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Social Contract Theory: Understanding Locke and Hobbes’s POV

Written By Anne Kostick
Last updated: January 31, 2024

When we hear about the Social Contract Theory, it instantly takes us back to those heavy philosophy books from school days. But what if we told you that this theory is like a secret recipe behind the way our society and government work today? Imagine living in a world with no rules, total chaos, right?

That’s where this theory steps in, giving us a glimpse of how early thinkers believed we all agreed to behave for our own good. Now, if someone asks where they should sign for this social contract shaped by none other than philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, we’d say there’s no need to grab a pen!

The contract isn’t a piece of paper but an idea indicating that our very existence in society means we’ve agreed to some common rules. John Locke believed in natural rights and freedom, while Thomas Hobbes thought life without control would be nasty and brutal. The contrast couldn’t be starker!

Deciphering Social Contract Theory: Fundamentals You Need to Know

When we think about why we follow laws or how countries are run, it can be a head-scratcher. But there’s a pretty neat idea from a bunch of smart folks from the past that sheds some light on all this—it’s called Social Contract Theory.

Deciphering Social Contract Theory: Fundamentals You Need to Know

In plain words, it’s like an invisible handshake between us and the people who make the rules. It explains a lot about our rights and duties and why we have bosses called governments. So let’s dive into this big concept and figure out what it’s all about, shall we?

Key Elements of Social Contract Theory

Let’s start simple, imagine we all decided to get along and make some rules for living together. That’s the heart of Social Contract Theory. It sounds like something out of a story, right? Well, it kind of is. Social Contract Theory helps us understand why we live how we do.

Here are the basics:

  • The Starting Point: A long time ago, before laws and governments, we lived with no strings attached. This was called the state of nature. Nobody was the boss.
  • Why Agree?: We were free but not safe. We could do anything but so could everyone else. It was scary and dangerous.
  • Making a Deal: To stop the chaos, we made an agreement with each other. The deal said: “Let’s give up some freedom so we can all have peace and safety.”
  • Building Society: From this deal came societies and governments. These bodies would keep order, making life less wild.
  • Staying in Charge: We can put leaders in charge but they must listen to us—if not, we’ve got the right to change them.

This theory is like a foundation; it holds up our ideas about law-making and running countries today.

The Evolution of the Idea

Social Contract Theory is a big idea in politics. It’s about people making a deal with each other to create rules and governments. This way, we all agree on how we should live and work together. Now, let’s look at how this idea has grown over time.

Ancient Times: Greek philosophers kicked things off by chatting about communities working together.

Medieval Period: The church had lots of power back then, claiming divine rights over people.

Age of Enlightenment: Big minds like Hobbes and Locke changed the game when they theorized that authority comes from people agreeing to be governed rather than from God’s will.

As ideas changed over the years:

  • People started digging into personal rights more deeply—like speech or religion.
  • Democracies grew from these thoughts because when everyone has a say—it’s fairer (that’s what they aim for at least).
  • Then there were upheavals! Sometimes folk said “Enough!” If rulers got too bossy or unfair—boom—a revolution happened.

This flow keeps moving even now as new views pop up about how folks should run their lives together in our ever-busy world.

Also Read: Jean-Paul Sartre Philosophy: Unraveling Existential Truths

Locke’s Take on Social Contract Theory: Rights, Reason, and Revolution

In our dive into political philosophy, let’s unfold the pages on John Locke’s take on Social Contract Theory. Locke, a thinker who left an indelible mark on the fabric of governance and individual rights, approached this theory with ideals of rights, reason, and the eventuality of revolution.

Locke's Take on Social Contract Theory: Rights, Reason, and Revolution

His perspective provides us with a lens to view how we transition from a state of pure natural liberty—a life without established governments or laws—to creating systems that govern ourselves willingly through consent and authority.

It is in these thoughts that we find notions of democracy germinating—ideas that continue to shape the world as we know it today. Now, let us delve deeper into how Locke envisioned our leap from enjoying natural freedom to forming governments designed to safeguard that very liberty.

Locke’s State of Nature: A Tale of Equality and Freedom

In Locke’s mind, before governments or laws existed, there was the ‘state of nature’. This wasn’t a wild place filled with danger but instead, a peaceful time where all were free and equal. Here are some key points:

  • Natural equality: Everyone had the same amount of power and worth.
  • Freedom: People could do as they pleased but could not harm others or their belongings.
  • Natural rights: Life, health, liberty – these were treasures that belonged to everyone.
  • The reason as a guide: People used their minds to live well together. They knew hurting each other was wrong.

For Locke, our freedom came from just being alive. It wasn’t something given by rulers; it was ours by nature’s design.

From Natural Liberty to Government

When we think about how we all come together to make a country or a society, it goes back to some pretty smart thinking by folks like John Locke.

Locke was one of those big brains in history who had lots of ideas about freedom and what it means for us as humans living around each other. He believed that before there were things like laws and police, everyone lived in what he called the “state of nature.”

  • Consent to unite: We agreed with each other to form groups for mutual protection.
  • Laws for order: Together we set rules—laws—to make sure there’s fairness.
  • Choosing leaders wisely: We picked people among us who promised to guard our rights as their main duty.
  • Powers limited by trust: Those leaders held power only as long as they kept our trust by protecting our liberty.

Locke also gave us strong words on rebellion—when rulers fail; they break the contract:

  • When leaders take away or hurt the rights they should protect—our life-bought freedoms—or if they use their power unfairly,
  • And when they ignore the law—the rules – made by the consent of society,

These are times when people have the right – no—the duty—to stand up for themselves against such rulers.

Also Read: John Locke’s Philosophy: Exploring His Pivotal Ideas

Hobbes’ Gritty Viewpoint: Order Over Chaos Through Absolute Power

In the tangle of human existence, two paths stretch before us: one towards a harmonious life under common rules, the other into a wilderness of disorder. It’s here, in this decisive moment of choice, that Thomas Hobbes drops his profound insight into our laps.

Hobbes' Gritty Viewpoint: Order Over Chaos Through Absolute Power

Our journey through political thought brings us face-to-face with Hobbes’ gritty viewpoint that starkly favors order over chaos through the grip of absolute power. Strap in as we delve deep into the heart of his groundbreaking idea:

Without an iron-clad ruler to lord over us, we risk plunging into a mayhem so rooted in fear and self-preservation that life becomes – in Hobbes’ own stark words – “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Let’s unwrap this notion further and explore how Hobbes’ Leviathan is thought to rise from our primal need for peace and protection.

Hobbes’ Notion: Life in Nature as Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Hobbes didn’t paint a pretty picture when it came to people living without rules. Think of it this way: he believed we would all act on our worst impulses if there wasn’t someone or something mighty to keep us in check.

We’re talking about living with zero trust and constant fear of one another. If we throwback to those days without laws or someone in charge, Hobbes figured life would be downright terrifying – no one was safe from harm at any moment.

  • Survival Mode: Without order, folks are constantly looking over their shoulders because anyone could attack them at any time for whatever they might have — like food or shelter.
  • Distrustful Existence: You couldn’t trust anybody else because everyone is out for themselves.
  • No Collaboration Magic: People working together? Forget about it! Without trust and safety nets from an authority figure, who would want to team up?
  • Short Life Expectancy: With all this danger and no peacekeeping force? Sadly, lives might end pretty quickly under such harsh conditions.

The Leviathan Rises

We’ve explored the grim outlook on human nature without control; so what’s next? Picture this — people get tired of living scared and start craving some structure. Enter the mighty Leviathan: the big boss which according to Hobbes is what we need for peace.

Firstly, let’s break down how people switch gears from brutal survival mode:

  • Acknowledging the Need for Peace: Realizing that nothing good comes out of battling each other endlessly.
  • Seeking Security Above All: Wanting safety for themselves and their belongings becomes priority number one.
  • Choosing an Absolute Power: Deciding it’s better to put one powerful entity in charge rather than everyone calling their own shots.
  • Handing Over Rights for Safety’s Sake: Willingly giving up some personal freedoms if it means nobody can bully you anymore because now there’s a big ruler protecting everyone.

This ruler – called “Leviathan” – stands as the ultimate power broker ensuring everyone sticks to the rules set out so that no one has to sleep with one eye open anymore.

What we’re seeing here is kind of like trading privacy or bits of freedom today for feeling safe enough to walk around knowing there’s law enforcement out doing their job making sure things stay peaceful.

Also Read: Five Theories of Nihilism: Explore Philosophy’s Dark Side

Comparing Views on Violence & Moderation within Social Contracts

When we talk about Social Contract Theory, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are two giants that come to mind. They both thought hard about how societies should work, but their ideas on violence and moderation after a social contract is made were pretty different.

Comparing Views on Violence & Moderation within Social Contract Theory

Locke believed that, in our natural state, we all have rights that nobody can take away. We’re free, equal, and living with reason. When we agree to make a government by our own choice, it’s because we expect that government to protect those rights – life, liberty, and property.

  • For Locke, the deal was: as long as the government does its job of protecting our rights without crossing the line, there’s no need for violence.
  • His idea said if the government fails to protect our rights or becomes a threat itself, people can protest or even rebel.
  • This is where moderation plays a part in Locke’s theory: people should try everything they can before resorting to fighting back.

On the flip side:

Hobbes had this grim view of things. He thought without control humans are like wild animals—nasty and always ready for battle.

  • For Hobbes, life without any higher power is brutal and scary – “nasty, brutish, and short”.
  • To get away from this chaotic state of nature everyone has to give up some freedom and hand over full power to one ruler or government—a Leviathan.
  • For him ‘might make right’—the absolute power of this Leviathan keeps everyone in check through fear of punishment.

Locke says: We’ve got natural goodies – rights – you mess with them; we’ve got the right to be mad.
Hobbes counters: People need strict rules from someone strong; otherwise they behave badly.

Both their theories shine some light on why nowadays governments act like referees trying hard not just to keep peace but also to earn our thumbs up.

And there you have it—two big thinkers giving us their take on when it’s cool for us folks—if ever—to show muscle once society’s contracts are signed off on paper (or just understood).

Also Read: List Of 12 Greatest Greek Philosophers Of All Time

Practical Implications in Today’s Governments

When we look closely, we see that the ideas of Locke and Hobbes about social contracts show up a lot in the way governments work today. Their theories aren’t just old thoughts, they’re foundations for how people and leaders think about running countries now.

Practical Implications of social contract theory in Today’s Governments

Locke’s ideas about individual rights are everywhere. We have laws that protect our freedom to speak, think, and act within limits. You can see this in democracies where people vote for their leaders. It’s a way of saying “yes” to who rules over us. And when these governments don’t protect rights or treat everyone fair, people can speak up or pick new leaders next time.

On the other hand, Hobbes’ ideas about strong government authority are also around. Some countries have tough laws to keep peace and order. The rulers say this is for everyone’s good—just like Hobbes thought a powerful ruler was needed to stop chaos.

Let’s break down how elements from both Locke’s and Hobbes’ social contract theories play out:

  • Human Rights: We can thank Locke for stressing human rights like life, liberty, and owning stuff (property). Many governments work hard to guard these rights because they believe it’s what makes society run smoothly.
  • Government By Consent: This is another one of Locke’s big ideas that has caught on big time—a government gets its right to rule from the agreement of the people it governs.
  • Law And Order: Now let’s flick over to Hobbes’ playbook—people give up some freedom so they don’t live scared or in danger all the time; governments make sure there are rules (laws) to follow so things don’t get wild (chaotic).
  • Emergencies And Control: Sometimes bad things happen like major disasters or really scary situations (like an epidemic), then governments might need extra power temporarily but this still has shades of both Locke and Hobbes—we hope those extra controls will be fair (Locke) but we also know sometimes thick authority needs to step in quickly (Hobbes).

Every country is different when they take pages out of Locke’s and Hobbes’ playbooks—they mix it up depending on what works best for them at that moment or place.

In essence, bits from both Social Contract Theories have found their home in modern political systems globally—a testament that even old philosophy can give fresh points on how we should run our lives together as societies under governments.

Also Read: Cynicism Philosophy: Unveiling 6 Facts About Diogenes


What is Rousseau’s contribution to Social Contract Theory?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau expanded on Social Contract Theory by emphasizing direct democracy where sovereignty lies with the people. His ideas hinted at personal freedom balanced by community ethics.

How does contemporary democratic society reflect the ideals espoused by social contract theorists?

Contemporary democracies blend theories of consent and governance, allowing citizens to elect leaders and partake in law-making, reflecting the social contract’s principle of collective rule through individual participation.

In terms of individual freedoms versus state control, where do other notable philosophers stand compared with Locke and Hobbes?

Philosophers like Montesquieu and Rousseau sought a middle ground, promoting balance between liberties and state-imposed rules. They differed from Hobbes’ preference for strong central authority and Locke’s emphasis on individual rights.

Charles Eames

Anne Kostick has been Editor-in-Chief since September 2007. Previously, Anne was a principal at Foxpath IND, a publishing, consulting and editorial services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content publishing and online content management, development and publishing. Her clients included trade book publishers, technology and financial services Web sites, and arts and cultural institutions. Previously, she worked as Licensing and Product Development Director, Senior Acquisitions Editor and Director of Electronic Publishing for Workman Publishing, and as Senior Acquisitions Editor for Harry N. Abrams/Stewart, Tabori & Chang. In the online world she worked as Director of Content Development for Anne has a B.A. in Greek and Latin, with a minor in Theater, from Beloit College. She is the author of several books for children, as well as a definitive collection of jokes.

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