,

brutish, and short” according to Hobbes.

The question that arose was how could people escape this brutish

reality as described by Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes believed the only way for

people to escape the profound danger posed by their own brutal ambitions

was for the people to covenant together and turn over all power to a

sovereign. This transaction had to be both complete and irrevocable. The

agreement or covenant as Hobbes describes i



Michael P. Greeson

University of Central Oklahoma

Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke utilize a “state of nature”
construct to elucidate their more general views on human nature and
politics. Yet their conceptions of man’s original condition in the state
of nature are usually contrasted: the political philosophy of Locke’s
Second Treatise paints man as a “pretty decent fellow,” far removed
from the quarrelsome, competitive, selfish creatures said to be found
in Hobbes’s Leviathan.1 Lockean man seems to be more naturally
inclined to civil society, supposedly more governed by reason. From
this interpretation of human nature, Locke concluded that the state
of nature was no condition of war, placing himself in opposition to
the traditional interpretation of Hobbes.

Itismy contention that although Locke painstakingly attempts to
disassociate himself with the Hobbesian notion of the “se1f-inter­
ested man” in a perpertual “state of war,” the execution of this
attempt falls short, and can even be recognized to implicitly (if not
explicitly) contain the very reasoning that Hobbes ulilizes to advo­
cate the movement of man from the state of nature to civil society. In
order to demonstrate the truth ofthis contention, I will briefly ou tline
the development of their philosophies and offer both a reinterpreta­
tion ofthe Hobb esian sta te of nature, and a cri tical anal ysis 0 fLoc ke’ 5
view of the state of nature in the Second Treatise.

I. Hobbes: Method and Problem

Hobbes offered a materialistic metaphysics that utilized a simpli­
fied version of Galileo’s resolutio-compositive method. According
to this method, complex phenomena are broken down into their

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1Examples of the many works in political philosophy that hold such views are
Simmons, A. J. “Locke’s State of Nature,” and Great Political Thinkers, W. and A.
Ebenstein, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich College Publishers, 1991.

Episteme • Volume V • May 1994


simplest natural motions and components. Once these elements are
understood, the workings of complex wholes are easily derived.
Hobbes’ intent was to develop a systematic study in three parts,
starting with simple motions in matter (De Corpore), moving to the
study of human nature (De Homine) , and finally to politics (De Cive),
each based, respectively, on a lower level of analysis (Lasco and
Williams, p. 230). Hence, reality for Hobbes is reducible to mechanis­
tic and material principles, or, simply stated, bodies m motion. If we
are to understand politics. Hobbes suggests that we should l

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