In trying to understand the conditions that preceded the formation of government, philosophers and thinkers during the age of enlightenment hypothesized that there existed a period before the formation of the social contract. This period is referred to as the state of nature. It was argued that the chaos experienced informed on the people sacrificing some of their freedoms and putting authority on a different entity, typically representing the government thereby leading to the emergence of the state of society. To achieve the essential element of order and to forestall the adverse effect of the state of nature, it is theorized that men entered into a social agreement to give up a considerable degree of their freedom to an authority that could be represented by a group of individuals or a single ruler.
Comparison of the Views of Hobbes and Lockeon the State of Nature and the Social Contract
Thomas Hobbes in his book, Leviathan and John Locke in his Second Treatise on government; elucidate the significance of the state of nature. Their conceptions of the importance of the state of nature as a prerequisite to the formation of government are almost similar, yet still anchored on different fundamentals . Locke seeks to give justification for allegiance and submission to government using the theory of the state of nature. The Lockean conception of the state of nature is hinged on conditions; a position that has often drawn criticism and rendered it contradictory to his other principles.On the other hand, Hobbes’ premise is basically a state of conflict in a situation where there is totally no government. He argues that human beings will always seek ‘felicity’; an attempt to meet all their desires. Such a situation eventually leads to war amongst the people as all compete to get that which they all covet .
In offering an introduction to the second Chapter of his Second Treatise, Locke asks a question: “consider what state all men are naturally in”.This is by any means a reference to the state of nature. A comparative reading of definitions of the state of nature from Hobbes and Locke would almost give the same meaning. Hobbes’ simplified definition of the state of nature is that men are in an environment devoid of effective government. He argued that men should be living together under a government that can be counted to guarantee safety against internal and foreign aggression. Only then will they exit in the state of nature. He gives a succinct description of life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” . This implies prevalence of immoral conduct, unlawful behavior and acts of injustice and gives the savages of pre-civilization America as an example.
Locke’s conception is however less grim. He believes that the individuals in his state of nature are not without obligations and indeed accept some moral rights. For Locke, unlike Hobbes, it is possible to live within formal government whilst being in a state of nature. More so if the government is illegitimate or tyrannical. He elucidated that the idea of an individual living under such conditions is conterminous with those of Hobbes’ conception of state of nature. To illustrate, Locke gives examples of minors, foreigners or persons lacking in mental faculties.
Hobbes’ simplistic approach is situational, one is either in it or not. Locke on the other hand argues that persons may only be in a state of nature with respect to others. This is, therefore, a relational concept. His very significant claim on the state of nature is illustrated by his definition: “want of a common judge with authority puts all men in the state of nature”. In this context, therefore, any situation whereby there is no one to settle controversies among persons as an umpire puts such persons in a state of nature.
The Social Contract
This is a theory that posits that the individuals’ obligations, both morally and politically, are dependent on agreement. This is an agreement among the people to coalesce into a society. Thomas Hobbes gave the first modern day exposition of the social contract. This theory, now widely popular got strong backing in the later years from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
His political theory can be construed better if looked at from two parallel views. He talks of psychological egoism as a human motivation and the social contract theory. In Leviathan, he describes his understanding of human nature and postulates a general view that motion as a universal tendency for everything, also affects human behavior. In his view the men being reasonable can see their way out of the state of nature by creating a civil society. The most fundamental law of nature dictates that men will be willing to pursue peace if the other people will do the same but always retaining the residual power to wage war if the others flout the peace accord. In consideration of the potential good in having peace, men would therefore formulate a social contract that would grant them a better life other than the one they are exposed to in a state of nature . The construction of this contract according to Hobbes is done in two parts. They first agree to renounce their rights collectively and reciprocally. In the second instance, they appoint an assembly of people or an individual to be the guardian of the initial contract. This person or assembly of persons is vested with authority and power. These now separate entities will then agree on some laws and attendant enforcement mechanism. This arrangement guarantees fidelity to the law and morality albeit less satisfying as one would be if allowed to dish justice the way he pleases. Hobbes goes further that the sovereign must be granted full authority to achieve the realization of the contract’s aim. In this regard, he argues that any functional society and all the advantages therein are conventional, resulting from the contract.
John Locke’s state of nature provides a different picture. This is reflected on in his own conceptions of the social contract and the individual-authority relationship therein. As portrayed above, Locke largely employs Hobbes’ methodology in deconstructing his state of nature albeit in a different way. His arguments about the social contract call for a people who can rise against an authority that has failed to meet their expectations. This train of thought actually influenced the revolutions that followed the publication of his Treatises.These two treatises are arguably the most significant in this sense. The first is often seen almost rightly as a response to Patriarcha; Robert Filmer’s argues that political authority is divine. The second treatise is his views on the existence of government.
In Locke’s conception, absolute and complete liberty of an individual is the manifestation of a state of nature. However, his conjecture is that there is a particular degree of morality amongst the people. This is without any authority in possession of enforcement mechanism. In other words, Locke envisions a pre-political state governed by individual sense of morality. He assumes equality amongst men in all respects. This, therefore, means that unlike Hobbes’ state of nature, Locke’s is not essentially a state of war.
The transition comes when war breaks in such a state. And as there is no reasonable safeguard to put it to a stop, the people will be motivated to get into a contract and subsequently into civil government to avert this scenario.Locke’s argument for the realization of a civil government is largely anchored on the need to protect private property. His famous argument about mixing of one’s labor and a natural occurring substance to create property resonates well but in a state of nature, one can only own so much . Property, therefore, is the fundamental of his argument for the social contract and the creation of civil government.
Social Contract in the Modern World
It has been about four centuries now since the theory of the social contract was first conceptualized. The number of philosophers that further built on it is numerous thus making it arguably one of the widely accepted theories in philosophy. This theory gained philosophical momentum when John Rawls (A theory of Justice)and Kant proposed their versions.This was followed by David Gauthier’s book on the subject (Morals by Agreement). More recently, the subject has been picked by contemporary critiques, feminists and race-conscious who are not satisfied by the arguments so far. Feminists have demonstrated a propensity to resist any universal definition, arguing that the theory in its pure form undermines the prowess of the woman. Carole Pateman in her book, The Sexual Contract argues that beneath the theory of the social contract lies a relational contract between men and women . The computational relations that have over the years subjugated women are therefore espoused. But the arguments may be rightly regarded as an important explanation to the existence of civil government.
Rosen, Michael , Jonathan Wolff and Catriona Mackinnon. Political Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Wolff, Jonathan. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.