Classical Social Contract Theory

The Classical Social Contract Theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau Compared

Essay 2008 19 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal




1. The State of Nature
1.1. Human Nature
1.2. Liberty and Equality in the State of Nature
1.3. Laws and Rights of Nature
1.4. Summary

2. The Social Contract
2.1. Nature and Purpose of the Contract
2.2. The Sovereign
2.3. Liberty and Equality
2.4. The Problem of Consent
2.5. The Impact of Classical Social Contract Theories




Political philosophy is believed to have started with Plato’s “Republic”, the first known sophisticated analysis of a fundamental question that humans have probably been concerned with much longer: how should human society be organised, i.e. who should rule and why? Plato believed that ruling required special training and skills and should therefore be left to an aristocracy of guardians who had received extensive training. While the notion that ruling requires expertise can hardly be denied there is also agreement among most philosophers that whoever qualifies for the job of ruling needs to do so with the interest of the people in mind. But what is the interest of the people and how can it be discovered? According to Plato, a necessary precondition for rulers is wisdom and that is why he wanted his guardians to be especially trained in philosophy. One may think that the people themselves should know what is best for them but somewhat surprisingly this idea has been rejected not just by Plato but also by many philosophers following him. Another approach is to link rule on Earth to a mandate received from a divine Creator. However, even the idea that humans could not exist without a government has been questioned, most notably by anarchism.

Thus, the question of how political rule, the power to make decisions for others, could be justified is an essential one. Only legitimate rule creates obligation and without obligation it is hard to see how any form of society can survive.

It is precisely for these elementary questions that social contract theories attempt to provide an answer for. The social contract can be seen as a device both for justifying not only rule itself but a particular type of rule, and demonstrating that political obligation can indeed be demanded. A unique feature of the classical social contract theories discussed in this paper is that they started out with an analysis of the state of nature.

1. The State of Nature

The question whether humans had ever lived in a state of nature, i.e. without a state or any form of government, has been a central theme in political philosophy. Although there has never been convincing evidence suggesting that this was actually the case quite a number of philosophers concerned themselves with this question and attempted to establish the conditions of human life in a state of nature. Depending on these conditions they hoped to provide reasons for the justification of the state in general or, as is the case with the classical social contract theorists examined here, for the establishment of a particular form of government. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau believed that during their respective lifetimes there were people on Earth who lived in a state of nature. While Locke and Rousseau thought this was true of some of the indigenous people of America, Hobbes experienced the English Civil War as a fallback into a natural stage.[1]

However, the significance of the concept of the state of nature should not be reduced to the question of its actual historic occurrence. Instead, this concept can be viewed as a mental experiment. Wolff suggests that “to understand why we have something, it is often a good tactic to consider its absence”. Thus it is a logical starting point for a philosopher attempting to explain the state to imagine how life would be without it.[2]

1.1. Human Nature

It is probably fair to assume that state and society impose several restrictions on natural human behaviour or even alter it. If an accurate assessment could be made about human nature without these restrictions or alterations it would not only be possible to develop a better understanding of the state of nature, but also to theorise about the form of society that is best suited to accommodate original human behaviour. Not surprisingly, there are considerable differences regarding human nature among the three philosophers examined here.

According to Hobbes, human nature is characterised by a constant drive for felicity. Humans will always desire something and felicity can only arise if these desires are achieved. Hardly anyone would deny that humans have desires but do we continuously crave for them? Is it not conceivably that there are periods in a human existence where those desires do not affect our behaviour? For Hobbes, the answer is no. Borrowing from Galileo’s principle of the conservation of motion he believes humans are essentially restless. Our desires act like a force upon us and will do so until substituted by a greater force: a new desire. In order to gain what they desire humans have to be powerful. Hobbes defines power as “one’s present means to obtain some future apparent Good”.[3] It follows from this that to satisfy their desires and to achieve felicity humans not only have to be powerful but also have to constantly increase their power because one “cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more”.[4] Thus, Hobbes depicts humans as naturally autonomous individuals who are egoistically only concerned with themselves.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke does not elaborate on human nature as he starts with a different premise. For Locke, Earth and human life on it are the creation of an almighty God who, Locke assumes, would not equip His children with purely egoistic qualities. Humans would have a sense of morality towards their fellow human beings to ensure the preservation of all mankind.

A radically different approach is taken by Rousseau. He criticises both Hobbes and Locke for having imposed social attributes on human nature. Rousseau believes that human nature has been corrupted by society and desires are only a product of this corruption. Thus by “constantly dwelling on wants, avidity, oppression, desires, and pride, [they (Hobbes and Locke) have] transferred to the state of nature ideas which were acquired in society; so that, in speaking of the savage, they described the social man”.[5] Humans in the state of nature are solitary beings who, according to Rousseau, are nevertheless equipped with two main qualities: compassion and the capacity for self- improvement. Compassion for others leads Rousseau to depict humans in the state of nature as “noble savages”, but the capacity of self- improvement ultimately results in the formation of civil society and the corruption of man.

1.2. Liberty and Equality in the State of Nature

The question whether humans are naturally free and equal is important since throughout social history there have been severe restrictions on both liberty and equality.

For Hobbes,

“nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee

found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when

all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one

man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he.

For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by

secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe”.[6]

This physical equality is complemented by Hobbes’ negative perception of liberty. Humans are free to do whatever they deem necessary to ensure their own survival, including killing other humans who may represent a (real or perceived) danger to one’s own life.

Locke would probably not reject Hobbes’ ideas on liberty and equality in the state of nature but argue that they are insufficient, for equality of men does not arise from similar physical or mental capabilities but from the fact that all are the children of God. Thus, for Locke, no man is naturally superior and no one is naturally entitled to rule over others. As much as everyone has the duty to preserve himself he similarly needs to observe the preservation of all mankind. Consequently it follows that although the state of nature is a “state of liberty, it is not a state of Licence”.[7] What we see here is the introduction of a positive perception of liberty. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believes that even in the state of nature our (personal) liberty has some restrictions arising out of the liberty and rights of others.

Rousseau’s state of nature is also characterised by freedom and equality of men but similarly to Locke human action is restricted by some form of moral conduct. Morality, however, is not the product of a law of nature but is instead engrained in human nature: our compassion for fellow human beings will act as a powerful restraint on our behaviour.[8]

1.3. Laws and Rights of Nature

As we have seen, Hobbes argues that humans have the liberty to do anything they consider to be necessary to preserve their own lives. In fact, he calls this the Natural Right of Liberty. According to him, it is the only natural right but it is certainly a very extensive one. In contrast, Locke holds that humans do not only have a natural right of liberty but natural rights of life, health and possessions as well. It has already been mentioned that Locke’s notion of liberty is a positive one, i.e. there are some limitations. Now we can see why. If everyone has the additional rights of health and property it becomes obvious that the right of liberty is restricted by the necessity to respect these other rights. My personal liberty ends where my actions would violate the rights of life, health, or property of others. While that seems to be a logical conclusion it has to be examined how Locke is able to maintain that humans have the rights of health and possession in the state of nature. Locke’s argument is basically a theological one and may therefore seem rather peculiar from a contemporary point of view. Since God created Earth for humanity to prosper and all humans are naturally equal in the sense that no one has a natural right to rule, humans not only have the duty to preserve their own lives but also to respect the health and lives of others. Even Locke admits, however, that for the purpose of self- defence harm against the health or life of others may be permitted. Furthermore, it seems logical to conclude that when God put humans on Earth He would not have done so without enabling us to survive. For survival, humans need to consume, at least water and food. Therefore humans must be allowed to appropriate what is necessary to survive from nature. Locke, however, imposes two conditions for the acquisition of property which came to be known as the “Lockean provisos”. Humans should never acquire more than they can consume and should always leave enough for others.[9] Locke elaborates on the right of property, especially how the invention of a money economy affects his first condition. He also establishes the “labour” argument: To rightfully appropriate something humans have to add their labour to it. However, it must be mentioned at this point that Locke is not able to convincingly solve the problem of initial acquisition of property. In his state of nature the Earth belongs to everyone. Thus the appropriation of land, even if Locke’s conditions are met and personal labour is added, nevertheless at the very least severely limits the liberty of others to acquire the same land.

In modern societies rights are usually associated with laws that protect them. Is there something similar in the state of nature?

Both Hobbes and Locke agree that law(s) of nature exist which can be discovered by reason. In fact, Hobbes speaks of a total of 19 laws of nature, but the fundamental one from which all the others can be derived from tells us 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”.[10] What does he mean by that? As we have seen, Hobbes grants everyone the liberty to do whatever necessary for one’s own survival. It seems reasonable that self- preservation can be best achieved in a state of peace. If there is no peace however, anyone obeying the first law of nature would seriously risk his survival and therefore waive his liberty to preserve himself, which cannot be reasonably expected.

Hobbes summarises the laws of nature as follows: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe.”[11] However, this somewhat negative reversal of the biblical golden rule only binds humans in the in foro interno, but not always in the in foro externo. Thus, in the internal forum, with our hearts, minds and desires, we should always seek to follow the laws of nature in the external forum, in our relations with others. As long, however, as there is no sufficient security that everyone will follow these laws in the external forum we are not bound by them.

In Locke’s state of nature there is only one law of nature which states that mankind, as God’s creation, has to be preserved as much as possible.[12] From this law he derives his natural rights mentioned earlier.

In Rousseau’s state of nature man enjoys a natural right of liberty and an “unlimited right to anything which tempts him and which he is able to attain” and only compassion for others, which Rousseau attributes to his noble savage, prevents the state of nature from becoming a state of war.[13]

1.4. Summary

What follows from this for the general conditions of human life in the state of nature?

Hobbes’ conclusion is rather depressing: for him, the state of nature is a state of war. Human nature, the constant drive to attain felicity, will inevitably lead to conflict. Furthermore, our physical equality will make us suspicious as we can never be certain of our safety. There is a condition of general scarcity in the state of nature increasing the likelihood of competition. In these circumstances it is impossible to seek for peace as others cannot reasonably expected to do the same. In fact, Hobbes depicts his state of nature not as a state of constant fighting but rather as a state of constant readiness to fight. Hardly anyone would produce more than required for survival as this would only invite others who seek to rob one of the fruits of his labour and therefore there would be “…no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.[14]

Contrary, Locke asserts that the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom, equality, and bound by a law of nature. Except for the law of nature Rousseau would agree with this description. Should we therefore return to the state of nature? Both Locke and Rousseau reject this idea, albeit for different reasons.


[1] Wolff 1996 p.7

[2] ibid

[3] Hobbes cit. in: Wolff 1996 p.10

[4] Hobbes cit. in: Wolff 1996 p. 10

[5] Rousseau p. 197

[6] Hobbes in: Skoble and Machan 2007 p.131

[7] Locke cit. in: Wolff 1996 p. 19

[8] Rousseau 226

[9] Wolff 1996 p. 139

[10] Hobbes cit. in: Wolff 1996 p.14

[11] Hobbes in: Skoble and Machan 2007 p.147

[12] Wolff 1996 p.18

[13] Rousseau in: Skoble and Machan 2007 p.249

[14] Hobbes in: Skoble and Machan 2007 p.133


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Social Contract Hobbes Locke Rousseau




Title: Classical Social Contract Theory