Hobbes, Locke, and the Social Contract

This page revised October 29, 2010

   Pre-Civil ("Natural") Condition
    Politically Organized Society
   Moral Conclusions
Hobbes Leviathan
   Mutual fear and suspicion: every man an enemy of every man; war of each against all. No notion of justice-"no mine and thine distinct." No personal security, no cooperative projects, no comfortable living spaces, no agriculture, no long-distance trade, no reliable information about distant places, no fine arts; life is nasty, brutish, and short.

Humans are self-interested, but potentially rational. Hobbes seems to assume a normative premise: we ought to decide based on enlightened self-interest. That will lead persons in the natural condition to enter the social contract.

   Mutual non-aggression pact; yield rules of basic justice.

2nd stage: selection of enforcement mechanism: Absolute monarchy

   Justice is the set of rules to which self-interested people would agree.

Now, there are agreed-upon legal rights to life, liberty, more or less free trade.

   Above all we must fear slipping back into the pre-civil condition, the natural condition of mankind. Absolute monarchy is what the people, individually being rational, would choose as the best means to security.

Even though it is not humanly rational for someone targeted by the monarch for execution not to resist or try to escape, the system can endorse no resistance.

John Locke
Second Essay
on Government

   Natural [moral] rights to life, liberty, possessions, and self-defense are known already. (Loosely coordinated self-defense is possible.)

Particular property rights—a potentially long story: they arise through labor and mutually voluntary transfer ("free trade").

Disadvantages: no written law clearly accessible to everyone; no impartial judges; no impartial enforcement body

   Give up some rights to authority of the state, so as to have those rights secured (as legal rights).

[Rights are not invented by the social contract, only given legal or civil form.]

   Limited government aimed at protecting our natural rights.

Seems to envisage elected representation

   We never totally give up our natural rights to life, liberty, possessions.

[Even though his philosophy promotes capitalism (without using the term), which requires a substantial working class who own no capital, Locke probably does not envision labor unions or government action that protects the social, health, and cultural interests of the workers.]

Governments that turn against our natural rights, that turn into tyrannies, may be altered or replaced by governments that respect them and protect them.